American Gun Culture


It’s as American as apple pie, and it’s rotten to the core.

I’m talking about the pervasive gun culture of the United States and its insidious influence on the American psyche. Many would agree that US gun culture stands indicted in the wake of this latest massacre at Virginia Tech. But to leave it at that is the soft option and will change nothing. Far better to try to understand the origins of the ideology that underpins US gun culture.

At the core of this ideology lies an innate fear of ‘tyranny’ that goes back, at least, to George III his imposition of oppressive taxes and his flagrant disregard for ancient English civil liberties and the root causes of American War of Independence. The proliferation of private gun ownership in the USA is testament to the belief that an armed citizenry stands as a bulwark against any future usurpation, whether it’s in the form of a Hanoverian king or a hegemonic federal government. Paranoia? Perhaps. But if you consider that approximately 40 per cent of households in the USA possess at least one firearm and that some of bloodiest losses incurred by armies have been in house-to-house fighting, that’s a chilling statistic for any would-be usurper, whatever their origin.

Of course, that’s cold comfort to the hundreds of relatives grieving over Virginia Tech and all the other massacres.

The key legal bulwark of American gun culture is the Second Amendment to the American Constitution, which was drafted in 1789 and is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. It simply reads:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Already, there’s been the predictable response that the latest massacre could have been averted or reduced had the staff and students of Virginia Tech been allowed to carry handguns on campus. It’s an absurd notion even to consider equipping kids with these lethal weapons, and even more ludicrous to expect them to react like trained professionals when gunfire erupts. Just consider these sobering statistics: of the 55 law enforcement officers murdered during 2005 in the USA, 21 had fired or attempted to fire their weapons. What chance do you think a bunch of untrained college kids and professors might have?

Then there’s the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association the organisation that gives intransigence a bad name. Masters of manipulation, their clichéd mantra is a mind-numbing argument that people are the problem, not the weapons they use. And like most zealots, they’ll fasten onto any dubious claim that reinforces their argument.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

An example of this hysterical propaganda is the disingenuous rubbish about Australia’s gun law reforms in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. According to many of these Second Amendment adherents, Australia’s violent crime rate is now double that of the USA’s. Really?

The statistics tell a different story. The Australian Institute of Criminology recently announced that the homicide rate for 2004-05 was 249 deaths, the lowest in Australia since the national monitoring program began in 1989. That’s 1.3 deaths per 100,000 people, which is still too many, but compare it with FBI statistics for 2005, which reveal a rate of 5.6 per 100,000 people in the USA. And if you think that’s bad, the rate there was 9.8 in 1991.

Armed with these statistics, I’ve told many an American that they are out of line for lecturing us on the alleged failure of our gun control policies. But, I expect many of them would be equally put out at Australians sticking their nose in what is essentially a domestic policy. But what really disturbs me is the Schadenfreude accompanying many criticisms of American gun culture.

It’s too easy to think of your average American gun owner as some backward, tobacco-chewing hillbilly they’re just as likely to be an accountant, doctor or lawyer. And surprisingly, some of the biggest supporters of the Second Amendment are police officers.

That said, however, polls suggest that around 63 per cent of Americans favour tighter gun laws. If correct, it’s very much a case of the silent majority. The antagonists, especially the formidable NRA, are superbly organised and well-financed. Put bluntly, the thought of incurring their wrath scares the bejesus out of any political candidate, be they Republican or Democrat.

Even if the majority of Americans want tighter gun laws, it’s doubtful whether reforms in the USA could ever match what was achieved in Australia the link over there between private gun ownership and the Bill of Rights and patriotism is just too strong.

I’m an ardent supporter of gun control in Australia, but I don’t necessarily believe my attitude applies everywhere. South Africa comes to mind. It’s a strong contender for murder capital of the world, with nearly 50 homicides per 100,000 persons. Underpaid and understaffed, the South African police are seen as little help. Consequently, many South Africans now carry concealed weapons for defence.

Think that’s a little over the top? After a recent visit to the country, would I consider buying a firearm if I were living there? Absolutely.

In the end, what seems bizarre in one part of the world may well be the norm elsewhere. Our values and beliefs are determined for the most part by the society we live in they’re not necessarily superior. We’re forever lecturing the Americans not to impose their own beliefs on the rest of the world maybe we should heed our own advice.

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