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Friday, 17 November 2017 05:31

Americans Own 42 Percent of the World's Guns


mandalaybayLas Vegas Mandalay Bay Hotel, site of one of the numerous recent mass shootings. (Photo: Don Barrett)

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In a November 7 article in The New York Times by Max Fisher and Josh Keller, the two reporters reflect upon the somber phenomenon of mass shootings in the United States. Faced with an unrelenting occurrence of such incidents, they attempt to ascertain the enabling circumstances for such atrocities. They conclude,

The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.

The top-line numbers suggest a correlation that, on further investigation, grows only clearer.

Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American, according to a 2015 study by Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama.

One must be wary of assessments that attribute a complex problem to only one factor, as this one does. However, the United States has 4.4 percent of the world population but 42 percent of the world's guns. Consider this reality alongside the fact that, among nations with more than 10 million people, only Yemen exceeds the US in mass killings, according to the study by Lankford. Yemen has the second highest gun ownership rate, after the US. These facts indicate a correlation between the rate of a nation's gun ownership and the prevalence of mass shootings.

Of course, when we talk about the roots of mass violence, it's important to consider the influence of historical state violence committed in the name of the United States. In fact, we are a society built upon the twin-sanctioned acts of Indigenous genocide and chattel slavery. Yes, the US may have a massive arsenal of guns in private hands, but that arsenal is built within a context of a nation founded on violence. The use of violence to physically shape the United States and to form the basis for the agricultural engine of its economy -- along with a militarized foreign policy that resorts to violence again and again -- certainly has played a role in laying the groundwork for today's acts of mass violence.

Yes, on state holidays and in political speeches we hear lofty words of peace, but the foundation of the nation is a violent one. The lone violent cowboy who killed Native Indigenous people for land is glorified. Christopher Columbus, who nearly wiped out the native Indigenous population of Cuba -- the Tainos -- is celebrated with a federal holiday created in 1937.

Guns are, of course, a major tool for the (mostly white) individuals who, against the backdrop of state-cultural violence, seek to carry out "lone wolf" attacks.

The US's mass shooting epidemic obviously has led a plethora of writers to contemplate how to reduce the problem, at least in terms of shrinking the personal gun arsenal. A November 17 Guardian article takes another crack at analyzing the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) over Congress. As is common in such reporting, it details the NRA's lobbying expenditures in the last election:

The NRA bet big on 2016’s presidential election, making independent expenditures worth $53.4m. And the cash seemed to have been well spent. The NRA poured $14.4m into supporting 44 candidates who won and $34.4m opposing 19 candidates who lost, according to CRP. Its only big loss was in Nevada, for the seat vacated by the Democratic minority leader, Harry Reid.

However, according to Dominic Rushe, the author of the Guardian report, these large amounts of money are not what allows the NRA to keep Congress under its thumb. He attributes much of the organization's strength to its ability to turn out voters in primaries:

With the NRA pouring money into political races at record levels it is an easy argument to make that the gun lobby has bought Washington – but that fails to paint a full picture....

By choosing its battles wisely, the NRA has shown an ability to swing primary elections in favor of pro-gun candidates, Winkler said. “That’s the real source of their strength,” he said. That and its use of a relatively small number of highly motivated people to push an agenda that appears out of step with the general population, which, according to recent polling, is in favor of stricter gun laws.

In primary elections, when sometimes only 20 percent or less of the electorate votes, the gun lobby can, in some districts and Senate races, follow the NRA's recommendations and push out candidates who have voted for gun reduction measures, installing politicians who have sworn fealty to the NRA. Most representatives and senators on Capitol Hill are aware of this, particularly in districts with relatively low primary election turnout.

In short, a vocal minority of voters, made up of avid gun owners, are skewing gun laws. This includes minimal oversight of the chain of distribution from manufacturer, to wholesaler to gun shop, to buyer -- not to mention the gun show and secondary individual sales market.

Given these realities, the fact that we top the world in mass shootings is not surprising -- in fact, we may be surprised there are not even more mass shootings.