In the wake of the mass shooting of children in Newtown, Connecticut, Wayne LaPierre, Director of the National Rifle Association, claimed that the problem in our society is not the easy access to weapons capable of such bloodshed but rather our culture - specifically, depictions of violence in movies and on television. I think Mr. LaPierre is right in part, but he misses the point. Guns are a part of the larger cultural problem in this country - a culture of violence.
Let's be frank. One percent of the world's population owns one-third of all the guns in the world. Who is this one percent? America's gun owners.
We also have the highest murder rates by far than any other industrialized country. Max Fisher and the Washington Post compiled statistics showing:
Americans are 20 times as likely to be killed by a gun than is someone from another developed country.
The CDC reports that in 2011 16,799 persons were murdered in the U.S.; of these, 11,493 were killed with guns. Nor are children immune from this epidemic of gun murder. According to Janell Ross of the Huffington Post:
Among those murdered by guns [in 2011], there were 565 young people under the age of 18, and 119 children ages 12 or younger -- the latter number nearly equivalent to six Newtown mass shootings. And these figures include only homicides.
Suicides and accidents from firearms account for even more thousands of deaths in the United States.
The death rate from firearms is not evenly spread throughout the United States. The Kaiser Family Foundation has mapped the incidence of deaths from firearms, revealing that firearm-related deaths are several times higher in the "red states" that exercise less control over the sale and carrying of guns. For example, the highest death rate from firearms in 2009 occurred in Louisiana and Wyoming, where the rate was 18.1 per 100,000; Massachusetts was the lowest at 3.1 per 100,000.
Does America have a culture of violence? Yes. This culture may be traced to many sources. Partly to blame is a twisted conception of "honor," not confined to the south but certainly more prevalent there, that demands physical redress for any perceived lack of respect. The custom of dueling once prevailed, and it still has a hold on our imagination - it is memorialized and celebrated in our depictions of western gunfights. For centuries we fought myriad and nearly endless wars - our bloodiest wars - within the borders of the United States: the Indian Wars, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the War of Texas Independence, and the Civil War. Add to these wars we have fought abroad - the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the War in Afghanistan.
In my opinion the greatest historical influence driving the gun culture is the institution of slavery. For 250 years the white people of this country stole the fruits of black people's labor at the point of a gun. Wherever slavery existed, there was a need for hypervigilence. The slightest word - even an insolent look - merited punishment, in order to snuff out any notions of equality or hope for freedom. Even after slavery was abolished a reign of terror was instituted to keep blacks in social and economic servitude. This culture did not simply evaporate with the adoption of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.
A common comment from gun enthusiasts is "An armed society is a polite society." This is a sick concept. It confuses respect with fear. It equates personal merit with physical power. It too is a shadow of slaveholding and the honor culture - the chivalric myths of White Supremacy that are only now slowly dying out.
Video games and popular movies celebrate violence, but they are not the cause of our problems - they are instead merely a symptom of a larger problem. Because of our past experience Americans are burdened with the notion that somehow justice emerges from the barrel of a gun.
Wayne LaPierre and other apologists for the gun lobby contend that guns are not the problem, but rather people are the problem. I think it's obvious that people with guns are the problem. The Constitution protects both violent speech and, to some extent, the possession of guns. But it does not prevent us from changing for the better. We must disenthrall ourselves of our fascination with guns - and take steps to disarm.
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