Gun Culture and Its Discontents

US President Barack Obama speaks during a holiday reception for the diplomatic corps on December 19, 2012 at the State Depart
US President Barack Obama speaks during a holiday reception for the diplomatic corps on December 19, 2012 at the State Department in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut, emotions are running high on all sorts of fronts. Some families are grieving lost loved ones; others are terrified for the safety and well-being of their children. Many Americans are wondering how on earth a bunch of elementary school kids -- who didn't even yet exist on 9/11 -- can be murdered in determined yet senseless malice.

What is wrong with the world?

I was raised to understand that people kill people, not guns. Most of my friends from Virginia, the military, and various suburbs and towns across America seem to agree. To this sentiment, many Ivy League, blue-state, and liberal friends prefer Eddie Izzard's wry retort: "the gun helps." Valid points abound. So yes, I read the "Twelve Facts" of Ezra Klein. I also read Jeffrey Goldberg's far more thoughtful and balanced feature in The Atlantic, and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting a broader view.

America is a very violent country with a lot of guns, which correlates with more gun homicide around the world. Nevertheless, Vermont exists, gun-related violent crimes fell sharply as sales rose meteorically in my adoptive Virginia, and overall homicide rates have risen with gun bans but fallen with right-to-carry policy in various jurisdictions. There is also the intriguing debate over the inverse correlation between concealed carry and crime.

As Klein and others have pointed out, the percentage of households with guns had been declining in the last several years. However, gun ownership has lately risen to the highest levels since 1993, thanks mostly to women, Democrats, and people outside the South (and possibly the recession). Guns are used (not necessarily fired) in self-defense at least 108,000 to 498,000 times per year. For women, in particular, handguns have proven vital in protecting their homes, thwarting rape, repelling violent assault, protecting their babies, and defending their children from hostile men. As of last year, nearly half of all American households have some sort of firearm.

While gun presence generally correlates with gun violence, neither is a reliable indicator of overall violence. Britain, for example, is more violent (though not more murderous) than most of Europe and the U.S., notwithstanding her disarmed citizenry. Relatively gun-loving Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden have lower homicide rates than more restrictive France, Australia, the Netherlands, and, of course, the UK. In the U.S., 20 percent of violent crimes had something to do with weapons, of which only one-third (7 percent overall) were firearms. Put another way, more than 90 percent of reported violence in America has nothing to do with guns.

Which brings us to mass murders.

These macabre eruptions of evil are more like terrorist attacks than "ordinary" violence. For one, they are aggressively premeditated around the law, with contingency plans. (The Columbine shooters brought bombs; the Aurora shooter booby-trapped his apartment.) Secondly, these tragedies, while increasing, are more societally disruptive than reflective of overall crime trends. Violent crime is at extraordinarily low levels, and more Americans die from lightning than mass shootings. Given that many of these massacres, from Columbine to Sandy Hook, were ultimately murder-suicides, it might be time to talk about mental health policy among our cultural issues. An assault weapon ban won't stop tragedy. Preventing 1% of suicides would save more lives than were lost to mass-murdering lunatics in this entire deadly year.

Suicides, the majority of gun deaths, increased even as rates of gun homicide declined in the last decade. Waiting periods for gun purchases might prevent some deaths without denying the right to responsible gun-ownership. But such restrictions are, at best, only a marginal solution to a broader problem. Nearly half of suicides -- which outnumber all homicides -- are committed without guns. (More die from "unintentional injury," only 0.5 percent involving firearms.) It might be worth discerning why, for example, suicides appear concentrated in the West, Florida, Appalachia, and parts of the Midwest but least prevalent in the Black Belt, Mid-Atlantic, South Texas, and other parts of the Midwest. For all I know, such an approach could be informative, politically viable, and effective.

The dark and maddening truth of the matter is that there are no simple resolutions to evil. Ignoring the politics, gun control is not a panacea and does not come without cost. If I have touched a nerve, feel free to insult me, curse the Red States, and vomit bile on "American barbarism" while clinging to infographics of European statistics like postcards from the island of misfit policies that are not to be. But at the end of the day, the Second Amendment will outlive every futile paean for gun control. I want young, promising people to stop dying for no reason, and I don't see how that cause will be won in the lost battles of yesteryear. Perhaps we can start by ending the insidious practice of immortalizing monsters instead of their heroic victims.

Now is the time to find lasting solutions to underlying problems in our national culture of violence that go far beyond guns. I don't know what such solutions will look like, but I hope we're all open to thoughtful suggestions and humble reflection.