Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guns, an American National Myth.

"Every country has people with mental problems but not every country gives those people such easy access to guns, yet it seems it is almost outside the possible realm of discussion here [in the U.S.]".

This comment by a BBC journalist reflects pretty much how Europeans (and possibly the world) view last week's shooting in Tucson.

Gun culture in the United-States is probably the hardest thing for Europeans (or for that matter probably the rest of the world) to even begin to fathom. How to explain that?

It seems to me that this is in part the result of the pervasive influence of the Frontier Myth in American culture and politics. (Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation: the Myth of the Frontier in 20th century America" offers a remarkable study of this phenomenon.).
The prevalence of this myth has many consequences, one of which is the idea that violence is the (manly) way to solve problems compared to (weak female-like) discussion or 'diplomacy'. In fact, if you carefully study political discourse, including presidential speech, you realize that this is very much the narrative of most presidents, who use this sort of rhetoric to justify wars.

So in fact gun culture is very much part of the national narrative. Yet, one can also argue that it is even more at the center of conservative ideology which tends to emphasize traditional masculine virtues of strength and the protection of women, children and property by use of force versus the feminized view of cooperation (i.e. like calling the police) so it is no surprise that Republicans should be overwhelmingly against gun control (see this gallup poll).
According to the Pew Reasearch Center survey director Scott Keeter :
"There is a very large partisan divide on the issue, with 70% of Republicans but only 30% of Democrats saying it's more important to protect the rights of gun owners than to control gun ownership"

The difficulty with national myths is that they are so ingrained that it is almost impossible for most people to think outside their frames. It is very much like the way French see their language or their relation to government. It is beyond reason for most people because it is at the core of national identities and thinking outside the national frame takes time and effort.
But still, being hard does not mean we should not try, and it might be helpful to see how people outside, our nations, people who did not grow up with the same myths, see what we do and how we think.

In the case of the United-States, what makes it even harder for a lot of Americans to challenge their national myths about gun is that the right to bear arms is in Constitution (a sacred national text, if any):
"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."
Of course, this was written when a stay-at-home militia was necessary to perform the role of police to keep order or to help the Continental Army defeat the British, before the United-States had a string military of its own.
Many conservatives have put forward the argument that the right to bear arms is indeed about preventing 'tyranny.' As a matter of fact (conservative) Supreme Court Justice Scalia himself has used this argument in "District of Columbia Vs. Heller".

This may have made sense in 1791 but who in their right mind would think that civilians with guns could fight the U.S. army if case of a tyrannical government?
As Rachel Maddow put it this week, we may as well make machine guns, mortars, cannons, anti-tank guns available to civilians then if we want to be able to defeat the military and overthrow a potential tyrannical government.
A lot of Americans also buy guns for self-protection but on the same show, Maddow exemplified why more guns does not necessarily mean better protection : an armed bystander at the Tuscon shooting almost shot the hero that disarmed the shooter :
"I saw another individual holding the firearm. I kind of assumed he was the shooter. So I grabbed his wrist and you know told him to drop it and forced him to drop the gun on the ground. When he did that, everybody says, no, no, it's this guy." (Rawstory)
The last point one cannot ignore is that it is also about politics and the NRA(National Rifle Association) is (along with AIPAC) one of the most powerful and active lobbies in Washington. According to Scott Keeter
"even in years when there was more public support for gun control than there is now, legislative action on the issue often responded more to opponents of gun control. One reason may be that relatively few elected officials, especially in recent years, have spoken out strongly in favor of gun control, leaving the issue to be defined mostly by opponents." (WP)

The U.S. is the most armed country in the world, according to a 2007 study. In 2004, about 25% of all adults, and 40 % of American households, owned at least one firearm. And of course, most homicides being commited by firearms, it is no surprise that the U.S. homicide rate, even with years of decline, is the highest in the industrialized world with about 5 per 100,000 people, over 3 times the the average rate in Western Europe (1.5) and France (1.6). (Wiki)

It makes sense. After all, it is a lot easier to kill someone by pulling the trigger than by using a knife.

Homicide rate in the world.

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