I do not understand America’s preoccupation with guns. Maybe it’s because I’m from the UK, where even the police and military do not carry firearms in public, except in the most exceptional of circumstances. In 2013, the number of firearms-related deaths in the US was 10.64 per 100,000 population; in the UK, the same statistic was 0.26. Coincidence? I think not. I’m an economist, I like statistics, and I think this one speaks for itself very powerfully.
Most Americans I have spoken to take one of three positions. Number One is “Sure, it’s a problem, but the overseas media exaggerate it. You have nothing to worry about here, and you only get shot if you do something stupid.” Number Two is “You don’t understand the power that guns give people. It’s important we keep that right, and that the government can’t take it away from us.” Number Three is “I agree, and it scares me.”
On Number One. Sure, ‘something stupid’ might be standing up for someone who is a victim of a crime, or straying from ‘nice’ neighbourhoods. I guess that’s bearable to live with, even though we should be able to stop someone getting beaten up, or feel safe to go where we please. I personally prefer not to feel that my life is in danger when I drive through one part of town to get to another.
But what about the people who are massacred doing things like going to school, or watching a movie, or perhaps just being part of a race or religion that someone else hates? In no other developed country will people who do “stupid” things like this be in as much danger from guns as in America.
On Number Two. Upholding this so-called freedom takes lives. What happens when one freedom is violated by another? When someone’s right to go to school, or when someone’s right to equality regardless of their skin colour, is violated because of someone took liberty of their right to carry a firearm and used it. Ultimately, America will have to ask itself whether it is willing to sacrifice 10 lives every year per 100,000 population, to uphold this right over others. At the moment, it seems it is.
‘Number Two’ individuals see firearms as an essential form of individual defence. In response to the recent shootings at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, most comments on the US Marine Corps’ announcement of four Marine fatalities screamed for servicemen to be armed. The instinct is to shout for more guns – where were the people asking how Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez came to possess the gun that took four lives?
Sure, maybe armed servicemen is not that difficult to stomach – they are under regular scrutiny from the authorities, and have to pass a host of background checks to be a member of the armed forces. But should schoolchildren be armed? Should we place more adults with access to guns in the proximity of children to ‘protect’ them? How do you make this protection system sound, when you won’t allow background checks on individuals buying guns?
In a one-on-one fight with someone of equal or lesser physical power, which would you prefer: neither of you to have a gun, or both of you to have a gun?
Maybe my problem is that I do not understand the appeal of guns. I have never felt enough frustration or anger that I think firing one would be useful, even just for release at a shooting range. Maybe my life has been too easy, but maybe I have been offered more constructive ways to vent frustration. Writing about it, for instance. How many people have I hurt writing this post?
In the past seven weeks I have spent here, I have met only one person who takes the Number Three position, and heard only one other speak about it publicly – and that was the President. When will the rest of the US wake up?