Point Austin: Shoot First ... Think Later
Guns don't kill people, but they sure make it a whole lot easier
As we were going to press Wednesday, investigators were still trying to determine precisely what happened Tuesday afternoon at Lone Star College near Houston, where an argument reportedly turned into a gunfight – and at least three people (including the clumsy 22-year-old shooter) were wounded and hospitalized. I guess that's what the folks at the Capitol gun rally last Saturday meant by their banner, "An armed society is a polite society." If only everybody were carrying a gun, runs the argument, nobody would dare insult or affront anybody else – for fear of being blown away. Even better, if bystanders are also armed and bullets fly in all directions, only the guilty will die.
Of course, that's the opposite of a "polite society" – i.e., a civilized community built upon mutual respect, democratic government, and common trust. Rather, it depicts a rage-and-fear-ridden jungle of every man for himself and God against all. Why anyone would want to live in such a place – let alone advocate for it as a social utopia – is a question not for political philosophy but pathological psychology.
Nevertheless, that's been one refrain of the gun lobby and its acolytes in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre and the consequent national debate over gun control. It's the path also pursued by Texas politicians currently proposing more guns for teachers and principals, weakening standards for concealed carry permits, spreading guns on college campuses, or defying federal law.
More Guns Than People
The small problem with this gun proliferation theory is that by its logic, the U.S. should already be the most peaceable kingdom on Earth. There are nearly 300 million guns in the country – 89 guns per 100 people, certainly many more than one for every adult. The next most gun-besotted country is Yemen, at a measly 55 per 100. There are undoubtedly more gun-violent societies than the U.S. – most of them in Central America, which should tell you something – but at our staggering rate of gun ownership, in theory we should long ago have achieved the gun lobby's notion of nirvana: Everybody is peaceable because everybody is afraid of his neighbor.
It ain't necessarily so.
Nevertheless, the NRA certainly has some reason to celebrate – the most tangible result of the gun control debate thus far has been an explosion of gun buying, which is of course the point of an organization funded primarily by gun manufacturers. There is some counterevidence – the absolute number of U.S. guns may reflect more multiple guns owned rather than more gun owners – but I wouldn't necessarily call that comforting to the rest of us. Although the mass shootings grab the headlines (and yes, we have more of those than other countries as well), it's the bang-bang-bang of daily gun homicides and gun suicides (more than 60% of the total) that really piles up the bodies.
Following the Newtown massacre, online journal Slate began an attempt to calculate all U.S. gun deaths since that horrifying Dec. 14. As of Wednesday, the total was 1,164 "or more." If nothing else, the accumulating tally should place Newtown in a much larger perspective.
To sum up the relevant statistics: When compared to our peer advanced societies in Europe or Asia, Americans like killing, both ourselves and each other. Guns (by design) simply make killing much easier, and therefore much more likely. And home gun ownership, because of ready access, dramatically increases the chances of homicide or suicide within the home. In other words, a fundamental argument for gun regulation is to protect ourselves from ourselves; with fewer guns handy, we'd still kill each other, but not so efficiently, nor in such large numbers.
Nevertheless, although gun regulation is certainly necessary, it's difficult to believe it will happen. Consider the absolutely hysterical overreaction to President Obama's modest calls for criminal background checks on all gun sales; limits on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, and armor-piercing bullets; and better access to mental health care.
Even should some of these things somehow get through Congress, it's not clear they will do much about the overall level of gun violence, at least in the short term; the country is already awash in guns. The new policies might help a bit around the margins – make it a bit harder for criminals or the mentally ill to acquire weapons, prevent a few angry youths from laying their hands on semiautomatics. That's not negligible – even limits on magazines could lower the massacre body counts – but it's unlikely to make a large dent in the national daily carnage.
In the longer term, what it might begin to do – what Sandy Hook may have done – is to shift the national culture, ever so slightly, against gun violence, against the reflexive notion that a gun near at hand is a necessary or useful appliance. Despite our somewhat hardass national self-image, social scientists tell us Americans are more or less average in aggressiveness and in resorting to violence. Yet our gun death rates remain scandalously high. The additionally dangerous element – in a family or neighborhood argument, in a teenage emotional crisis, in a barroom dispute, in a mental health breakdown – seems to be the ready availability of guns.
It doesn't seem too much to ask that we make it a little more difficult to kill each other. But our national gun fetish – institutional, cultural, and personal – makes it very unlikely indeed.