EU citizens are astonished that the world’s most powerful, yet counterintuitive nation can be so logically and socially incoherent, that Americans unflinchingly repeat the same mistakes responsible for past surges of COVID-19. Reopening before herd immunity’s attained, riotous spring-breakers, and inconsistent mask-wearing and social distancing support their conundrum. Super-spreader events and anti-vaccination rants convince the rest of the world that Americans care little about others and even less about themselves. With 600,000 U.S. pandemic deaths imminent, words like “fragile” and “heedless” keep resonating. Europeans point to the Trump administration’s restrained pandemic response, demonstrators clamoring to “open up,” and Dr. Birx’ assertion most of these deaths were preventable, except the first 100,000. If only we had stringently adhered to public health and safety protocols, complied fully with mask wearing and contact tracing, applied lockdowns universally to avoid capriciousness. While Europe is experiencing its own pandemic surge from hastily relaxed restrictions, vaccination delays and highly contagious variants, America’s gun insanity has no such parallel.
Anyone skeptical that obsessions with guns are a health crisis and psychological disorder peculiar to America should consider how Australia, Scotland, and New Zealand swiftly enacted gun laws after single mass shootings. In Australia, a solitary slaughter in 1996 led to immediate bans on assault rifles. No mass shootings have occurred Down Under since. By contrast, as the pandemic’s moratoria on crowd-sizes wanes, U.S. rampage shootings have again become routine. Despite last year’s diminished opportunities, U.S. gun sales actually surged to record highs. Gun violence killed nearly 20,000 Americans in 2020, more than any year the last two decades, including nearly 300 children. Another 24,000 used guns to commit suicide. Like COVID-19, these killings disproportionately affect communities of color. High-profile mass shootings, such as those in Boulder, Atlanta, and Orange, California tend to overshadow everyday gun-related deaths. America averages about 100 firearms-related murders a day from over 115,000 wounded and 38,000 gun-related mortalities per year. And testosterone is a factor. Ninety percent of homicides are by males, 70 percent involving firearms. Of 150 or so U.S. mass shootings since 1966, mostly this century, only 4 involved women. Yet, despite enormous support for background checks, closing loopholes, boosting licensure age, psych evaluations and, as happened ephemerally in 1994, banning bump stocks and assault weapons, both major parties are loath to confront the crisis. In a 2020 survey, 42 percent of U.S. households reported firearms making us the most heavily and unnecessarily armed country on Earth. Yet, every time people are slaughtered or gun laws discussed, sales and prices of firearms skyrocket. With assault weapon ammo costing anywhere from 50 cents to $1.00 per round, target shooting is an extremely expensive and profit-generating hobby, another example of unconscionable capitalism.
Wanting to kill, whether driven by prejudicial malice, perversion of “sport,” or sagging self-esteem, is a pathological condition, whether the victim’s a human, a mallard or a mouse. Given 3-5 percent of the population harbors sociopathic disorders, 400 million guns, scattered across America in fewer and fewer hands, is frightening. In fact, 3 percent of households contain half the nation’s firearms. Often compulsively, gun nuts are amassing arsenals increasingly affiliated with white supremacist and militia groups. Relieving such outliers of their military hardware would be a cultural imperative anywhere but here. Why do we tolerate such madness? Have we lost our resolve? Are we that desensitized to violence and habituated to massacres?
A PBS NOVA entitled “The Violence Paradox” recently aired again, based on Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s contribution to the social sciences, entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Among its citations was an exhaustive criminology study by Cambridge professor Manuel Eisner, who examined homicide rates in Europe since the 12th century. Validating hypotheses earlier proposed by Norbert Elias in 1939, the program suggests violence in Europe and many other places has steadily declined since the Middle Ages. Certainly, today’s ecological acts of violence and cruelty ─ mass extinctions, pollution, deforestation, degradations of land, air and sea ─ are continuing to rise, as much a function of profligate consumerism and insatiable economics as human population growth. Even in this Anthropocene epoch, the “industrialized” scale of such global destruction is unprecedented. But, by limiting the discussion to only war dead and instances of homicide, examination of Old Bailey legal records takes a different turn. Although the 18th and 19th centuries were marred by global slave trade and colonial conquests of indigenous populations, the 20th century with its world wars, genocides and countless revolutions was bloodier. WWII alone cost 60 million human lives, 2.5 percent of the population. Yet, by comparison, as “The Violence Paradox” emphasizes, 13th century Mongol conquests killed an estimated 40 million people, roughly 10 percent of the human population at the time. Pinker and Eisner also make the point that, although AR-15s and rampage shootings are without medieval equivalents, once common and socially-sanctioned practices such as torture, witch-burning, infanticide and human sacrifice are either rare or nonexistent today. Incarcerations, religious-, ethnic-, gendered- and racial-violence were omitted from discussion, however.
Apparently, a combination of social factors influenced this evolution. Strong selective pressures bent the moral arc to greater coexistence. Empathy perhaps spread as printing presses mass-produced novels and allowed an increasingly literate public to identify with their characters. As education spread in tandem with the sciences, ideals of reason and equality kept nastier tendencies in check. So, why didn’t America get the memo on impulse control? Is it because education and opportunity are more evenly distributed in Europe? Is it a matter of “availability heuristics” and the 24/7 “if it bleeds, it leads” news cycle emphasizing acts of violence? Alfred Adler (1928) stressed how social influences, especially fellowship and concern for others, shape individual behaviors and reinforce mammalian instincts for fair play, even exhibited by human infants. Yet, hatred and divisiveness permeate society. U.S. homicide rates average roughly 5 per 100,000 citizens, but rates in many of our cities, where human density’s a factor, are 10 times higher. Still, the vast majority of us hold strong inhibitions against killing. Until Vietnam, before violent imagery from video games, television and the Internet inundated households most U.S. combatants never fired their weapons. So widely are aversions to killing shared by us, it’s time to curb the aberrant that don’t. Unlike target shooting, home protection and historical replica collecting, hunting is an environmentally and morally untenable excuse for owning a gun. Those who ludicrously suggest arming more citizens will protect our malls and schoolyards suffer adolescent fantasies and should read and watch the news. “Pistol-packers” duck and cover when the lead flies, too. If gun ubiquity, fast draws and judicious marksmanship were answers to the gun crisis, America would already be safe, not the most dangerous place to live outside a war zone. Guns should stay permanently at home.
As for the 2nd Amendment, it’s an anachronism needing modern revision. Originally, it addressed concerns a newly established Congress, with powers to disarm local militias and create national standing armies, posed threats to state sovereignties. The Civil War resolved all that. The clear and present danger now are unlawfully assembled militia groups with stated opposition to our U.S. military and state- and federally-controlled National Guard reserve units. In America today, there are 148 white nationalist, 112 neo-Nazi and 80 or so Ku Klux Klan groups, all heavily armed. Of hundreds of domestic terrorists the Feds are tracking presently, many are embedded in these groups.
Violent gunplay is ingrained in American culture. Often expelled from Europe, Anglo-Saxons pushed more pluralistic French and Spanish settlers from the North American mainland, annihilated indigenous peoples and institutionalized slavery. “Manifest destiny” turned vast ecosystems and distant isles into exploitable “frontiers.” We’ve waged war to legitimize land grabs and glorified bushwhackers like John Wesley Hardin, Sam Bass and Henry McCarty (aka Billy the Kid). Those formative Saturday mornings of the 1950s with Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Hoppalong Cassidy haven’t been forgotten. But let’s grow up America, face today’s harsh realities and enact meaningful gun legislation.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.