Cameron Conaway goes beyond the clichés to discover why we gun each other down.
“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” And with that the speaker gives a smirk and the burning conversation is squashed like a cigarette under the shoe. Most recently Jesse Ventura ranted on Piers Morgan: “I have a gun safe at home and I’ve never come home and heard those guns going off on their own.” Then he gave the pro wrestling glare and delivered the finale: “People kill people.” Boom! He dropped the powerbomb as though it was an entirely unique move. As though it solved problems.
Why must the debate be framed around what cannot be debated? Why must our discussions veer towards kitschy one-liners? Why must we only talk about our excessive rate of murdering each other with guns (eight times the rate of countries economically and politically similar) when sparked by the absolute rarity of a lone gunman going berserk?
Do we need to evaluate our gun control laws? Probably. But thinking law alone will fix the problem is like blowing seeds off a dandelion and thinking we’ve killed the weed. In actuality, we’ve only enabled the seeds to spread while completely ignoring the root.
So what are the roots of our firearm violence and how can we get the footing needed to pull them out? I asked criminologist Dr. Edward Day, Director of the Earl Babbie Research Center at Chapman University, this exact question. Here’s what he had to say:
“Although most people don’t seem to be aware of it, the U.S. doesn’t have a particularly high crime rate compared to other western industrial nations. We’re not inherently more violent and we don’t steal from each other more. We do, though, have high rates of armed robbery and very high rates of homicide. That is, we’re unusually high on those crimes that use guns. So to say that our gun policies have no effect on crime is silly. On the other hand, putting the blame on guns is equally silly. Violent crime has been dropping like a rock in this country since the early 1990s. It’s down over 50%. It’s at historical lows. There aren’t fewer guns. Having a lot of guns around helps explain the distribution of certain types of crime, but when you’re trying to explain the amount of violence, you have to look for root causes somewhere else. It would be great if we could look at just one factor like guns and solve the problem, but the world, sadly, isn’t that simple.
“So what are the causes? There are almost as many as there are crimes. Yes, there are psychopaths and psychotics that get headlines and cause media pundits of all stripes to get all foamy at the mouth, but there really aren’t that many of those and they don’t account for most of the violence. If you put all your thought and energy into going after those people, you’re ignoring the everyday violence that costs many times more lives. The jilted husband who murders his wife and kids – he’s an asshole, not crazy. He just came to a stupid conclusion that this is a way to protect his honor. The gang member who shoots rivals over drug dealing turf – he’s not crazy, he’s making a cold but rational business decision in a market where you can’t go to the courts to enforce a contract.
“And those scenarios point to the two areas where you have to look. For the individual who is making the choice – where the heck did he learn that this is okay? It’s not. So you look for how those messages get out there. What’s taught in the home, what’s taught in media, what’s taught in the peer group. Who is saying that violence is okay, that it solves a problem? You need to target those messages. And you need to look at policies that actually make violence a rational choice. Most of the violence associated with drugs, for example, isn’t from people who are high. It’s from people who are dealing. Heck, we spent the equivalent of billions in our decade-long experiment with Prohibition and should have learned this lesson then. If we legalize some drugs, we’ll have more health problems, family and work issues, and more dangerous highways – are we willing to trade that for less murder? When we want to get serious about violence, those are the kinds of questions we’ll have to ask.”
We often frame this issue as though it’s black or white, conservative or liberal. We talk of it in the form of a debate whereby one person can gain public approval and appear correct simply by spouting off a witty one-liner. But Dr. Day’s insights show the true complexity of this issue: there are almost as many causes as there are crimes.
We need more informed voices to share their ideas on this issue. What steps, if any, do you feel we should take?
—Photo zion fiction/Flickr