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The issue of gun control is once again in the news, thanks to the mass shooting in Colorado last week. All the putatively-lefty pundits in the main-stream media are trotting out their tired arguments in favor of stricter gun control laws in what ought to be clear to anyone with live brain cells is simply part of the circus (as in “bread and circuses”) that poses as political discourse in the U.S. The problem, is not the easy availability of guns, it’s the increasing numbers of people whose murderous rage has ceased to be metaphorical. That is, the problem is not the supply of guns, but the demand for them.
“In our country,” writes Gail Collins in last Saturday’s New York Times, “the mass shootings come so frequently that most of them go by virtually unnoticed. Did you catch the one last week in Tuscaloosa? Seventeen people at a bar, hit by a gunman with an assault weapon.
“People from most other parts of the industrialized world find the American proliferation of guns shocking,” Collins goes on to observe. She neglects to mention, however, that the differences between the U.S. and the rest of the economically developed world are far more profound than can be captured in the single issue of gun control. Yes, most other countries in the economically developed world appear to have more restrictive gun control laws, but those laws cannot alone explain the discrepancy in levels of gun-related violence here and there. After all, at least some of these countries have more liberal drug laws than we do, yet drug addiction there is still less of a problem than it is here in the U.S.
The real difference, or the distinction that makes a difference, is that the wealth in the other economically developed countries is less polarized. (see James Gilligan, M.D.’s Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic on the relation between wealth inequality and violence). These countries have extensive social welfare systems that in many instances have eliminated poverty and have provided free higher education and free health care. My point is not that these countries tend to have a better handle on just who is mentally ill and what kind of treatment they need. My point is much broader than that.
It’s that these societies are more humane. When you know that no calamity that could possible befall you would cause you to end up destitute on the street, that no illness or educational ambition could bankrupt you or indenture you for the rest of your life and that the reason you don’t have to worry about these things is that your neighbors, your fellow citizens, are deeply committed to the view that no one should have to worry about these things–well, that makes you feel pretty good about humanity, pretty happy to be a part of it.
Norway had a highly publicized mass murder last year, but part of what made it so disturbing to Norwegians was how unprecedented it was. Norwegians, unlike Americans, are not used to mass murders. Life in Norway is pretty good. Life in Scandinavia in general is pretty good. Road rage, for example, is unknown there. I know. I lived there for eight years. Scandinavians take life a pretty leisurely pace and can afford to. They don’t become violent when someone, intentionally or unintentionally, cuts in front of them in a line. They don’t trample one another to death trying to get at a limited supply of deeply-discounted flat screen TVs. No murderous rage seethes just below the surface of society.
I moved to Denmark in 1990 along with my then boyfriend who was what one could call a gun enthusiast. He joined a gun club in Copenhagen and was surprised to learn, from one of the other members, that it was, in fact, possible, despite Denmark’s highly restrictive gun laws, to buy a gun on the black market in Denmark. Yes, he was told, there were a few bars, in what Danes considered the seedier part of Copenhagen, where a gun could be procured after a few discrete enquiries. The thing is, there aren’t many Danes out there making such enquiries.
Danes are pretty happy. Most Europeans, at least Northern Europeans, not to mention Canadians and those in Australia and New Zealand, are pretty happy compared to most Americans, and there are obvious reasons for this. It’s not merely that they don’t live with the fears nearly all Americans live with. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s not the absence of the fears, but the reason for their absence that makes the difference. They have a much more positive view of human nature than we do. They think people are naturally empathetic and sympathetic, that they want to make a positive contribution to the larger social whole, that they are generally kind and decent and ought never to suffer any more that is absolutely unavoidable. It’s a happier thing to be a human being in such a society.
That, if you ask me, is the real reason for the levels of gun violence, and indeed, violence more generally, in American society. The availability of guns doesn’t, after all, explain the levels of violence in the media, in movies and television. We have a taste for violence in the U.S. that is unknown in the rest of the economically developed world. Why? Because we have been raised to view human beings as contemptible, as having to prove they are “worthy” of help before we will give it to them. We have a taste for violence because we hate one another and hate ourselves for being part of such a contemptible species.
Or maybe it’s just that we’re butt stupid. It ought to be obvious to anyone that the real problem with gun violence in the U.S. is the social and economic conditions that have created an apparently inexhaustible demand for guns, a demand that would be met no matter what the laws concerning the sale of guns. There’s no logic behind what passes as political discourse in this country. Perhaps we should have more restrictive gun laws. I’m not opposed to that in principle. That’s not the place to start, though. If we are serious about reducing gun violence, we need to figure out what’s driving masses of people to want guns and then begin working to eradicate that.
M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: email@example.com