America As A Gun Culture

Senator Joseph Tydings of Maryland, appealing in the summer of 1968 for an effective gun-control law, lamented: “It is just tragic that in all of Western civilization the United States is the one country with an insane gun policy.” In one respect this was an understatement: Western or otherwise, the United States is the only modern industrial urban nation that persists in maintaining a gun culture. It is the only industrial nation in which the possession of rifles, shotguns, and handguns is lawfully prevalent among large numbers of its population. It is the only such nation that has been impelled in recent years to agonize at length about its own disposition toward violence and to set up a commission to examine it, the only nation so attached to the supposed “right” to bear arms that its laws abet assassins, professional criminals, berserk murderers, and political terrorists at the expense of the orderly population—and yet it remains, and is apparently determined to remain, the most passive of all the major countries in the matter of gun control. Many otherwise intelligent Americans cling with pathetic stubbornness to the notion that the people’s right to bear arms is the greatest protection of their individual rights and a firm safeguard of democracy—without being in the slightest perturbed by the fact that no other democracy in the world observes any such “right” and that in some democracies in which citizens’ rights are rather better protected than in ours, such as England and the Scandinavian countries, our arms control policies would be considered laughable.

Laughable, however, they are not, when one begins to contemplate the costs. Since strict gun controls clearly could not entirely prevent homicides, suicides, armed robberies, or gun accidents, there is no simple way of estimating the direct human cost, much less the important indirect political costs, of having lax gun laws. But a somewhat incomplete total of firearms fatalities in the United States as of 1964 shows that in the twentieth century alone we have suffered more than 740,000 deaths from firearms, embracing over 265,000 homicides, over 330,000 suicides, and over 139,000 gun accidents. This figure is considerably higher than all the battle deaths (that is, deaths sustained under arms but excluding those from disease) suffered by American forces in all the wars in our history. It can, of course, be argued that such fatalities have been brought about less by the prevalence of guns than by some intangible factor, such as the wildness and carelessness of the American national temperament, or by particular social problems, such as the intensity of our ethnic and racial mixture. But such arguments cut both ways, since it can be held that a nation with such a temperament or such social problems needs stricter, not looser, srun controls.

 

One can only make a rough guess at the price Americans pay for their inability to arrive at satisfactory controls for guns. But it can be suggested in this way: there are several American cities that annually have more gun murders than all of England and Wales. In Britain, where no one may carry a firearm at night, where anyone who wants a long gun for hunting must get a certificate from the local police chief before he can buy it, and where gun dealers must verify a buyer’s certificate, register all transactions in guns and ammunition, and take the serial number of each weapon and report it to the police, there are annually about .05 gun homicides per 100,000 population. In the United States there are 2.7. What this means in actual casualties may be suggested by the figures for 1963, when there were 5,126 gun murders in the United States, twenty-four in England and Wales, and three in Scotland. This country shows up about as badly in comparative gun accidents and, to a lesser degree, in suicides. There is not a single major country in the world that approaches our record in this respect.

Americans nowadays complain bitterly about the rising rate of violent crime. The gun is, of course, a major accessory of serious premeditated crime. Appealing for stronger gun controls in 1968, President Johnson pointed out that in the previous year there had been committed, with the use of guns, 7,700 murders, 55,000 aggravated assaults, and more than 71,000 robberies. Plainly, stronger gun controls could not end crime, but they would greatly enhance enforcement of the law (as New York’s Sullivan Law does) and would reduce fatalities. Out of every one hundred assaults with guns, twenty-one led to death, as compared with only three out of every one hundred assaults committed by other means. In five states with relatively strong gun laws the total homicide rate per 100,000 population—that is, homicides from all causes—runs between 2.4 and 4.8. In the five states with the weakest gun laws this rate varies from 6.1 to 10.6.