Guns are a core element of American culture; such cultural elements change only very slowly, over many generations. Any attempt to politically excise guns from American culture will fail.
Guns are not a core element of most other national cultures; citizens of such nations will accept significant or even total government control over private firearms. Programs that reduce numbers of guns in these countries generally will not be effective in America.
More than 65,000 Americans die each year from suicides and homicides, and guns are involved in around 60 percent of these deaths.
Focusing on motives and circumstances associated with suicides and homicides will reduce significantly the rates of such violence, including that involving guns. Focusing on guns alone will not significantly lessen suicides or homicides.
Questions & Answers
What is a “core element of culture”? Why does it take so long to change or excise core cultural elements? How did guns become a core element of American culture? Why can’t we just get rid of guns, or at least most of them, like other countries have?
First, we need to be clear. We’re not talking about surface or sub-groups like pop culture, high culture, rural culture, Southern culture, etc. And we’re not talking about ethnic groups or hyphenated sub-cultures such as “native-American” or “Irish-American” or “African-American or Muslim-American, etc. These layers are closer to the surface of our cultural 'onion' and can be more easily 'peeled back'.
We’re talking about those basic values and understanding that differentiate us, as Americans, from all other peoples.
Q:But we’re a nation of immigrants who brought their cultures with them. Aren't they part of American culture?
Surely they are, and vestiges of immigrant cultures remain, in combination, as part of the American culture. But while immigrants brought various identities with them to America, virtually all had one thing in common: They left their former homes and lives behind and came to America seeking freedom and opportunity. America will always be ‘flavored’ by the different identities of all who have come together in our 'melting pot', but the core of the American identity includes elements that are uniquely American. One of these is private ownership and use of guns.
Q:How did guns become a core element of American culture?
European settlers (immigrants) in America came with guns. They used them to hunt game for food, and for protection from the natives. They used them to fight with the British against the French, then to fight the British for independence. They used them to take control of the land from the Indians, and they used them to capture land from Mexico. They used them to fight each other in an existential civil war, and they used them to "settle the West". And gun-toting Americans have been glorified in history and legend and entertainment even to the present time.
Why are guns not a core, or even significant, cultural element in other countries? Many other advanced nations have virtually eliminated private guns among their citizenry by passing and enforcing anti-gun laws. Why can’t we do the same?
Most other countries are older than the United States. By the time guns were invented there was little need for them and, often or usually, rulers and economics kept guns out of the hands of the common people. Guns were not significant in the development of other nations of immigrants; first settlers generally did not bring guns with them, they displaced native populations mostly without gun violence, they didn’t fight wars for their independence, and they didn’t experience major civil wars. There are few gun-toting heroes in their histories, literature, theater or television.
Q:If other advanced nations have been able to eliminate or sharply curtail private gun ownership, why can’t America do the same?
Shortest answer – guns have never been a core cultural element in other countries. Longer answer – unlike almost all other countries, American freedom and rights come not from the government, but from the people. The rate of gun ownership is much higher in America than it ever was in most other advanced countries. Laws can be passed, but guns won’t be significantly controlled unless and until the people agree. Elimination of personal guns would require core cultural changes and a constitutional amendment, purchase or confiscation of several hundred million legally-owned guns, and effectively disarming criminals and others who possess guns illegally.
The number of people in America killed annually by gunshot now exceeds 40,000. Isn’t this reason enough to eliminate as many guns as possible? Or even embark on cultural change?
Suicides and homicides account for almost all gunshot deaths in America, but not all suicides and homicides are caused by gunshot. Is it better to seek overall reductions in suicides and homicides, or only those associated with guns?
Q:Why not do whatever it takes to just eliminate guns from our culture?
Because it can’t be realized anytime soon, maybe never. Saving lives can’t wait for cultural change.
Elimination of a core cultural element would take years or centuries as each new generation is born into a reality that is slightly altered from that of its parents. Such a change would depend heavily on parent actions: no more toy guns, no more books or other printed materials wherein personal guns have a positive role, no more plays or films or videos wherein personal guns make any significant appearance, and certainly no more first-person-shooter video games or virtual reality. Moreover, much of American history taught to our children would have to be purged of gun wielding figures and heroic references to guns. Until such cultural change progresses to the point that enough Americans no longer feel need for the Second Amendment, it won’t be repealed.
Moreover, elimination of all guns would not eliminate all or even most of the suicides and homicides associated with guns. Deprived of guns, many or most persons determined to commit suicide would simply choose a different means. Similarly, absent guns, many homicides would simply be committed with a different weapon.
If we can’t get rid of guns, what can we do to reduce the annual gun-related bloodshed in this country?
First, understand that the problem is not the 330 million guns in America – only about 0.01 percent are used each year to kill a person. Availability of a gun is sometimes a factor at the height of emotions but, overwhelmingly, it is other factors that cause people to kill themselves or others ... with a gun or something else.
We want simple answers. That’s a big part of why guns are blamed. But reality is more complex. A combination of factors is nearly always present in decisions to commit suicide or homicide, only one of which is choice of weapon. For instance:
Suicide rates are much higher among certain groups of Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists several categories with elevated rates of suicidal Self Directed Violence (SDV) especially those suffering depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and alcohol or substance abuse disorder. Suicide risk is also higher among people who have experienced violence, including child abuse, bullying, or sexual violence.
Homicides can be grouped into categories. Urban violence accounts for at least half of all homicides, and violence among family members or intimate partners accounts for 10-20 percent. Mass shootings account for just a fraction of 1 percent.
Suicides and homicides occur when motive, method and opportunity / circumstance come together to form a tipping point. Suicides and homicides will be prevented whenever we effectively intervene to reduce motives, disrupt opportunities / circumstances or make methods unavailable. The most effective approaches coordinate all three types of interventions.
Q:How do we know such 'coordinated programs' will even work?
First, we need to accept that knee-jerk ban-the-gun approaches don’t work in America. There’s very little credible evidence showing causative links between gun bans and reductions in violent deaths. But there are cases that have demonstrated things that do work. For instance:
Kansas City ran a six-month test in 1995. Police patrols concentrated on local hot spots where homicide rates were roughly twenty times the national average. Officers focused their attention on one behavior, the carrying of illegal firearms. They seized twenty-nine guns – 65 percent more than in the previous six months. Total gun crime fell by 49 percent. The lesson was that it is critically important to focus not just on specific people and places but also on specific activities and behaviors.
Many programs using such a targeting strategy are already functioning, such as New York’s Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) program. Its 2018 Annual Report cites declines in both shooting incidents and shooting homicides.
Q:Are there similar programs to prevent suicides?
CDC identifies available resources. Federal money is available for programs that request it. But suicides are virtually always one-person events, so they don’t make the news. Nor is suicide a topic much discussed at the national political level. It should be.
Q:Don’t many mass shooters have prior histories of mental problems?
Not only mass shootings, but many suicides and murders are committed by people with mental problems. Mental Health rises to national prominence periodically as political leaders make it an issue. Then, typically, mental health slips from prominence, funding is cut and programs are watered down. National leaders should keep the subjects of suicides and mental health before the people to stimulate and fund effective local programs and, here’s the critical part, sustain them over long periods of time. Programs should include specific measurements of effectiveness, and continuing funding should be tied to clear reductions in numbers of suicides.
Q:Can the same programs work to prevent both suicides and homicides?
Not often. Suicides and homicides share many common elements, and they also differ in important ways. While rates of gun suicide are highest among older white men, urban gun violence occurs primarily between disadvantaged young men of color. Mass shooters often target strangers, while domestic offenders kill those closest to them. Urban and domestic suicides and homicides take lives with regularity, while mass murders are rare. To be effective, programs must be tailored to differing circumstances.
Q:Are you saying federal government should just turn it all over to local jurisdictions and not be concerned with gun deaths at all?
Not at all. I’m saying that the obsession with gun control at the federal level should be replaced with an equal determination to reduce the overall rates of homicides and suicides. But not with simplistic new gun bans. Instead, Federal Government should declare a long-term intent to reduce homicides through specific initiatives. Here’s an example of how that might work:
Review all information and data about current urban programs. With inputs from many disciplines, compile a ‘best practices’ manual to guide programs throughout the country.
Establish a center to train involved people in such practices.
Provide funding for local programs, tied to numbers of trained personnel and measured effectiveness in reducing suicides and violence, especially homicide.
Q:Is there no effective role for gun control laws?
Oh yes, there is. What we’ve done to reduce the rate of deaths due to automobile accidents provides a model. At one time, many more people died in automobile accidents than have ever died from gunshot wounds. But we didn’t ban cars. Yet, since the 1950s, auto fatalities have fallen by around 85 percent. It happened incrementally, by making cars and roads safer, with seat belts, airbags, padded dashboards, speed limits, crackdowns on drunk driving, etc. We can adopt such an approach regarding gun-related deaths. For instance:
Work is being done on modern 'personal guns' to use biometric and other safety measures that would prevent a gun's use by anyone not programmed into the gun. Such development should be accelerated, by laws, if necessary.
Gun manufacturers should be required to generate a ballistic record for each firearm manufactured. A national database of these records should be established.
All states could license persons to carry / use guns in public places or off one's own or authorized property. Licensing of individuals could require testing to demonstrate knowledge and skill in gun use and safely. As with vehicles, licenses issued in any state should be recognized as valid in all states (many states already have such reciprocity agreements).
States could require that individuals obtain a permit-to-purchase (PTP) before acquiring a firearm. Fifteen states, the District of Columbia and all U.S. Territories currently have some form of PTP – before individuals can receive a permit, they get fingerprinted, pass a criminal background check, complete a firearms-safety course, or meet some other condition, such as no record of domestic violence.
Two studies by Webster’s Center for Gun Policy at Johns Hopkins show that some PTP laws are associated with lower rates of homicide and suicide. The first study found that, after the repeal of a 2007 Missouri permit-to-purchase law, statewide murder rates spiked 14 percent. In the second study, researchers found a 40 percent reduction in Connecticut’s homicide rate after passage of its PTP law. Furthermore, the latter study found that criminals in Connecticut did not switch to using other weapons to carry out homicide when they failed to obtain a firearm.
At least 17 states and the District of Columbia have some form of ‘Red Flag’ law (also called Emergency Risk Protection Orders – ERPOs) that permits police or family members to petition a court to order temporary removal of firearms from persons who may present a danger to themselves or others. A judge may issue the order based on statements and actions made by the gun owner in question. After a set time, the guns may be returned to the person from whom they were seized.
Q:But what about mass violence? Had they been in effect, would any of these laws have prevented recent mass shootings?
Nobody can say. Mass killings appear to be unpredictable, although investigations reveal indications of how some mass shooters might have been identified and stopped before actually killing people.
"Mass murders" evolved into "mass shootings" in the 1980s. It is very difficult to find current data on non-shooting mass murders. This omission may lead to an inference that we object more to gun-related homicides than we do to those associated with arson, bombs, knives, vehicles, or any of the other ways people kill. Legal guns are used in almost all modern mass murders; arguably legislation they spawned wouldn’t have prevented any of them.
A lot more work is needed to discover cost-effective ways to curtail mass shootings. So while answers are being sought, consider where the most lives might be saved, now:
A mere 5 percent reduction of suicides would save about 2,300 lives per year, half of which would have been gun-related.
A mere 5 percent reduction in urban violence would save 1,000 or more lives per year, 75 percent of which would have been gun-related.
A mere 5 percent reduction in domestic violence would save 200 to 400 lives per year, many of which would have been gun-related.
A 100 percent reduction in mass shootings would save an average of only 100-200 lives per year.