American Culture

Bad Day at Blacksburg

Heavyweight_shotgunBy Robert Silvey

An angry person with a knife can kill one or two people. An angry person with a gun can kill 32.

The carnage in Blacksburg yesterday was avoidable. Guns are dangerous technology, and if they were carefully regulated in Virginia—as other dangerous technologies are regulated—the death toll would likely have been one or two, not 32. But we Americans, in the course of our violent history, have developed an obsession with guns, transforming them into hollow symbols of political freedom and personal independence. We are taught in school that flintlock-wielding farmers won the Revolutionary War, that the six-shooter cleared the West of Indians and rustlers and all manner of other troublesome varmints, and that the only thing standing between us and a totalitarian government today is a brace of guns in every citizen’s closet.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution was written to ensure that state militias (now known as the National Guard) would maintain the armaments required to carry out their duties. In the last half-century, its meaning has been distorted in the public mind—by the National Rifle Association and by fear-mongering Republicans (including some right-wing judges)—so that many people think the amendment forbids the government from regulating guns. This interpretation is ridiculous on the face of it:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

As Garry Wills points out in a thorough 1995 essay in the New York Review of Books (available by subscription only at NYRB, but republished here), the subject of the amendment is how to regulate the militia in order to ensure state security, not whether rifles ought to be widely distributed to individual citizens. Furthermore, all discussion of James Madison’s original proposal concerned military matters; in fact, Wills writes, “To bear arms is, in itself, a military term. One does not bear arms against a rabbit.” The phrase “to keep and bear,” he writes, does not in this context describe two actions, but is “a description of one connected process” encompassing how “a local militia‘s function was always read in contrast to the role of a standing army,” which was permitted locally in each state but frowned on at the federal level (until the development of our current national security state and its enormous standing army). The phrase “the people” here refers to those members of the citizenry who constitute the militia, thereby representing collegially the interests of the state, rather than individuals who might arm themselves against other individuals. The history is clear.

But it doesn’t require a close reading of the Second Amendment to understand the insanity of allowing anyone to own as many guns as he wants. Nearly every developed country in the world has more stringent gun-control laws than the United States, and the laws of Virginia are particularly weak, allowing anyone to buy without background check at gun shows, requiring no gun locks or safety training for owners, and providing no “restriction on the sale or possession of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons like the AK47 and Uzi.” Many states have gun laws that are even less restrictive.

The results are startling. As of 2001, 41 percent of American households possessed guns, and the intentional gun death rate was 13.47 per 100,000. This compares with much lower rates in other developed countries, where guns are registered and owners are licensed:

  • Japan: 0.6 percent gun possession, with a death rate of only 0.07 per 100,000 (200 times lower than the US)
  • the UK: 4.0 percent possession, 0.4 death rate
  • France: 22.6 percent possession, 5.48 death rate

Even in Finland, with 50 percent possession—higher than in the US—the death rate is less than half, at 6.65, thanks to sensible regulation.

My own preference would be to see all personal firearms outlawed completely. I understand that not many Americans would agree, but there is a perfectly rational alternative that would be acceptable to a majority. Like Japan and Finland and the UK, the US should register all guns and license all gun owners and users. The logic is no different from car registration and driver licensing, and gun technology is arguably much more dangerous. It certainly was more dangerous in Blacksburg yesterday, and without gun control we can expect to see many more Blacksburgs.

Cross-posted at Rubicon.

19 replies »

  1. Yeah, let’s outlaw guns entirely. I’m sure the guy who just killed 30+ people would have obeyed THAT law. Outlawing guns takes guns away from everyone EXCEPT the outlaws. It should therefore come as no surprise that Finland’s death rate is less, because 50% possession means a high likelihood that a crazed lunatic will take one in the head before killing 5 people let alone 30.

    We have laws that ban 100% of heroin, cocaine, marijuana, etc… how well are those laws working? A gun ban would be no different… they’d be pouring in across the border just like drugs and going straight to the bad guys, since all the good law-abiding citizens will respect the law even if it’s ridiculous. An unarmed populace are ducks in a barrel for criminals who could give two craps about the law, and you are a fool for failing to understand that.

    In case you forgot, there was another shooting rampage in Virginia just a few years ago, but luckily the shooter was subdued after killing only 3 people. Did he run out of bullets? Nope. He was stopped by other students who ran to their cars and grabbed:

    A) An inflatable police officer
    B) A student handbook listing the campus gun ban regulation
    C) Their own personal firearms

    Now, you guess for me which of the above was instrumental in stopping this killer before he could execute the entire student body? If you chose B, you are incorrect. Here’s the real story:

  2. Robert, as a moderately liberal historian, I nonetheless beg to differ.

    I have read a number of accounts of the private thoughts and deliberations upon the 2nd amendment by our Founders, and they universally refer to the argument as being over individual citizens’ ownership of weapons, not just in a militia setting. In a letter to the General Court of Massachussetts in 1797, Sam Adams, after praising the “great principles of our present militia system,” says “Those principles…should equally apply to all active citizens, within the age prescribed by law…every man, it is presumed, would pride himself in the right of bearing arms.”

    I would even consider agreeing with you about further restricting arms ownership if such legislation would mean that criminals and the unhinged would then have a hard time obtaining weapons. There is no evidence so far that any such legal restrictions significantly increase the difficulty of obtaining weapons through illicit channels.

    I have had a family member “go around the bend” who had previously been a stable sort whom I knew owned guns. I was never so comforted as when I found out that I could quickly buy a shotgun just in case the dangerously loopy lad came around looking for trouble. And I cannot describe the helpless feeling I had when contemplating how different it would have been had there been more onerous restrictions on my ability to arm myself for self-defense.

    Not even Michael Moore used the statistical slant you betray when you list the low homicide rates in countries with low gun ownership. Moore was at least even-handed enough to point out that Canada and Australia have high rates of gun ownership, but low rates of violence.

    It is the problem of the WILL to commit violence… the egomania, frustration, confusion, intoxication, lack of mental health care, whatever… that is at the root of the prevalence of homicide in America. Unless we understand that, the applied mechanism of the ensuing mayhem will remain irrelevant.

    Sure, lots of guns makes such violence easier. But do you really want to make the law-abiding sitting ducks, cowering at home unarmed, easy prey for any joker who can buy a gun in some alley? Unless you can answer that objection, I don’t see supporting any more gun laws than the ones we’re currently only limply enforcing.

  3. I believe your argument is wrong on many points; for one, there has been a federal army since the founding of the Continental regiments during the revolution. A militia was intended to buttress federal and state troops. Also, the amendment declares the right of “the people,” not “the militia,” to bear arms. This is because, to the framers, any able-bodied person was and is a potential member of the militia.
    The Second Amendment is something of a doomsday amendment. The founders had had intimate experience of occupation by the military of an oppressive, and ultimately hostile, power — Great Britain — and they knew that if the common people hadn’t been armed, the revolution would have failed and the British stranglehold on the colonies maintained. They looked at the Second Amendment as a basic defense against tyranny.
    Take a look at Bushco. I suspect that we would be under martial law already if the U.S. weren’t armed to the teeth.
    A key phrase here is “well-regulated.” New reports are saying that the shooter was known to be unbalanced and hostile and had been referred to his college’s counseling service. Selling arms to people like this is a tragedy waiting to happen. It will take a lot of organizing to prevent such sales, but the alternative is unworkable.
    If you don’t believe me, do some research into what’s happened in Great Britain since it banned private handgun ownership in 1996. Their violent crime — especially gun crime — is worse than it’s ever been.

  4. Statistics, boztopia, not anecdotes. Despite the murder of the mayor of Nagasaki by a gangster, I am still 200 times less likely to be killed by a gun in Japan than in the US. Violence exists everywhere. We might at least do what we can to reduce it.

  5. Just to suggest this to people: aside from the multitude of other factual errors you make (such as acting as though an isolated incident has proof-value much like a statistic), one problem with pro-gun argumentation is that you are conflating two arguments: you are usually not arguing that guns are the problem (which would be the first argument). Your argument (a second, different one) is that there are social problems that create violence, which, as you claim, will not go away with the introduction of gun-control laws. While this may be true you act as though having guns is an adequate solution to these social problems: if the maniacs do something wrong and come my way I will shoot them. How about looking for a solution to these problems that is not contingent upon guns? How about making guns not necessary by simultaneously limiting access to them and taking the necessary social action to alleviate social problems, detect them early and expand our system of caring for these people. If that were the case and we would expand early-recognition, social networks and battle social problems, alienation and segregation that creates the desire for commiting gun-related violent crimes (which should be possible, as people indicate above, unless we argue that Americans are simply naturally more violent than other nations, which, of course, is untenable as an analysis, proving that there is a connected between violence and social problems), then there would, according to your logic, no longer be an argument for guns, correct? Because this is something we could agree on across party lines and actually mount a politics on that can reduce the number of deaths.

  6. and just quickly: there is a large psychological and logical difference between being willing to put an illegal drug into my own body and putting a bullett into someone else’s body. Comparing the two is nonsensical and inferring that we can learn something about guns based upon people’s willingness to commit other crimes is a nonsequitur. Please do not act as though these things are in any way related other than that they are both illegal (it is like arguing that there is a comparison between necrophilia and stealing CDs at a record store, just because both are illegal, ignoring, on a basic level, the role other people play in both crimes).

  7. How about this for a good gun control idea – legalize and regulate pot and other illicit drugs. It strikes me that a lot of our recent issues with crime in general stem in part from the so-called war on drugs, so if we declared victory, put all drugs under strict governmental regulation, took the profit motive out of the drug trade, and controlled drug demand, then maybe we’d be able to cut down on the number of illegal guns on the streets. Fewer cheap and easily available guns means fewer guns would be needed and less gun crime.

    I’d love it if economist Steven Levitt (he’s the guy who claimed that the legalization of abortion was responsible for the drop in the crime rate in the 1990s) would take a unique look at the data to see if there is a connection between the war on drugs and modern gun violence.

  8. There are several countries where gun ownership rates are commensurate with that in the US, yet gun violence is orders of magnitude lower – Canada is one example. Switzerland is another, with a “well-regulated militia” implemented in a way the Founders would probably appreciate.

    Don’t offer simplistic answers to complicated questions.

    Don’t use tragedy to promote an agenda.

  9. Robert Silvey @ 8:

    You are absolutely right, and I agree completely. We have to ask the tough questions about why we, as a society, feel entitled to own weapons that are built for one purpose only–taking lives–and yet bristle at any sort of control or oversight regarding how they’re used.

    Better yet, we should go deeper and ask what it is about our (to coin a phrase) history of violence that makes this seem like a reasonable option.

  10. Careful and selective parsing of the language of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is as dangerous when done to benefit one’s personal beliefs as it is when it is done to their detriment. It’s much safer to prevent their distortion in either direction.