There is a phrase I’ve seen pop up on several social media sites recently, a sentiment issued in the dying echoes of the DKR shooting and the more recent Sikh temple shooting. The phrase goes something like this: “We need to have a discussion about guns in this country, people.”
Now this is mere extrapolation on my part, but I’ve noticed that the people calling for this apparently heretofore nonexistent discussion are not the types that I would label gun-nuts, so I suspect that what they really mean is, “I think that maybe we should have more restrictions on guns and ammunition than we currently do, and I want people to chime in and validate my opinion, and maybe we can commiserate about how the government is scared of the NRA?”
But it got me to thinking about the issue, and the thing is, I can’t recall ever hearing a discussion on the causes and consequences of the gun culture in this country. Now probably at this point you think I’m delving into hyperbole. “Albert,” you say, “people are talking about gun culture all the time. How can you say you’ve never been party to one of these discussions?”
But here’s the thing: people talk about gun owners all the time. Occasionally we’ll even talk about the guys who I sometimes call gun nuts. (These are the guys who will cheerfully boast that they’re ordering pallets of ammo from off the internet.) And there’s no end of discussion about gun laws. But I submit there’s another layer most people don’t see.
Recently, I’ve seen some people bandying about statistics relating the various areas of the United States by the number of shooting deaths and comparing that with some arbitrary ranking of gun laws in the same states. (I say arbitrary not to call the comparison into doubt, but simply to point out that states don’t just pick a level of gun control on a scale from one to five. Laws are, I am told, more complicated than that.)
Now these statistics tend show that states with stricter gun laws tend to have fewer shooting deaths than those with very lax gun laws. And of course again, the people sharing these numbers say, “No of course correlation doesn’t imply causation. But isn’t this something we should at least talk about?” Right. Again with the talking.
Well, I have some thoughts about those statistics, and I’ve never been afraid to talk.
Only, I’m pretty sure they don’t say what most of the people bandying them about would like to assume they do. Because they’re not quite uniform, see. There are two states on that list, Vermont and Maine, with shockingly lax gun laws and very low rates of gun death.
What’s going on there?
Let’s go back to a phrase I used earlier in the post: “gun culture”. Here’s my problem with the comparison of states gun laws with their per capita shooting death stats: we live in a democracy (or, if you like to be pedantic about it, a representative republic.) Which means that people have a certain amount of say in what laws get passed. More importantly people in individual states have influence in the laws that pass in their state.
Now I don’t have much firsthand knowledge of states in New England and the Northern U.S., but I can extrapolate from the fact that the majority of them have fairly strict gun laws that they are not overrun by second-amendment-quoting, AR-15-owning, “Don’t Tread on Me”-flag-waving, gun *ahem* enthusiasts. If they were, these laws wouldn’t have passed in the first place.
What I do have firsthand knowledge of is my own home state, Florida. Now Florida is interesting, because it ranks smack dab in the middle of that list of gun deaths per capita. It’s also interesting because it’s home to a wide spectrum of political opinion. To the south you see more liberal tones of thought. But the further north you travel —and, perhaps more importantly, the closer to Alabama you get— the more conservative people become. That’s where I live. A stone’s throw from the Alabama border, and just across the bay from a whole city full of military retirees.
The people around here? They like their guns.
In fact, just yesterday I had a conversation with a man who proudly proclaimed that he was against any kind of gun control at all. And when I said, “You really believe that convicted felons should be allowed to own firearms?” his answer was a resounding and confident, “Yes!” This man further went on to quote one of Thomas Jefferson’s dumber lines about how the people should rise up every twenty years and overthrow the government, just for the heck of it apparently. (To be fair, I looked it up, and Jefferson did say this, but that just proves that maybe Jefferson isn’t the guy you should be quoting to back up your political opinions.)
But believe it or not, that wasn’t the most interesting part of the conversation. See, me and this guy got to talking guns. In particular we were talking about self-defense firearms. And somewhere along the line the guy says, “What are you going to do if you need to defend yourself?” I told him I’d made it 26 years without needing to pull a gun in self-defense, and that while it was possible I might one day find myself in a situation where having a gun at my side might be beneficial to my continued existence, I didn’t think it very likely. And he said, “Well, you must not get out much then. I’ve had to pull my weapon in self-defense. Twice.”
That got me to thinking. Because I know a number of men who have never needed a firearm to defend themselves, and then this one guy shows up gung ho for guns, and he’s needed his twice? What gives?
And here I’m going to delve into the area of conjecture. I’m not a psychologist, an anthropologist, nor a economist. But I can read a map. I can look at that list of states where the most shooting deaths occur and realized that they all have something else in common besides the kinds of gun laws they have. They’re all (barring Alaska) states in the south and southwest of the country.
This is what I think is going on: for one reason or another those are the states where you’re most likely to find people like the man I just described. People deeply concerned about the second amendment; people who believe that they will need their guns one day to defend themselves.
And belief is an exceptionally powerful thing. If you believe you’re smarter than everyone else, you’re likely to do better on tests. If you believe you’re ugly and that no one likes you, you’re going to have a hard time making friends. And if you believe that one day you will need to draw your firearm in self-defence…
The problem isn’t with the laws. Lax gun laws did not create the man I spoke with yesterday. Rather, he and people like him, created the laws. You can make the laws as strict as you want, but without changing the men behind them and you will accomplish very little. In contrast, in places like Vermont and Maine, places with lax gun laws but without the gun culture I’m speaking of, you could give free guns to everyone and probably not see much uptick in gun violence.
What’s the solution? I have no freaking clue.
Which is why, I think, people like to fixate on the legal side of the equation. You can change a law fairly easily. But changing a man? That takes some doing. Especially when that man lives among other men who think and believe as he does.
So there. You’ve been clamoring for someone to talk about the gun issue? You got your wish.
But talk is cheap.
Change, on the other hand, may cost you everything.