By Jim Harding
Why are Americans, the most gun-owning people on earth, so slow to learn about the need to control the flow of assault weapons within civil society? In addition to the ongoing tragic deaths of innocent people, their steady buildup isn’t likely to make the difficult social and economic transformations required for sustainability more civil.
Mass killings in US schools, theatres and other public places seem more commonplace. Some have been more high profile, such as when 32 people were killed and another 17 wounded at a mass shooting at Virginia Tech University on April 17, 2007. Or when 6 people were killed and 19 injured, when a US Congresswoman was attacked at Tucson, Arizona on June 13, 2011. Or when 12 people were killed and 58 wounded in a theatre in Aurora, Colorado on July 21, 2012. Or, most recently, when 26 people – 20 of them children – were killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012.
After Newtown the Globe and Mail quoted its past editorials on US gun violence, about the “politicized gun culture that allows people to own high-caliber, rapid firing automatic weapon”; of “disaffected, angry people who see carnage as a means of vengeance or self-expression.” About how “changing lax gun laws” was beyond the purview of government studies of “how to prevent” further such occurrences; or how in the wake of such deadly mass shootings “many demand more, not less, access to guns.”
That about sums it up! But will the Newtown massacre finally see the US take a closer look at its gun culture? And will any positive change occur? And what might be the fallout for Canada, especially for those Harper supporters who may still romanticize the “libertarian” gun culture across the border?
How did the US become such a gun-toting society? The stats suggest a domestic arms race; last year alone 17 million guns were bought and, fearing stiffer gun controls after the Newton massacre, there’s been a recent run on guns. Even if effective gun controls come, we can only imagine how the huge stockpiled civilian armaments might get used in an uncertain future.
The Newtown massacre may have touched the American conscience, allowing some hard reflection about safety and quality of life in the homeland. An encouraging sign was the number of people voluntarily turning in their guns as an act of public safety. And some commentators had the courage to point out that legally-purchased weapons designed for warfare were now being used to kill American children; some referred to the hallowed “right to bear arms” as amounting to the “right to kill”.
THE NRA RESPONSE
None of this made the 4.3 million, 50-state strong National Rifle Association (NRA) happy. After a week of silence it came out blaming the massacre on the failings of the mental health system and violent video-games, while completely ignoring the fact that the carnage came from a legal semi-automatic weapon with a 30-round clip. The NRA then called for armed guards in the 100,000 schools across the US, adding more firepower to the homeland. The NRA chief will be remembered for advocating a civilian arms race, saying that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a guy”. Perhaps he’s seen too many heroic cowboy movies.
Clearly an entertainment culture of violence, along with mental health problems, combined with easy access to mass-killing weapons, is not a good mix. You simply don’t want guns readily available when post-traumatic, psychotic or psychopathic motivation may escalate social violence. Ignoring the instrument of massacre, the guns, is somewhat like ignoring the need to control a virus during an epidemic. Meanwhile, in the face of such lax gun control, the US market for bullet-proof children’s “back packs” is steadily growing.
How does Canada compare to the US regarding “gun culture”?
The Dec. 22, 2012 Globe and Mail and Wikipedia present compelling information. The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey reports there are 270 million privately-owned guns in America; there are nearly 10 million in Canada. The US ranks first globally; for every 100 Americans there are 90 guns. Meanwhile, Serbia, the country ranking 2nd, falls far behind at 58 guns per 100 people. With 31 guns per 100 people, Canada ranks 13th! More telling, while 34% of Americans said they owned a gun in 2011, only 6% of Canadians were licensed to do so.
A peculiar way of thinking accompanies the spread of guns in civil society. According to NRA logic, having more guns among more Americans is not only about the right to bear arms, but is a deterrent to civil violence. What does the evidence tell us?
Last year Canada had 598 homicides, compared to 14,612 in the US; there were 4.7 homicides per 100,000 people in the US compared to 1.7 in Canada. The percentage of these involving firearms in the US was 58%; in Canada it was 26%. In 2009 the percentage of US homicides involving guns was 67% compared to 32% in Canada. Most telling, the rate of firearm-related US homicides per 100,000 in 2009 was 3.3 compared to 0.5 in Canada. That means the rate of US homicides involving guns was nearly 7 times the Canadian rate. Though complex, this trend is international; with major gun controls, Japan has one of the lowest rates of firearm ownership (164th) and related deaths.
It’s hard to dispute the equation: the more guns, especially deadly guns, the more these will be involved in violent acts. And this gun-related violence isn’t just “other-directed”; the number of firearm- related suicides in the US in 2009 was 18,735 compared to 531 in Canada. If more available, guns can be used to seriously escalate death and harm in a crisis.
The US gun culture is sanctioned by the constitutional right to bear arms. This ties into the ethic of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, “liberty” being interpreted as individuals being free from constraint, especially restraint from government, which reinforces the NRA’s pro-gun ideology. The American Revolution began with a revolt against British imperial taxes; the defeat of the empire had to do with armed militias, which are sometimes still romanticized as a deterrent against state authority, and even creeping socialism. The right to bear arms became linked to property rights, including the “right” to own and control one’s slaves as property. It’s quite a legacy to now have to unpack.
In sharp contrast, the Canadian constitution supports “Peace, Order and Good Government”. It’s not that we don’t want happiness; it’s just that we are more inclined to associate this with common security, such as from universal healthcare, provided with the aid of “good government”. And it’s not that we don’t want “freedom”; it’s just that we are coming to see human rights protections provided from the Charter of Rights, as more effective than defending individual freedom (property) with a gun. Canadians see government as playing an important role in providing domestic peace and order, including positive social policy. Americans have tended to see their government’s primary role as “policing” the empire.
Guns tell us lots about our differences. Would a more unregulated gun culture in Canada make us a safer or more sustainable society? Did the federal Liberals over-reach by legislating a national gun registry after the 1989 Montreal massacre of 14 women? And, in spite of the evidence, how did the Harper Conservatives so successfully use gun control as a wedge issue to gain votes in rural Canada, including in Saskatchewan?
To move forward after the Newtown massacre, Canadians also need to do some soul-searching.
Next time I start a series on “Human Evolution and Sustainability”.