Crazy For Their Guns

The Land of the Free suffers the consequences of their civilians’ right to bear arms

News | Brian Johnson | June 2007

The United States is home to over 300 million people and nearly 200 million guns, almost half of all American households have at least one gun, and some homes shelter more guns than people. Americans will buy just about any kind of gun they can get their hands on, from hunting rifles and shotguns to revolvers and pistols. In the U.S., your local supermarket is likely to sell you a shotgun, ammunition, and a six-pack of beer all at the same time.

We shoot our guns for fun at shooting galleries, we hunt with them, and we buy them to protect ourselves and our families (or so we think). Yes, we American’s sure do love our guns. But are we better off? Is our society better off, because we have so many guns? It’s not an easy question to answer.

Gun ownership in the U.S. has had deadly consequences. According to the FBI, there are over 15,000 homicides in the U.S. every year, one of the highest homicide rates of all western nations, and nearly two thirds of these homicides are gun related. That’s nearly 10,000 gun related deaths a year, not including accidental deaths and suicides.

In other Western countries like Germany and Austria gun ownership is very limited. According to a 2000 WFSA white paper by University of Vienna professor Dr. Franz Császár, gun ownership in Austria and Germany is only 10% compared to nearly 50% in the US. And not surprisingly homicide rates are low as well. Gun control proponents have said that the reason these countries have such low rates is due to strict regulations.

Fewer guns usually mean fewer gun related deaths, and there are studies which have shown that there is a strong correlation between gun ownership and homicide rates: when one is up so is the other.

So this must mean that the guns are to blame, right? Well, not necessarily. In Kennesaw, Georgia for instance, an ordinance was passed in 1982 requiring the head of each household to own a firearm and there hasn’t been a single fatal shooting since, in fact crime dropped. In other Western countries like Canada and Switzerland, where gun ownership is also high, gun death rates still don’t come close to America’s. But if high gun ownership does not always lead to more homicides why do the two seem to go hand in hand in the U.S.?

Two areas where the U.S. stands out against countries like Canada and Switzerland are handguns and government regulation. Canada requires all gun owners to apply for a license and register their guns, and handguns are limited to collectors, target shooters, and people who can prove they need them for protection.

In the U.S. getting a handgun is easy, and in most firearm related homicides in the U.S., the weapon of choice was a handgun. In America, anyone over the age of 21 can purchase a handgun after going through the federal background check that makes sure you’re not a felon and that you’ve never been judged mentally defective or incompetent or committed to any mental institution. So, if you’re not crazy or a criminal, you can buy a handgun.

It’s so easy to get a handgun in the U.S. that foreign companies like Austrian owned Glock, which, according to the Washington Post, provides 50% of U.S. law enforcement firearms, are running to the U.S. market for their gun sales. Like Canada, Switzerland has heavy government regulation of firearms as well.

It maintains a standing militia instead of an army, and many of its guns are military issue and therefore strictly monitored.  The U.S. Federal government on the other hand requires no permits and no registration, although some states and districts do. In Washington DC, for instance, you can’t purchase handguns at all. You have to drive to Virginia.

Even if there is reason to believe gun control will help, there are still many obstacles standing in the way of any change, history itself being one of them. The U.S. has had a long history of gun ownership going all the way back to the addition of the Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791. In the U.S. the Constitution is the highest law in the land, and this amendment has been interpreted to cement guns firmly in the hands of those who want them. Although there has been some debate about the actual meaning of the Second Amendment, make no mistake, U.S. founding fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, definitely supported gun ownership.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his declaration, ‘The Sovereignity of the People,’ that, "a strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun." This was a common believe by America’s founders who believed that guns were the only way to ensure freedom from dictatorial governments.

Another major hurdle is the guns that are already there. With over 200 million firearms in flow in the U.S., enforcing registration or recall would be difficult and require a massive effort, but it’s not impossible.

Guns have been traded and sold amongst gun owners for years both legally and illegally, and according to the U.S. Department of Justice nearly 300,000 guns are stolen each year. The fact that criminals get guns no matter what, is one of the reasons gun proponents want everyone carrying a gun.

For instance, the guns that were used in the Virginia Tech Massacre where acquired illegally according to Federal Law. But if registration was enforced and possession discouraged, it stands to reason that criminals would be easier to track down and prosecute.

There are also societal factors that play a role here as well. According to the FBI, most homicides are male on male, white on white or black on black, and African American males are three times more likely to be a victim of homicide than Caucasian males.

Explanations for why this is the case run the gambit from poverty to racism, but whatever it is, there’s something about U.S. society that causes both white and black men to kill each other, and they do this predominately with handguns. Whatever the cause, there something deeper in the psychology of of gun ownership that regulation alone can’t fix. But it could be part of the solution.

Things are slowly changing though. A 2004 Harvard School of Public Health publication has shown that gun ownership has decreased over 5% in the last 10 years, and the U.S. homicide rate is slowly dropping as well. According to the FBI, the homicide rate dropped from 8.2 in 1995 to 5.6 in 2005. Even though gun ownership is down, handgun sales unfortunately are up.

In fact, there’s so much information on gun control in the U.S. released by both supporters and opponents, its hard to tell who’s telling the truth and who’s not. But it seems that the U.S. needs at least two things: One is stronger government regulation, specifically relating to handguns.

The other is a psychiatrist.

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