Friday, June 20, 2014

Gun Violence: Not a Disease, but a Symptom

Gun ownership is one of only a few issues where I would call myself something of a moderate. There’s no doubting that a lot of the people championing the “right to keep and bear arms” are absolute lunatics, and the word “well-regulated” in the Second Amendment—putting aside the issue of militias altogether—should imply that some restrictions on who can own a gun are perfectly constitutional. On the other hand, while I sympathize with their horror at the amount of gun violence in America and at the mass shootings that seem to be happening on a monthly basis, a lot of liberals are promoting both attitudes and policies that I believe are wrong-headed. There seems to be a real hostility growing on the left towards guns themselves, and a desire to see much more restrictive policies against them. Neither of those, in my view, are helpful in this situation.

Let’s discuss some facts here. The United States is the number one country in terms of gun ownership per capita. And, yes, there’s no doubt that the ready availability of guns enables the gun violence that plagues us—but in terms of violence on the whole, there doesn’t appear to be any highly convincing correlation with gun ownership. We are the number one country in terms of gun ownership, but nowhere near number one in murders per capita—furthermore, other countries that are relatively high in terms of gun ownership as well—Switzerland and Serbia, for instance—have murder rates that disproportionately lower than ours (in spite of having one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world, Switzerland has one of the lowest murder rates in the world).

Furthermore, it’s no great mystery what propels a lot of the gun violence in the United States. Based on findings by the CDC, not only are big cities the source of the vast majority of gun homicides, but “the rate of firearm homicides was higher in inner cities than in other parts of cities and higher than the murder rate of the country as a whole.” Indeed, the worst places for gun violence are places with higher levels of concentrated poverty. Furthermore, as Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson comments, “The places way above the line for gun murders, like Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Newark, St. Louis, and Chicago, all have large, very segregated black communities with a history of disinvestment, outmigration, and, except for Chicago, not big immigration in recent decades…What the Detroit's and Baltimore's of American cities also had was extremely high concentrated poverty that mapped onto race.” So the driving forces behind gun violence appear to be poverty and the ongoing racial divide in America—problems that go much deeper than the ready availability of guns.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the government can’t snap its metaphorical fingers and make guns disappear—for restrictions to work, they must be enforced. Is it really reasonable to lock someone up just for owning a gun, as would have to be done to enforce the ban on firearms that some would like to see put in place? Some people do legitimately live in dangerous neighborhoods, and may not feel safe in their own homes—should they be punished because they choose to procure a weapon for self-defense? And do we really need another excuse to put more people in our already-overcrowded prisons? Not to mention that strict anti-gun laws necessitate giving even more authority to our increasingly militarized police forces. None of these are attractive options—and none of them would solve the real problems behind our gun violence.

And then there’s the fact that an armed populace does actually have its benefits. The government couldn’t actually be overthrown, of course, but the threat of uncontrollable civil unrest can achieve a great deal—it was after the violence and disorder of the Birmingham riot, and the thought that similar riots could occur nationwide, that JFK finally voiced his support for the civil rights movement. Liberals may be inclined to write off the idea that our country is headed towards tyranny as just a paranoid fantasy from the far-right, but the fact is that we have seen our liberties eroded, not only by the government, but by the corporate sector as well. At this point, civil disorder may be the only way to change our course. We saw that the police had no problem employing brutality against the Occupy protesters—perhaps they might have thought twice if the protesters had been armed. This isn't to advocate some kind of preemptive violence, but we all should have a right to self-defense, and it probably takes an armed populace to successfully resist the police force we have today. Unfortunately, for many liberals today, the thought of people defending themselves from the police and resisting the rule of government seems to be more unnerving than the idea of people being unable to do either effectively.

While universal background checks and other basic regulations are reasonable, the real solutions to gun violence have nothing to do with stricter laws or even fewer guns. We have a serious problem in this country when it comes to poverty, and one that hits the black community especially hard. Solving that problem is what we need to devote our resources to, not enforcing some array of needlessly strict new gun laws. As for the recent mass shootings, the issue they should raise is not so much one about guns—although they do indicate thorough background checks would be a good idea—but rather about our mental health system. Not surprisingly, the perpetrators in these shootings seem to be very mentally disturbed. We should be asking not just why they were able to get guns, but why they weren’t getting treatment. People like this are dangerous with or without guns, and we need a mental health system that will deal with people this ill in a serious way, rather than just writing them a prescription for some antidepressants.

As insane as some of the people speaking against gun control are, and as well-intentioned as some of the people speaking most harshly against guns are, I can’t help but find myself falling a little closer to the first group in terms of actual policy positions. That isn’t to say I actually agree with them, though—the sale of guns does need to be regulated, and even those who take this idea too far are generally not fascists who want to disarm the populace, but well-intentioned liberals who are fed up with seeing news about gun violence so often. Those liberals are absolutely right to be fed up with it, too. It is time we do admit gun violence is a serious issue—but, as in so many cases, it is but a symptom of larger issues, and unless we devote our resources to those, the real problem goes unsolved. 

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