Why is the United States so much more violent than Canada? Canadians receive, even welcome, violence-based American mass culture pumped out 24/7 by the mammoth entertainment industry. Yet our society remains dramatically less violent than theirs. Take guns.
The United States has by far the highest gun homicide rate in the industrialized world. In a study of 23 of these nations, the American rate was nearly 20 times higher than the others. Some 100,000 shootings take place in the U.S. every year, 30,000 of them fatal. In Canada, with about one-tenth the U.S. population, 190 people were killed by guns in 2006. More than a million Americans have died from gun violence, whether by murders, suicides or accidents, since Martin Luther King was gunned down in 1968.
In 2010, there were at least 15 shootings at American schools from elementary to college level. Such incidents rarely make much news any longer unless the death and injury toll is huge, as at Columbine and Virginia Tech.
Violence by right-wing groups against alleged liberals is also more common than generally known. Since 2008, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has documented more than two dozen killings by, or arrests of, right-wing extremists who intended to do serious political violence to their political enemies. Before Jared Loughner tried to murder her, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been threatened after voting for Barack Obama's health-care reform bill (as had other Democrats), shots had been fired through her office window and police had removed a protester at one of her meetings when his pistol fell from its holster.
What lessons have our neighbours to the south learned from this horror show? For many, it's a waste of time to ask the question. The answer is obvious: Many more Americans need to be armed, the sooner the better.
Enter the formidable gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, with its four-million-or-so members and $307-million annual budget. (The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the largest American umbrella group of organizations dedicated to gun control has about 25,000 members.) Here's the paradox you need to grasp about the NRA: Its ferocious opposition to any form of gun control is motivated precisely by the American orgy of gun violence. Because of this violence, it will maintain its relentless pressure for government to eliminate (except for children) literally every possible constraint on owning and carrying guns -- and the deadlier the gun, better.
What the NRA wants, the NRA usually gets
Now here's what every American politician knows in her gut: You cross the NRA at your peril. It is among the two or three most powerful, ruthless and single-minded lobby groups in the United States. It instills fear, cowardice and capitulation in politicians and law-makers at every level.
The NRA's great weapon is its sophisticated political machine, like a SWAT team ready to be mobilized against an enemy at a moment's notice. But it has more going for it than this. It has as well two critical philosophical advantages. One is well-known. It's the Second Amendment to the American Constitution, a part of the U.S. Bill of Rights: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed."
In most of the normal world, that statement is interpreted to mean that the government, representing the people, is entitled to establish an armed force. But for many Americans, led by the NRA, it means something far more. It means that every individual has the right to be personally armed. This issue has bitterly divided Americans for two centuries, but the life-and-death conflict is finally over, with the NRA emerging as the unequivocal winner. Twice in the past two years the U.S. Supreme Court, now as politicized and brazenly partisan as any time in its often shameful history, has ruled that the Second Amendment does indeed guarantee any individual the right to have a gun. And most politicians, either from conviction (all Republicans) or fear (many Democrats) legislate accordingly.
From this interpretation of the Second Amendment it is no great stretch to argue, as gun advocates do, that an American's very freedom is reflected in her right to carry a gun. You must be free to carry a gun and if you carry a gun it demonstrates that you are free. And if a simple gun, then surely a more deadly assault weapon as well. To the NRA and its many followers, even the most modest commonsense limits constitute the slippery slope to tyranny.
These aren't subtle notions disguised in ambiguous rhetoric. They're entirely explicit and repeated at the drop of a Glock, as Erich Pratt of Gun Owners of America, an NRA rival, makes clear. "Why should the government be in the business of telling us how we can defend ourselves? These politicians need to remember that these rights aren't given to us by them. They come from God. They are God-given rights. They can't be infringed or limited in any way. ... Having lots of ammunition [for example] is critical, especially if the police are not around and you need to be able to defend yourself against mobs."
Note the last sentence. Here is the second great advantage of those who argue against any form of gun control. Not only do God and the Bill of Rights guarantee Americans' right to be armed. There is yet another key proposition that the Tucson massacre illuminated. Based on intuition backed up by data comparing violence in countries with more or fewer guns, I'd guess most Canadians would conclude that the fewer the guns, the safer a society. This, it appears, is simply not true. In fact, it's the opposite of the truth.
The reason as many Americans as possible must be armed is precisely that the U.S. is such a violent society. As Alan Korwin, an Arizona author of a gun owners' guide told CBC's As It Happens, the real tragedy at Tucson was that there were no others in the crowd with guns who could have stopped Jared Loughner. "Guns," Mr. Korwin asserted, "save lives."
The irresistible logic, if you accept this curious premise, is of a completely armed America. "Armed citizens," Mr. Korwin insisted, "are a deterrent to crime." Gun Owners of America's Mr. Pratt makes exactly the same point. The absence of someone in the crowd who would have shot it out with Mr. Loughner "explains why an armed people is important if we're going to control the criminal element." Logically, therefore, every American who's not of the "criminal element" or mentally unstable should be armed with whatever kind of weapon she chooses. This logic is widely accepted in the United States.
For what it's worth, a 2009 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine estimated that people in possession of a gun during an assault were 4.5 times more likely to be shot than someone there without a gun. But let's get real. This finding is worth precisely nothing to those who know that guns deter violence, and as we'll see next week, they've had enormous success towards their goal of ultimately arming all Americans, and never mind criminal background or mental stability.
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