Locked and Loaded: A New Face of American Exceptionalism

Over the past few days, our nation has chalked up two more attacks to the ever-increasing tally of gun violence. Puzzling and shocking as they are, we really should be accustomed to it by now.

From the head-scratching public suicide of the “Mall Shooter” in New Jersey to the back-room poker game shooting in Detroit that the police chief labeled “urban terrorism”, these recent episodes have reinforced the fact that there has been no reprieve since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. American mass-shootings have persisted at the rate of nearly two per month over the last few years. Despite overwhelming public support (to the tune of ~90%) for several gun control measures such as federally mandated background checks, the government’s failure to adopt even the most bare bones legislation has come to represent one of the Obama administration’s largest second-term failings. The President’s futile expenditure of political capital in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy has cost him, and by extension the rest of the nation, dearly in term of deterring future gun violence. Even beyond the failure of newly-introduced legislation, law-makers have again failed to renew the Clinton-era Federal Assault Weapons Ban, a message which reflects a tacit endorsement of private assault-weapon ownership.

Two internationally recognizable facets of Americana, lax gun legislation and the deification of the Second Amendment, remain puzzling propositions to those not raised in or around communities in the United States, where gun ownership is a point of civic pride. Best represented by Charlton Heston’s “cold dead hands” declaration, it is undeniable that gun ownership has become, to many, an inextricable element of American identity. The commitment to private ownership, and often public display, of firearms represents an essential component of contemporary notions of American exceptionalism.

In addition to our unwavering commitment to a global military presence and a “free market” approach to commodified healthcare, the belief in widespread and unregulated firearm ownership is another domain in which America continues to tread against the global status quo. While gun control opponents readily refute comparisons of European statistics as “apples to oranges” when considering the entrenchment and historic political significance of American gun ownership, legislative measures have produced overwhelmingly positive results in countries with a similarly inflated reverence for firearms. Australia, for example, began an ambitious gun buyback program in 1997 that led to a significant reduction in firearm related deaths. A follow-up study conducted by Andrew Leigh of Australian National University and Christine Neill of Wilfrid Laurier University concluded that in the decade that followed the National Firearms Agreement’s implementation, statistics “show drops of 65% and 59%” (in firearm-related suicides and homicides, respectively) without a significant change in non-firearm related incidents.

The success of the Australian legislation led former Australian Prime Minister (and notable George W. Bush ally) John Howard to pen an op-ed entitled Brothers in Arms, Yes, but the US Needs to Get Rid of Its Guns. Citing the “huge cultural divide” between the two nations on the issue of gun control, Howard believes that the choice of the US to shun pragmatism and the safety of its citizens in favor of radical exceptionalism and revolution-era legislation has been disastrous.

Matt Bors
Matt Bors – http://medium.com/matt-bors

The fact that, in the words of Howard, “[The Second Amendment] bears no relationship at all to the circumstances of everyday life in America today” is largely unimportant to many prominent American proponents of gun ownership. It is deeply ironic that many of the anti-gun control activists point to the constitutional amendment as a “historical” argument for unregulated firearm ownership while simultaneously ignoring all of the cultural progress that has occurred over the past 220-odd years. Also frequently neglected is the first half of the Amendment (emphasis is author’s own):

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.

Reading the full text calls into question the blatant disregard of gun advocates in organizing any semblance a “well regulated” civilian fighting force within which citizens would use their firearms, as mandated by the text. The question of why the Amendment’s second clause is allowed to exercise absolute supremacy over the preceding phrase in contemporary discourse remains unclear. What is clear, however, is that the American aversion to gun control has much less to do with historical fidelity or a commitment to individual rights and has much more to do with the paranoia-fuelled “culture of violence” that exists in America. It remains plainly obvious that gun ownership concerns are not truly connected to fears of a tyrannical federal government, as proponents often like to suggest. If this were the case, special interest groups like the National Rifle Association would probably be more concerned with reigning in military spending and the fact that the USA fields the most powerful military that the world has ever seen.

As a nation of immigrants, public distrust for the federal government is practically an endemic feature of history in the United States. Owing much to the emphasis placed on local and community-level civic engagement, Americans, especially those in the more sparsely populated central and southern states, remain actively hostile towards “top-down” legislative reform on the federal level. When combined with the pervasiveness of America’s exceptionalist tendencies, anti-reform sentiment is widespread. While other countries have embraced “common sense” revisions to national-level legislation on firearms, the United States remains intransigent. While 17 of the world’s most prominent nations included provisions for the right to personal firearm ownership in 1875, today the number has fallen to three. The failure to adopt reasonable firearm legislation is, unfortunately, just another manifestation of the United States’ widespread refusal to adapt itself to the contemporary era.

total gun ownership
Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

While today’s America remains exceptional, it is all too often in areas like evolution denial, incarceration rates, and energy consumption. Similarly, rates of gun ownership in the United States are the highest in the world. In fact, Americans own approximately nine guns for every ten citizens, approximately twice as many firearms as the Swiss. The mythology of the responsible Swiss gun-owner is terribly popular rhetoric for the anti-gun control advocate, though the evidence of recent studies has diminished its relevance.

In the same vein, military spending is another arena in which the America reigns supreme. With an annual defense budget that eclipses those of its closest competitors (the US commits about six times more capital than the next largest spender – China), the country displays little hesitancy in deploying military forces to project power across the globe. It may come as a surprise, however, that more Americans have died in gun-related incidents since 1968 than in all major military conflicts in national history.

Gun control opponents most often point to the fact that violent crime in the United States is falling as evidence that gun-control concerns are unfounded. While it is true that the 24-hour international news cycle, among other things, have sensationalized events and distorted public perceptions of the pervasiveness of violence, rates of gun violence in the USA remain astronomical when placed alongside those of comparable countries. A recently completed study that was rushed to publication in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings has worked to debunk the common American mythology that the proliferation of gun ownership works to deter gun crime. Published in the American Journal of Medicine, the study turned up two especially interesting (though hardly surprising) conclusions.

guns per capita

First off, the report showed a strong correlation between the number of guns per capita and the number of firearm-related deaths in a given country. The United States, unsurprisingly, finished at the top end of the spectrum (representing high firearm ownership and mortality rates) with Japan on the other. Second, the most significant outlier in the data is represented by South Africa. Despite having significantly fewer guns per capita than the United States, the Republic of South Africa experiences a similar number of firearm-related deaths. This is noteworthy as South Africa is among the countries that boast a significant “culture of violence” that rivals that which exists in America. While the historical circumstances are certainly not the same in the two aforementioned countries, the findings certainly reinforce the notion that, in addition to the raw availability of firearms, there are more complex and nuanced cultural factors that drive gun-violence rates.

A common argument points to deficient mental health provisions as a primary factor in American gun violence. A recent Gallup study found that more Americans fault the mental health system than the rampant availability of firearms for causing mass shootings. It is important to note that, had the proposed Spring 2013 gun legislation passed through Congress successfully, the Navy Yard Shooter would not have been able to legally purchase the firearm that he used in his now-infamous spree. While the feeble mental health infrastructure and poor availability of public programs in America almost certainly exacerbate already abhorrent levels of gun violence, placing blame on them does little to negate the glaring need to address faulty and obsolete laws regarding firearms. Improvements absolutely need to be made, but they alone will not sufficiently prevent future incidents of gun-violence.

The American culture of violence remains extremely difficult to quantify in any categorical terms. Unsatisfactory (and deeply unsatisfying) explanations range from those that blindly scapegoat violent video games to more arcane explanations like the one offered by New Hampshire Senate hopeful Jim Rubens. The former State Senator blames the simultaneous triumph of feminism and downfall of the modern working man for contemporary gun violence, explaining that the “increasingly female-centric economy” has led to inflated levels of violence. Crackpot theories aside, gun violence, especially in the form of public mass-shootings, continues to make America exception in all of the wrong ways. This fact does not seem to bother Americans either, as the reduction of gun violence ranked among the least important of the major contemporary political issues that deserve Washington’s attention.

Reflecting on the five major firearm massacres since he took office, President Obama lamented the “creeping resignation” among Americans that “this is somehow the new normal”. He best summed up this trend that has come to define a large part of this new version of American exceptionalism:

No other advanced nation endures this kind of violence.

None.

Here in America, the murder rate is three times what it is in other developed nations. The murder rate with guns is 10 times what it is with other developed nations. And there’s nothing inevitable about it.

It comes about because of decisions we make or fail to make, and it falls upon us to make it different.

A video of his address is located here.