…‘gun culture’?

The connection between gun ownership and homicide is a myth - but gun control is a serious restriction on our freedom.

Kevin Yuill

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Topics Politics

Kevin Yuill argues that the connection between gun ownership and homicide is a myth – but gun control is a serious restriction on our freedom.

European Union legislators recently took another step towards transforming the entire continent into a low-security prison when they voted overwhelmingly for tough new gun-control legislation. Each member state will be obliged to set up registers that contain the model, calibre, serial number and the names and addresses of both sellers and buyers of guns. Added to the estimated 10.7m CCTV cameras tracking the movements of Europeans (the UK proudly leads the field in semi-official voyeurs – 4.2m cameras and counting!), the EU will no doubt soon confiscate anything with which Europeans might possibly harm themselves or others.

Gisela Kallenbach, the German MEP who helped draft the legislation, justified the new rules with the sort of logic typical of the European Greens: ‘All European cows are registered Europe-wide, so why not guns, if it can save lives?’ Why registering guns or cows would save lives is never answered.

This is because the real target of the European anti-gun crusaders is the American ‘gun culture’, usually coupled with a sneering and crude anti-Americanism. Prime Minister Gordon Brown jumped on the bandwagon earlier this year: ‘Guns in America are accepted but we don’t want that for Britain.’ Kallenbach noted sniffily: ‘We in Europe have a different culture than in the United States and we do not consider the freedom to buy weapons a human right.’

The term ‘gun culture’ first emerged in an article by historian Richard Hofstadter in 1970 bemoaning what he saw as America’s love of the gun (1). It has since come to be embraced by both sides; gun-control enthusiasts attack the ‘gun culture’ just as those defending constitutional rights celebrate it. The difficulty with the term is that it fetishises the gun. The notion of ‘gun culture’ bestows magical powers on guns to either transform people into killers or to pacify an entire nation. In truth, there is a great deal of mythology on both sides of the debate. Ordinary Europeans kept firearms just as Americans did and the American West was tamed more by prosperity than by gunslingers.

It is worth removing the mystique from guns in order to stop the irrational and emotive discussion about them. How dangerous are they? It may sound shocking to note that in 2004 there were 11,624 gun-related homicides in the United States. However, the overall US homicide rate (0.043 deaths per 1000 people per year) is lower than many other countries, including EU members Poland (0.056) and Bulgaria (0.045). And if we compare other statistics in this large country, a clearer picture emerges. There were twice as many unintentional poisonings in 2004 as gun homicides and there were more deaths by falling, too. Why not launch a campaign against oysters or ladders? Statistically, adding a swimming pool to your house is far more dangerous than keeping a gun there. The chances of children being shot at school are less than being struck by lightning at school. As Gary Kleck has pointed out, instead of metal detectors in schools, it would make more sense to equip children with lightning rods (2).

Nor do guns turn people into killers with their magic powers. A survey of state prisoners shows that approximately 50 percent of ‘intimate’ crimes are committed under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol. Half of those had been drinking for at least six hours. In a study of the victims of near-fatal domestic shootings and stabbings, 78 per cent of the victims volunteered a history of hard-drug use, and 16 per cent admitted using heroin the day of the incident. These were not ordinary people arguing about what television programme to watch (3).

Significantly, fewer than one gun owner in 3,000 commits homicide; and that one killer is far from a typical gun owner. Studies have found two-thirds to four-fifths of homicide offenders have prior arrest records, frequently for violent felonies. A study by the pro-control Police Foundation of domestic homicides in Kansas City in 1977 revealed that in 85 per cent of homicides among family members, the police had been called in before to break up violence. In half the cases, the police had been called in five or more times. State prisoners serving time for ‘intimate’ violence, two-thirds had a prior conviction history. Forty per cent of convicted violent offenders had a ‘criminal justice status’ while committing the crime (eg, on bail or parole).

Besides the myth that guns turn ordinary people into homicidal maniacs, there is the myth that making firearms available to more people raises the homicide rate. By using historical and international comparisons, this myth is easily dispatched. In the first 30 years of the twentieth century, US per capita handgun ownership remained stable, but the homicide rate rose tenfold. Subsequently, between 1937 and 1963, handgun ownership rose by 250 per cent, but the homicide rate fell by 35.7 per cent. Canada and Norway, both with a high percentage of gun ownership, have a lower homicide rate per 100,000 than does the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom had far lower homicide rates in Victorian times – when any man, woman, or child could walk into a shop and buy a gun legally – than in the period since 1920, when it was no longer deemed a right to own a firearm (4).

Another oft-repeated myth is that the sole purpose of a gun is to kill people. This is simply not true. There are between 100 million and 140 million guns in the United States, a third of them handguns. The ratio of people who commit handgun crimes each year to handguns is 1:400 (keep in mind that a handgun crime can involve accidentally walking into an airport with a gun); the ratio of handgun homicides to handguns is 1:3,600. Turning the statistics around, in the United States, well over 99 per cent of guns have never been used in any crime (5).

Also, if the sole purpose of a handgun is to kill people, why don’t gun-control enthusiasts target the guns of the police in order to prevent gun deaths? Are they really used simply to kill people or, as a last resort, to keep order? This discussion, in truth, is not about guns at all but about whose hand is on the trigger.

Rather than ‘gun culture’, we should speak about gun-control culture, a far more insidious and threatening disease, especially as there are signs of it breaking out even in the last bastion of democratic rights, the United States. First, it is historically more accurate. Much as there were frequent attempts to take weapons away, the right of individuals to bear arms was not seriously breached in Britain until 1920, when the threat of Bolshevism alarmed the elite and made owning a gun a privilege rather than a right. In the United States, the right to own firearms was hard fought by African-Americans, who had been denied them. Within living memory, they have been used against tyranny. The Deacons for Defense and Justice, a civil rights group, desegregated schools and prevented Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings more effectively than pacifistic strategies in various communities in Louisiana in the mid-1960s (6).

Historically, gun controls have been aimed at any group considered a threat to elite rule. The 1968 Gun Control Act was very much helped in its passage by fears of the Black Panther Party, the members of which exercised their constitutional right to form a militia. If there is any symbolic meaning to guns, it is as a symbol of power because an armed citizenry has a strong association with democracy, freedom, and equality. It is the literal meaning of ’empowerment’, that term so meaninglessly repeated in a thousand European quangos. It is the medium through which the powerless become the equal to the powerful throughout history. As the American proverb went: ‘God made men. Sam Colt made them equal.’

Gun-control culture wants to disempower ordinary people, trusting in the authorities rather than in people themselves. This fits in with the European Union’s contempt for democracy and disdain for its own citizens. Gun-control culture, with its fear and loathing for the ordinary citizen, has more in common with those shooters in Finland, Germany and America than with ordinary gun owners. An apposite metaphor for gun controls – I say this advisedly because of the risk of launching a thousand sociology papers and suggesting policy for the European Greens – is castration because some people have the ‘wrong sort’ of children.

The most disturbing trend of gun-control culture is that people step into this low-security prison voluntarily. They do not even trust themselves with freedom anymore. They have given up any responsibility for the world and for politics, they embrace and even celebrate powerlessness. They leave their freedom at the door in order to have some security, a growing crowd of pathetic, trembling, obsequious eunuchs too feeble for liberty. As John Stuart Mill noted: ‘A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares about more than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.’

For the sake of the world, Americans must resist this gun-control culture eating away at rights, liberties and at the very concept of an active, self-creating subject. Hopefully it will encourage Europeans to once again aspire to something better.

Kevin Yuill is lecturer in American studies at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

Read on:

Who’s afraid of…?

(1) Richard Hofstadter, America as a Gun Culture, American Heritage, October 1970.

(2) Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gary Kleck, Targeting Guns: Firearms and their Control (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1997)

(3) See David Kopel, Children and Guns: Sensible Solutions

(4) David B. Kopel, Peril or Protection? The Risks and Benefits of Handgun Prohibition, St Louis University Public Law Review, Vol. 12 (1993)

(5) David McDowall, ‘Firearms and Self-Defense’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 539, Reactions to Crime and Violence (May, 1995), pp. 130-140, 131

(6) See the 1,600 pages of FBI files on the Deacons for Defense. See also Lance Hill, The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement (Greenboro, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006)

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