Here’s an interesting statistic: The second-highest rate of gun ownership in the world is in Yemen, a largely tribal, extremely poor country. The highest is in the United States, where there are almost as many guns as people: around 300 million guns for 311 million human beings.
In the past 25 years, the proportion of Americans who own guns has fallen from about one in three to only one in five. However, the U.S. is a rich country, and the average American gun owner has four or five firearms — which he or she is utterly determined to keep, no matter what happens.
What has just happened in Sandy Hook, Conn., was the seventh massacre this year in which four or more people were killed by a lone gunman. The fact that this time 20 of the victims were little girls and boys has caused a wave of revulsion in the United States, but it is not likely to lead to new laws on gun controls. It’s not even clear that new laws would help.
Half the firearms in the entire world are in the U.S. The rate of murders by gunfire in the United States is almost 20 times higher than the average rate in 22 other populous, high-income countries with similar rates of other crimes. There is clearly a connection between these two facts, but it is not necessarily simple cause and effect.
For instance: The American rate for murders of all kinds — shooting, strangling, stabbing, poisoning, pushing people under buses, etc. — is seven times higher than it is in those other 22 rich countries. It can’t just be guns.
Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature is about the long-term decline in violence of every kind in the world. But, as he notes, murder rates have not fallen in the United States in the past century. (Most people don’t believe that violence is in decline anywhere, let alone almost everywhere. That’s why he wrote the book.) He suggests an explanation for the American exception.
In medieval Europe, where everybody from warlords to peasants was on his own when it came to defending property, rights, and “honor,” the murder rates were astronomically high: 110 people per 100,000 in 14th-century Oxford, for example. It was at least as high in colonial New England in the early 17th century.
By the mid-20th century, the murder rate in England had fallen more than a hundredfold. In London, it was less than one person per 100,000 per year, about the same as in most Western European countries. The U.S. murder rate is still around seven people per 100,000 per year. Why?
Pinker quotes historian Pieter Spierenburg’s provocative suggestion that “democracy came too early” to America. In European countries, the population was gradually disarmed by the centralized states as they put an end to feudal anarchy. Only much later, after people had already learned to trust the law to defend their property and their safety, did democracy arrive there.
The same thing happened in most other parts of the world, although in many cases it was the colonial power that disarmed the people and instituted the rule of law. But in the U.S., where the democratic revolution came over two centuries ago, the people took over the state before they had been disarmed. They kept their weapons — and their old attitudes.
Indeed, in large parts of the United States, particularly the Southeast and Southwest, it is still accepted that an individual may choose to defend his rights and interests by violence rather than seeking justice through the law. The homicide rate in New England is less than three people per 100,000 per year; in Louisiana it is more than 14.
None of this explains the specific phenomenon of gun massacres by deranged individuals, who are presumably present at the same rate in every country. It’s just that in the U.S., it’s easier for such people to get access to rapid-fire weapons.
But only one in 300 murders in the U.S. happens in that kind of massacre. Most are simply due to quarrels between individuals, often in the same family. Private acts of violence to obtain “justice,” with or without guns, are deeply entrenched in American culture, and the murder rate would stay extraordinarily high even if there were no guns.
The presence of guns everywhere sends the murder rate even higher. But since the popular attitudes toward violence have not changed, that is not going to change either.
Independent journalist Gwynne Dyer’s work is published in 45 countries.