American Exceptionalism

The AR 15 - weapon of choice in mass shootings

“American Exceptionalism” has meant different things at different times. Usually, however, the meanings ascribed to that phrase have been positive. Over at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, however, “El Jefe” has described a far less rosy aspect of our exceptionalism.

As a country, the US is 4.4% of the world’s population, yet we own 42% of the world’s guns.  Let that sink in.  Our homicide rate in the US is over 300% that of the average of the rest of the OECD.

As he also points out, there are many ways in which the population of the U.S. is not exceptional.

  1. Do we have mental health problems?  Of course, but so does every other country.
  2. Do we sell violent video games?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  3. Do we have violent television shows and movies?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  4. Do we have a breakdown in the family unit?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  5. How about churches?  Are our churches shrinking?  Yes, but they are doing the same in other countries.

What we have that other countries don’t have–or at least, don’t have as much of–is guns. Lots and lots of guns.

After the Las Vegas mass shooting, Americans engaged in what has now become a ritual of hand-wringing and mutual recriminations. Critics of our lax gun regulations pointed out that large majorities of Americans (including a majority of NRA members) want to tighten those restrictions; defenders of the armament status-quo insisted that widespread gun ownership equals “freedom.”

Although most of the commentary rehashed arguments we hear after every mass shooting–and we have a lot of mass shootings–I did learn something new, and it was both terrifying and encouraging. Half of the 265 million guns in the U.S. are owned by 3% of the population–and only 22% of us own any firearms.

It’s encouraging to know that my non-armed household is in the majority; the news–and the high number of gun deaths– sometimes make it seem as if every American old enough to lift a gun owns one.

What’s terrifying is the likelihood that  (with the possible exception of people who may be collecting historic muskets and powder-horns) the 3% who possess vast arsenals are scary dudes.

We don’t know nearly enough about gun owners or gun violence, because Congress refuses to allow the CDC or other agencies to fund research on the subject. But USA Today recently reported on a privately-financed survey of gun ownership.

Researchers found that the top reason people owned guns was for protection from other people, even though the rate of violent crime has dropped significantly the past two decades, said Deborah Azrael, director of research at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and one of the study’s authors.

Azrael said the study tried to update numbers and trends that hadn’t been reviewed in two decades. Separate reports on background checks and gun storage, based on the same survey, are scheduled to be released later this year.

“In a country where 35,000 people a year die by firearms, we haven’t been able to come out with a survey on gun violence for 20 years,” she said. “That’s a real failure of public health and public policy.”

The study also found that gun owners tend to be white, male, conservative, and residents of rural areas. Presumably–hopefully–that means that most of them are hunters, not crazed militia-men. On the other hand, a lot of America’s guns are handguns: the study found 111 million handguns nationwide, a 71% increase from the 65 million handguns in 1994.

So long as we have Trump in the White House and a Congress wholly-owned by the NRA and the gun manufacturers, we are unlikely to impose the sorts of reasonable restrictions that other countries have found effective, and we’re equally unlikely to get the kind of research we need.

I’d really like to know more about that 3%…

 

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on October 16, 2017]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..

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