America's Violence Problem (and It's Not Just With Guns)

Atlas Tactical co-owner/operator Brooke Stallings handles an assault rifle that is for sale in her shop near Newport, Va. on
Atlas Tactical co-owner/operator Brooke Stallings handles an assault rifle that is for sale in her shop near Newport, Va. on Tuesday Dec. 18 2012. The shop sells guns and gun supplies, and has seen a recent increase in sales. The reaction to the Connecticut school shooting can be seen in gun stores and self-defense retailers across the nation: Anxious parents are fueling sales of armored backpacks for children while firearms enthusiasts are stocking up on assault rifles in anticipation of tighter gun control measures. (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry) LOCAL TV OUT; SALEM TIMES REGISTER OUT; FINCASTLE HERALD OUT; CHRISTIANBURG NEWS MESSENGER OUT; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL OUT; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL OUT

America has a violence problem.

We love violence. We pay to watch violence at the movies. Parents pay money for kids to play violent video games. Certain businesses make money off of violence. We cheer when there is a fight in hockey. Mixed Martial Arts is more violent than boxing and its ratings have been skyrocketing.

We have a violence problem in America.

According to the
in 2011, at a total rate of 386.3 violent acts, the rate of violence per 100,000 people in the USA is:
  • Homicide: 4.7
  • Forcible rape: 26.8
  • Robbery: 113.7
  • Aggravated assault: 241.1

Ever since the awful school shootings in Newtown, CT America has been focusing on gun violence. There were 2,243 homicides by a gun in the 98 days after Newtown. In 2010, according to the UNODC, 67.5 percent of all homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm. But looking at the statistics above, we don't just have a gun problem, we have a violence problem.

Do we have a gun violence problem in the United States? Yes. There is no doubt about that. With about 10,000 gun homicides a year, and 20,000 gun suicides a year, the U.S. has far more gun-related killings than any other developed country (but not the most of any country). However, gun violence isn't the leading cause of violence in America. It is just the most salient.

People who love guns don't necessarily love violence. In fact, I suspect that violence done with guns upsets gun enthusiasts just as much as other citizens but there is the added element that the legal gun owners subsequently need to defend a way of life, a hobby and an American sub-culture. There is a legitimate gun culture in America that the anti-gun groups don't understand; this legal gun culture does not misuse their guns as they have a high level of respect for their guns and the responsibilities of owning a gun.

On the flip side, there is also a case to be made that the pro-gun groups seemingly refuse to recognize, which is that where there are more guns there is more homicide. But how we respond to this data matters. We can arbitrarily crack down on guns, or we can try to reduce gun offenses were they are happening by the people illegally carrying and using guns. I think the choice is clear.

Just as there are different types of violence, there are different types of solutions to the different types of violence. There is no one size fits all approach. Offering a list of interventions to decrease violence is well beyond the scope of this article.

The data on how seeing violence leads to violent actions has been well established since 1961 when Albert Bandura did his famous bobo doll experiment. Children witnessed an adult doing specific aggressive behaviors towards an inflatable bobo doll. The children who saw the aggressive behavior then were released into the room with a bobo doll and they exhibited the same behavior. Children who did not see the adults do the aggressive behavior were far less likely to act aggressively towards the bobo doll. If we know that the imitation of aggressive behaviors occurs, as a society, why do we enjoy it so much? We may be our own worst enemy.

What is not helpful is for non-experts to suddenly start to care about something because of a high profile event. As awful as high profile events are, it is important to remember that high profile events are high profile precisely because they are unusual and unlikely. Making policy based on high profile events is a surefire way to overreact and make inefficient and, worse, ineffective policy. A high profile event is good time find out where a shortcoming of a policy or a failure of a policy might reside, but a high profile event is not necessarily what policy should target. Doing so would result in the majority of cases being marginalized and a strategy designed around an unlikely event.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He previously worked for a prison and a jail, and he has a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at