Friday, June 08, 2007

# Posted 4:16 PM by Patrick Porter  

GUN CRIMES AND CULTURE WARS: After the Virginia Tech shooting, I drafted a post about how some commentators often generalise about societies from single incidents, like gun crimes and other tragedies.

At that time, it seemed that debates on the web about the murders and what they 'meant' quickly got overheated. So after a few months, it seems now might be a better time to post them:

On gun laws themselves, I have a boringly moderate attitude, don't know a lot about the issue, and suspect that tighter laws might be needed but that the linkage between gun availability and gun crime is not always obvious (even Michael Moore worked that one out!).

We probably should restrict certain kinds of firearms more strictly, but also be aware that this will probably not be enough to forestall the most determined killers.
As a point of principle and practical policy, it should not be extremely easy to purchase a firearm without proper background checks.

What interests me more, though, is how various unreflective folk rush to announce that the gun massacre yesterday, or similarly terrible events, reveal how dysfunctional American society is generally.

So rightists argued after Columbine that it indicates a fundamental moral poison at work; leftists, that poverty, rampant gun culture or even foreign wars are to blame.

The focus on America itself seems misplaced - the idea that this is mostly reflective of peculiarities in American society.

Gun crime is not a problem unique to the US, even though gun crimes happen more often there. Britain, Australia and Russia (off the top of my head) have had severe gun massacres in the last decade.

It seems that there are various pundits who when it comes to cultures they just don't like (such as powerful capitalist liberal democracies) are keen to generalise about an entire society on the basis of a few incidents. Yet they are not so keen to do so when it comes to other societies.

Some years ago in France, in a heat wave, its government and health service responded so inefficiently that thousands of people died. Some people I knew were quick to infer that America was a sick society as a result of Katrina. But I don't remember the same folk claiming that France's response to the heatwave indicated a fundamentally unviable, pathologically unstable, flawed experiment of a nation.

Australia was also in the frame after the Cronulla riots. Unlike France with its urban riots, this violence was not replicated all over the nation. It was pretty much an isolated incident, indeed a bad one, but isolated. But Australia's rabid racist culture, or its racist government, was sometimes blamed in the Oz progressive press.

Meanwhile, these racist Australians elect a man with Lebanese ancestry as state Premier, a Chinese immigrant as a city mayor, and a number of second generation Vietnamese-Australians to the parliament. We have one of the highest rates of inter-ethnic intermarriage in the world. Opinion polls consistently indicate that relative to most other countries, Australians hold racist opinions far less frequently. We don't have a long-term, institutionalised racist organisation that regularly achieves an alarming share of the vote. And many thousands of people every year want to come and live in this notoriously racist hotbed.

Even talking about the problem of America being a 'violent' society is simplistic. It does have higher incidents of lethal crime, but far less of a culture of casual violence that one sees amongst some unarmed populations. There may even be a link between these things - an armed society is a polite society...most of the time.

But must a single gun crime indicate a malaise in the soul of the republic, a pathological disorder throughout its culture? Can we even talk about America being a distinctively violent society? The most violent nation in the first world, according to a UN study, is in fact Scotland.

The point is, there is a tendency to cloak debates about violence in a wider discussion about the viability and legitimacy of certain western societies.

I guess it comes partly from the urge to assimilate single incidents rapidly into whatever political outlook suits us.
(15) opinions -- Add your opinion

Well done.
I agree with the last sentence, and that sentence means it is difficult, maybe impossible, to have a discussion comparing the intangible advantages/disadvantages of different countries/cultures.

People simply have favorites. Western liberals try hard to make excuses for France, exaggerating their virtues and ignoring their vices, while holding the U.S. or Israel to an unreasonable standard, holding an equally simplistic view, but in the other extreme. American Conservatives tend to do the same, but in the opposite direction.
I'm not sure how, admittedly not knowing a lot about the issue, you none the less manage to be sure that certain kinds of firearms should be more restricted; Could it be that you don't take the possiblity that firearms laws could be too restrictive seriously? Or perhaps you're simply unaware of just how restrictive the laws already are...

In any event, I suspect that a profession of ignorance should, generally, not be closely followed by an expression of certainty about the subject you're ignorant about.

I get a little bored with attempts at aggressive cross-examination on blogging. And I suspect I'm not alone.

And I didn't say I knew nothing - I said I didn't know a lot. I know enough to have a balanced, judicious, beautifully expressed view.
Well, since you didn't actually express, beautifully or otherwise, which guns you thought should be more strictly regulated, I don't see how anyone is to evaluate your claim that your position is ballanced and judicious.

Semi-automatic pistols might be a good start.

You seem to hint that you have strong alternative views on restricting the availability of guns.

So lets hear them. But your answer should include at least one witticism, lest we both become boringly intense.
I was shocked that one incident in Tasmania could be the excuse for a massive change in Australian gun laws.

I have read that the Australian Olympic team has to leave the country to train.
Speaking of higher rates of casual violence in societies with lower rates of criminal gun violence, it's my impression that this is the case with regards to sports violence in Europe. The stories one hears of soccer hooliganism in Europe are astonishing to even the most hardened veteran of the roughest American sports crowds (Oakland Raiders, anything in Philly, Northeast baseball crowds, etc.) The recent Throwdown at MoTown involving Ron Artest entering the crowd caused huge outrage on ESPN, but sounds like peanuts from the stories I hear about outright riots at soccer matches in Europe. All in societies that from what I understand have lower murder rates than the US. I don't say this to judge any country as "better" or "worse"; I'm just curious if there's any really rigorous research on this topic, whether it's just that all societies find different ways of venting steam, that an armed society does lead to greater caution with regards to casual violence, etc.
No discussion of gun crimes in America is complete without a reference to the crimes not reported because honest citizens pulled their guns and frightened the criminals away. If gun control laws reduced crime Washington D.C. would be the safest city in the world.
You do understand that basically all handguns sold today are "semi-automatic", in effect, if not in name? Even revolvers are "semi-automatic" in that you pull the trigger once and a bullet is fired.

Ironically, handguns make poor weapons for a massacre, although they are well suited for street violence, as they can be concealed. If a massacre is what you want, shotguns are probably your most effective weapon for short ranges mayhem, with rifles being more appropriate for sniping.

Patrick, the liberal impulse is that guns are bad and should be restricted. I fully understand that impulse. Its like the conservative impulse that increasing penalties for offenses will reduce crimes. Sometimes, we have to resist our impulses, however, and look at hard data, which can frequently produce results that differ from our own common sense.

Most gun control laws seem to have little or no impact on gun violence. Similarly, laws making guns more available or easier to carry concealed, have almost no impact. Partisans on both sides hate this, but there it is.

I agree that the relationship between gun crime and gun laws is much more tenuous than often asserted.

But the law shouldn't make it even easier for the likes of the chap at Virginia Tech to obtain them. Is there really no relationship at all between the crime and ability to get these weapons?

I would be interested to read any link to the data you mentioned.

But the main point of my post was to resist the suggestion that single massacres prove the endemic violence and pathology of American society.

Its the urge to generalise and condemn a nation because of single moments that I am interested in.
"Is there really no relationship at all between the crime and ability to get these weapons?"

Well, yeah, but it's rendered rather complex by two points:

1. Guns in the hands of bad people are a force for evil, but guns in the hands of good people deter it.


2. Efforts to discourage gun ownership always disarm good people first.

This has been known in criminological circles for literally centuries. And this is why, when you see the latest study on the desirablity of gun control, you will find it published in a medical journal, or perhaps a law journal issue specially funded by the Joyce Foundation, not a journal of criminology.

I trust you don't get your medical advice from criminologists?
Some people I knew were quick to infer that America was a sick society as a result of Katrina.

I don't know anyone who did. They just put the blame on a president who took an effective FEMA and ruined it with political appointments.
Hi Randy,

"I don't know anyone who did. They just put the blame on a president who took an effective FEMA and ruined it with political appointments."

anecdotally, there was quite a lot of chatter in Europe and down under and on the BBC website comments page about how it reflected poorly on US society generally. Trust me, there are a lot of folk out there keen to infer the most appalling insights about America from single events.
WRT Virginia Tech, it seems gun control worked about as well as could have been expected.
Some reports were that as many as 20,000 people, counting students, staff, instructors, pizza delivery drivers, were on campus. Only one of the 20,000 was armed. I don't see any chance of better compliance than 19,999 out of 20,000, realistically.
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