Guns don’t kill people. Americans kill people.

Time to target the real cause of America’s non-criminal gun violence problem: Americans

Gun family

The perennial scene of a US school shooting brings a timely reminder of American exceptionalism. Typically, this is the time when both sides of the gun control debate rehearse their equally absurd statistics defending their position. So why should I be left out!

There are some unfortunate issues with the gun control lobby. The first is that they often roll out data which talks about total gun deaths and its correlation with gun ownership. The problem with this is, that total gun deaths includes suicides – and in fact, the vast majority of gun deaths are suicides. Arguably, this is also a problem but the gun control debate clearly is not one about regulating how people choose their own way to die. Secondly, and unhelpfully for domestic discourse, many also bring up comparisons with abroad – something which will surely cause more provocation than it solves given the NRA lobby’s notorious rejection of taking signals from foreigners. Two examples of data which commonly does the rounds are below:

But let us look at this in a bit more detail nonetheless, because the comparison with other countries is actually more nuanced than it seems. The US of course has by far the OECD’s highest gun-ownership per capita – but it is not way off the scale. At about 89 guns per 100 people, this is “only” about twice as much as some other perfectly peaceful countries such as Switzerland and Finland, which both have over 40 per 100 people:

Guns per capita

There are all huge numbers compared to countries such as the UK. But the US also has far higher than twice the number of gun deaths and, as per this astute chart from the New York Times, has vastly higher numbers of mass shootings in particular:

NY Times gun mass shootings

Even stripping aside some of the obvious issues with this comparison, such as the facts that gun ownership has actually been much more mature in the US than several other of these countries (the chart looks at mass shootings since 1966) and that gun ownership in some countries is a function of national service (with commensurate training), this tells us something quite important: it is it not actually gun ownership that leads to lots of deaths, it is specifically gun-owning Americans.

This leads to a broader point about national character, of which I have written before in talking about the uniquely brash and ruthless personality of the Anglosphere. The fact is, gun control is not so much a universal human issue so much as one linked specifically to the perfect storm of mass gun ownership and American culture which currently exists. Intuitively, what would apply to the US, UK and Australia may not be true of Switzerland, Germany and Austria, where social discipline is that much stronger. I would be much more sanguine about the need for restricting guns in Japan, for instance, than I would in China, simply based on the type of people there.

This is not to say that other countries do not have problems – Switzerland has certainly not been immune to mass shootings. And it would be churlish to deny the obvious basic rational linkage between possessing guns and using them. But there is clearly something deeper about the American psyche that makes gun control a more poignant issue there than elsewhere.

For the record, I am in favour of gun control. I believe that since guns are actually designed for the purpose of inflicting damage – unlike cars or any other tools that cause harm as a side effect – society through its government ought to minimize its presence. There can be some leeway for practical or recreational use of course, but these should be restricted in both type and regulation. If a farmer needs a gun just as he needs a car, he should get a license for one.

I acknowledge that restricting legal gun ownership will not impact the larger issue of gun violence in the US. In fact it would be marginal. However, there is no evidence that legal gun ownership helps in preventing crime either; and the reality is that the few instances of legal gun-related disaster such as almost every school shooting, are much more high profile and in their way, rather more tragic than mere gang shootings in inner cities. They affect middle class suburbia and are preventable. This alone justifies action by the government.

But let us not assume that taking guns away from Americans is descriptive of the human condition; it is not. Instead it is descriptive of the American condition. “Guns don’t kill people.” Well, people don’t kill people, either. It is Americans that kill people. Time, therefore, to restrict Americans from owning guns …