“Too Many Guns and Too Many Gun Laws” by Ron Unz
Unpublished, September 1999
The reaction to last week’s shooting massacre in Hawaii—among the worst in American history—indicates that our national gun control debate is driven less by reasoned analysis and more by political demagoguery. Gun control supporters who regularly urge tougher laws after each such shooting were forced into a quandary: Hawaii already has America’s strictest gun laws and being surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean, is as good a test case for the effectiveness of gun control as could be imagined. Yet the massacre still occurred.
The truth is that America’s dreadful rate of violent crime and murder—highest in the developed world—may serve as a source of horror to foreign observers but is a source of inspiration to domestic politicians.
Candidates of a liberal bent regularly identify the root cause of our killings as the widespread ownership of guns, and annually propose new gun laws as the solution. But while our domestic stock of firearms is indeed gigantic—some 240 million guns or nearly one for every man, woman, and child in America—the volume of our anti-gun laws is just as great—some 20,000 by last count. Indeed, since the early 1960s, the number of guns and the number of anti-gun laws have both grown many-fold, as has our violent crime rate, raising serious doubts as to whether passing new gun laws will diminish either gun ownership or crime. Polling consistently proves that proposed gun law control legislation is very good politics; but it may just be poor policy.
International comparisons raise additional doubts regarding any obvious relationship between guns and violent crime. For example, private ownership of firearms is almost non-existent in peaceful Japan, which has a tiny murder rate; but Switzerland’s murder rate is equally small, though nearly every Swiss family is legally required to own a fully-automatic “assault weapon.” An ordinary street crowd of window-shoppers in downtown Tel Aviv or Haifa packs a frightening arsenal of concealed pistols and automatic weapons; yet even including terrorist incidents, the Israeli murder rate is as low as Japan’s. Cultural and social factors seem far more important in determining murder rates than the prevalence or lethality of the firearms owned by the population.
This is just as obvious within our own country. Rural America has the loosest gun laws and the highest rate of gun ownership and use, but generates a far smaller murder rate than major cities such as Washington, D.C. and Detroit, which possess among the strictest gun laws. Both widespread gun ownership and widespread gun restrictions seem more the symptoms of our national disease of violence rather than the cause or the cure.
Other proposed solutions to social violence are just as rhetorically effective but factually doubtful. In recent years, many liberals and conservatives have joined together to denounce the violent content of Hollywood’s entertainment products as a major contributing factor to the violence of our streets. It certainly seems plausible to suggest that the endless shootings and stabbings in movies and television provoke similar behavior among our impressionable youth.
Unfortunately, there is little supporting evidence for this hypothesis. The violence of Japanese movies and television shows is far greater than our own, with numerous beheadings and vicious rapes to complement the more mundane shootings and stabbings; but Japanese children and adults seem almost completely immune from the expected ill effects. European countries import our violent entertainment products, and produce plenty of their own, but little of that violence seems to leak out from the imaginary world of the screen to the real world of the streets.
Closer to home, some of the larger Canadian and American cities—Toronto, Montreal, and Detroit—are located close to the national border, and thereby receive the same range of television shows. But they exhibit extreme differences in rates of personal violence and killings
Given such scanty evidence for either guns or movies as the cause of our violent society, why are such factors the targets of such a volume of defamatory rhetoric? Politicians must offer solutions as part of their periodic job re-applications, and the simpler the solutions the better the sound bite. Heavy governmental regulation of guns or television is politically extremely popular—though constitutionally dubious under the First and Second Amendments to our constitution—and whether or not it works, winning votes along the way represents the actual definition of success. There are few better ways for a politician to get a beneficial appearance on the local evening news than holding up a deadly-looking assault weapon and promising to outlaw such things.
By contrast, the true underlying causes of our high rate of civil violence are complex and do not offer simple or obvious answers. The endless quagmire of our thirty-year-old War on Drugs, our failed educational system, the social breakdown of the American family, and our national tradition of both individualism and personal violence are deeply-rooted factors resistant to easy change.
Sometimes the bravest statement a politician can make is the very unsatisfying “some problems don’t have obvious solutions.” Most stunned residents of Hawaii would probably agree.