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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sandy Hook, Gun Control, and America's Gun Culture

I recently  rewatched the original Star Wars movie, and my son remarked that given all the time and money the Empire spent building the Death Star, you'd think it would've been able to make invulnerable to attack. Perhaps, but I've yet to meet a technological marvel that is flawless. The Death Star's like Achilles, whose entire body was invulnerable except his heel. The movie's broader point, of course, is that nothing's completely invulnerable; everything has an achilles heel.

The desire for, but the impossibility of, invulnerability was driven home to me after a gunman walked into a Connecticut elementary school and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were children. I'd like to believe that there's something we can do to prevent all such tragedies, but I'm skeptical. Many believe that gun control's the answer, but I don't think it's the silver bullet that many believe it is. To be sure, states with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths ("The Geography of Gun Deaths"):
Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48)... While the causes of individual acts of mass violence always differ, our analysis shows fatal gun violence is less likely to occur in richer states with more post-industrial knowledge economies, higher levels of college graduates, and tighter gun laws
(Note: Correlation coefficients range from -1.00 to +1.00)
But even those states with gun control laws haven't completely eliminated firearm deaths. Moreover, correlation doesn't prove causation. One could argue that states with a higher proportion of people who oppose gun ownership and use are more likely to pass gun control laws. Thus, it is the cultural opposition to guns that leads to fewer gun deaths, not the legislation itself.

I'm inclined to think it's a little bit of both. Indeed, I believe the much larger problem that confronts us is  what is commonly referred to as America's "gun culture," that Wild-Wild West attitude that seems to permeate American society, in which people think they're Marshall Dillon, Rowdy Yates, Artemis Gordon, or Rooster Cogburn and believe that guns are one of the few things that help keep all that is evil in the world at bay. My sense is that until our culture is transformed from one that glorifies gunslingers to one that doesn't, tragedies like Sandy Hook will continue to happen with disturbing regularity.

What evidence exists for our gun culture? Well, as the graph below illustrates there's little doubt that the US is a violent country (from "America is a Violent Country"):


This, of course, doesn't prove that we have a gun culture, but it is certainly consistent with it. Interestingly, as the graph below indicates, the South is the US's most violent region ("Assault Deaths Within the United States"):


In fact, I recently heard (although I can't find the citation -- I'm working on it, though) that cities and towns in the South are more likely to contain the word "gun" in their name.

Some argue that the real problem is religion (read: Christianity). People note that that the US is a very religious country and that the South is the US's most religious region, and ipso facto conclude that the solution is to turn everyone into secularists. However, as I noted some time ago ("More God, Less Crime"), empirical studies suggest just the opposite. Byron Johnson reviewed 273 studies on religion and crime published between 1944 and 2010 and discovered that 243 (90%) of them found that increased religiosity is connected with significant decreases in crime and delinquency, while 24 (9%) found no relation between religion and crime, and only 2 (1%) found that religiosity is connected with increased crime and delinquency. Moreover, recently the sociologist Rodney Stark ("America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists") found that the higher a city's church membership rate,
  • the lower its burglary rate
  • the lower its larceny rate
  • the lower its robbery rate
  • the lower its assault rate
  • the lower its homicide rate
In short, religion isn't the problem. I know this will disappoint some, but it's time to turn our attention to counteracting our gun culture. Of course, doing so will certainly not be easy. However, there is some evidence that its on the wane. Note that in the first graph above, the rate of assault deaths in the US has been declining since the 1970s, and as the political scientist Patrick Egan has noted ("The Declining Culture of Guns and Violence in the United States"), gun ownership in the US has been declining over essentially the same period:


While this is certainly good news, we can't sit still and let things take their course. Trends do not always translate to inevitabilities (i.e., they can be reversed). That's why in the short run gun control legislation is a good idea. It will help, but as I noted above, we are kidding ourselves if we think its a silver bullet. In my opinion, it only addresses the symptoms of a much larger problem. That is why in the long run, we need to actively work at counteracting America's gun culture. We don't live in the Wild Wild West anymore, and it's time to stop acting as if we still do.

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