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America’s gun violence is rooted in how its society is structured
January 9, 2013, 10:17 am

Historian, author and columnist Mark LeVine uses social epidemiology to examine gun violence in the US. He says that unless and until Americans are willing to look at the most basic socio-economic and ideological structures governing their society, no amount of hang-ringing and tear-soaked analyses will help ameliorate, never mind cure, the disease of gun violence in the United States.

This has been a bad year for gun violence in the United States. But then, when hasn’t it been a bad year for gun violence in the United States?

In an average year, some 10,000 people are killed due to gun violence in the US. This is a ratio that is by far the highest among so-called “advanced countries” and comparable to some of the most violence-plagued developing countries as well – only slightly behind drug-war torn Mexico and Panama in that dubious category.

The US has nearly one gun for every American—some 290 million guns for a population of just over 300 million people.

This has made it among the countries most prone to mass gun violence that is not connected to the war on drugs or politically motivated. In this regard, 2012 was a particularly bad year, with over 80 people killed and well over 140 injured

But dig just a bit below the immediate numbers or the heart-rending images of dead school children and the larger discussion of gun violence becomes far murkier, for several reasons.

First, the number of Americans killed in the kind of spectacular mass murders epitomized by the Newtown, Connecticut rampage remains so miniscule so as to be on the other side of statistically insignificant.

Automatic rifles, such as the AR-15 assault rifles used in the most recent killings as well as in the Aurora, Colorado Movieplex rampage, account for an even smaller percentage of firearms deaths.

Even in the worst year, such as 2012, the number of people killed by these rampages is 0.004 per cent of the total number of deaths – around 2.5 million – registered in the US.

This means that out of all ways one could have died during 2012 in the US, the probability of dying from a gunshot wound is about one in 25,000.

The chances of dying from a gunshot wound during a home robbery are many orders of magnitude less.

The broader statistics for home robberies vary between 25 and 30 burglaries per 1,000 homes, or about 2-3 per cent of households.

With roughly 1,000 total deaths per year during home robberies (not all of them resulting from the use of a gun), the chances are about 3 ten thousandths of one per cent (0.0003 per cent) that an American will be killed during a robbery in any given year.

It’s not clear how many robberies occurred while people were at home, but the vast majority of robberies take place during the day when people are working. This means that the chances of being able to use your gun to fight off a burglar are far lower than the number of actual burglaries.

By some measures in only about two per cent of all home robberies does the victim even have the opportunity to defend her or himself with a weapon – that is, they are home and have the chance to reach it before encountering the burglar.

These statistics must be considered within the context of the argument that is repeatedly made for gun ownership: the number one reason listed by gun owners for purchasing their weapon is home protection.

Given the fact that half of American homes have guns in them – 25 times the number of homes that are actually robbed – the justification for having an arsenal including automatic weapons has little to do with home protection.

By way of comparison, a person is four times more likely to kill her or himself than to be shot to death (although guns are the weapon of choice for suicides), 12 times more likely to die from smoking-related illnesses and over 50 times more likely to die from preventable heart disease.

Indeed, most of the major causes of death for Americans include cancers, diabetes, and kidney disease. Obesity causes around 300,000 deaths each year (one tenth of one per cent of the population), costing society upwards of $100 billion per year.

In other words, Americans are far more likely to die from their own unhealthy food choices and lifestyles than they are to die by gun violence at the hands of others.

Sadly, while everyone from President Obama to CNN and local newspapers have decried the shootings as epitomizing an “epidemic of gun violence” in the US (as the President most recently described it after the Newtown shooting), the reality is even more depressing.

Scientifically – as the Centers for Disease Control and other bodies defines it – for a disease to be epidemic it must significantly exceed the normal rate of the disease during a specific period of time.

And while gun violence in the US might seem unacceptably high to many commentators, it has in fact remained more or less constant in the last generation.

The reality is that ten thousand gun deaths a year is simply “normal” for American society. The problem is, of course, that when these types of mass shootings occur, the deaths are clustered in one community, thus striking dozens of families in close proximity to each other at the same moment.

Unlike a tornado or other natural disasters that destroy hundreds of homes and kill numerous people in about the same time it takes the average rampage shooter to empty his ammunition clips, mass shootings allow for the direct placing of blame, and for the kind of one-off public religious ceremony-cum-therapy session.

In such tragedies one hears: “I come to offer you the love and prayers of the nation… We have wept with you… You’ve also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice… Surely we can do better than this…”

Unfortunately, this approach has for too long passed for national introspection and policy discussion in the United States.

Ultimately, mass shooting are a symptom of a larger social disease, one that is a natural product of the society in which Americans live and the history and contemporary political dynamics that have produced it.

The fundamental question, then, becomes: What kind of culture can produce such a high level of gun-based homicides, and is there any way to stop or at least reduce that rate?

A social epidemiology is required, but like any good epidemiology such an analysis requires good data, and one of the first problems anyone investigating gun violence in the US comes across is the reality that there are no agreed upon sets of data from which to engage in such an analysis.

The US federal government itself collects at least two separate and sometimes conflicting sets of statistics – the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, and the Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey – to measure violent crime, one based on reports by victims and the other by police reports.

Moreover, even if the data were more uniform, they could be broken down and interpreted in so many ways that one could use the same data to argue both that stricter gun control laws reduce gun crime, and that stricter laws really have no significant impact on crime.

The assault weapons ban lasting from 1994 through 2004, whose passage allegedly cost the Democratic Party control of the House of Representatives, resulted in a leveling off or slight drop in the number of deaths from assault rifle shootings, but the Department of Justice concluded it had “no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence.”

And even as the number of guns throughout society has increased greatly, the level of violence overall has dropped in the last twenty years, although by yet another measure, more recently it has risen again.

Similarly, one could create all sorts of correlations between crime levels and gun ownership from state to state in the US; this would demonstrate that states with more legal guns have more crime and that areas with more guns have less crime (also see here and here).

One could reasonably argue, as the NRA did in the wake of the latest massacre, that posting an armed guard at schools would deter mass shootings.

But in the same vein, one could also counter-argue that not a single mass shooting has ever been stopped by armed people at the scene, whether they were armed civilians or security/law enforcement personnel.

Ultimately the data is like a Smörgåsbord with which almost any pro or anti-gun control argument can be created.

What is clear, however, is that no matter how one uses which numbers, the number of deaths from gun violence broadly, never mind from mass killings, is clearly well below the threshold which would force people meaningfully to change long-held beliefs and/or well-established behavior patterns.

If Americans are unwilling to change behaviors with far higher and more certain personal and social costs (such as most of the 14 causes of death that rank higher than gun homicides), there is little chance that they will expend the social and political capital necessary meaningfully to change both the legal environment for guns or Americans’ gun culture writ large.

This leads to the most important question surrounding the latest gun violence in the United States: Why is it that guns are used far more for violent crime by Americans than by other countries that have high (if not equal) rates of gun ownership?

Here the answers lie in both the details of gun laws and the particularities of national cultures and ideologies, as well as the changing narratives of gun ownership in their societies.

Thus, for example, Switzerland and Israel are both cited as societies with high rates of gun ownership, including routine possession of automatic weapons at home, but which have far lower rates of shootings than does the US.

Indeed, NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre specifically described having just returned from Israel at the time of the Newtown shooting and used it as an example of how placing armed guards at the entrances of most every significant public or private building helps prevent the kind of attack that had just occurred.

But these comparisons are highly problematic, not least of which because both Israel and Switzerland have significantly tightened their gun laws in recent years. Thus, for example, while it is true that most military age men in Switzerland are given an automatic rifle to keep at home, their ammunition remains sealed and can only be opened under authorization or at gun ranges.

Even more important is the underlying culture in which the guns exist. In Switzerland, for example, guns are very much tied to the idea of collective defense against foreign invaders and building a common Swiss identity out of cantons, which have different languages and cultures.

In Israel, while Jew-on-Jew violence might be quite low, Israel remains an incredibly violent society; only the violence is directed against its national other, Palestinians. A large percentage of Israeli Jews actively participate in the ongoing occupation and the violence that comes with it. And yet at the same time an ever more strict and exclusivist Zionist ideology strengthens the commitment to avoid harming one’s fellow Jews.

Indeed, the Swiss and Israeli comparisons shed light on why Americans have such a predilection for using gun to commit violent acts. On the one hand, the US, like Israel, emerged as a frontier settler colonial enterprise whose economy was in good measure based on slavery for the first century of its existence.

Because of the size of the territory being settled, the idea of “rugged individualism” became a dominant trope in the culture – especially against the “savage” Indians who threatened white settlers. With the Native American “threat” successfully contained in the West by the later 19th century, the next major threat came from freed slaves in the south, which helps account for the rise of gun culture in both the American south and west.

Ultimately, with the rise of an activist government during the Great Depression and the generation after World War II, an interpretation of the Second Amendment centered on protecting the individual against potential tyranny by the state (not to mention minorities and immigrants who were cast as predatory threats to the white Protestant order).

American culture is much closer to the dominant Jewish Zionist culture and history of Israel than to Switzerland, but here, too, there are crucial differences.

Zionism from the start was a collectivist enterprise based on a conquest of a small territory with what scholars term “low frontieriority” – meaning there was very limited space for settlement, and much of that space was already inhabited by the main adversary to settlement, the indigenous population.

Coupled with the socialist ethos that dominated Zionist colonization by the early 20th century, we see that the ideological relationship between guns and collective identity is much closer to Switzerland’s than it is to America’s.

What’s more, as already mentioned, Israelis have an outlet for a hyper-masculinist and violent culture in the occupation, whereas Americans, even with high rates of military service and several active wars, still engage in far less officially sanctioned violence (even including high levels of employment as police, security personal or prison guards) compared to Israel.

Nonetheless, it is clear that even as the United States has become less violent in terms of gun violence, it remains among the most violent societies among so-called “advanced” countries.

The evidence for American’s embrace of violence, from hyper-violent sports such as hockey or mixed martial artists to gory first-person shooter video games (some of which were designed first for military training) and uber-violent movies, is impossible to ignore.

Consider, then, when Hollywood stars decided to do a public service announcement in the wake of the Newtown shooting. Almost immediately, there appeared online an “unedited” parody that placed scenes of the stars engaged in incredible movie violence right after their pleas to toughen gun laws.

The final component of the psychology of violence in the US is that of the rise of neoliberal ideology in the last two generations, which has led to an increasing demonization of the federal government that has played into the increasingly conservative and militant forms of Christianity among white Americans.

Neoliberalism’s most brilliant ideological trick is to convince people that the state should be shrunk, meaning people have to rely on themselves more, including for defense.

Add to that an argument that because of the weakened (some would say, failed) state, Americans are at greater threat than ever before to falling prey to violent crime, particularly from immigrants, people of color and other minority populations who are quite literally taking over the country.

When coupled with the longstanding ideological identity based on individualism, and a propensity for violence, a toxic social psychological brew has been created, that leads people to feel increasingly like they cannot rely on anyone to protect them, even as they engage in activities that have a great propensity for harming themselves and others.

While for the most part such activities do not produce the kind of murder and mayhem that we’ve seen in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut this year, they make such massacres inevitable.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.