Tag Archives: gun culture

History Versus Mythology

Speaking of history…

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot of American history–most of which I hadn’t encountered in high school or college history classes. (One unfortunate result is that I no longer get goose bumps when I hear the national anthem; the people opposing the teaching of accurate history aren’t entirely wrong about its potential to dampen jingoism…)

Accurate history can be depressing, but grown-ups can deal productively with the gap between the country’s values and aspirations and our past failures to live up to them. As I argued yesterday, understanding actual history allows us to address the inaccurate mythologies that continue to warp contemporary political discourse.

In a recent essay for The Conversation, my friend Pierre Atlas–a political scholar, gun owner and NRA member who stresses he hasn’t donated to the organization since 1997– examined effects of  widely-accepted myths about the Old West on today’s policy debates. I encourage you to click through and read the article in its entirety, but I’m sharing passages I found particularly illuminating.

Pierre began by recognizing the partisan divide over “gun rights” and the effect of that divide on the recently passed–and widely hailed–“bipartisan” gun legislation.

In the wake of the Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings, 70% of Republicans said it is more important to protect gun rights than to control gun violence, while 92% of Democrats and 54% of independents expressed the opposite view. ..

In order to attract Republican support, the new law does not include gun control proposals such as an assault weapons ban, universal background checks or raising the purchasing age to 21 for certain types of rifles. Nevertheless, the bill was denounced by other Republicans in Congress and was opposed by the National Rifle Association.

What is the wellspring of this widespread gun fetish?

My analysis finds that gun culture in the U.S. derives largely from its frontier past and the mythology of the “Wild West,” which romanticizes guns, outlaws, rugged individualism and the inevitability of gun violence. This culture ignores the fact that gun control was widespread and common in the Old West…

Americans have owned guns since colonial times, but American gun culture really took off after the Civil War with the imagery, icons and tales – or mythology – of the lawless frontier and the Wild West. Frontier mythology, which celebrates and exaggerates the amount and significance of gunfights and vigilantism, began with 19th-century Western paintings, popular dime novels and traveling Wild West shows by Buffalo Bill Cody and others. It continues to this day with Western-themed shows on streaming networks such as “Yellowstone” and “Walker.”

Historian Pamela Haag attributes much of the country’s gun culture to that Western theme. Before the middle of the 19th century, she writes, guns were common in U.S. society, but were unremarkable tools used by a wide range of people in a growing nation.

Pierre explores the effects of gun-makers’ PR campaigns, which romanticized guns and their role in the settling and taming of the West. Contrary to that invented mythology, he found that–while gun ownership was common– actual gunfights were rare, and that many frontier towns “had strict gun laws, especially against carrying concealed weapons.”

As UCLA constitutional law professor Adam Winkler puts it, “Guns were widespread on the frontier, but so was gun regulation. … Wild West lawmen took gun control seriously and frequently arrested people who violated their town’s gun control laws.”

“Gunsmoke,” the iconic TV show that ran from the 1950s through the 1970s, would have seen far fewer gunfights had its fictional marshal, Matt Dillon, enforced Dodge City’s real laws banning the carrying of any firearms within city limits.

Pierre notes that NRA hardliners are willing to accept gun violence as an inevitable side effect of a free and armed but violent society. Their opposition to new gun reforms as well as the current trends in gun rights legislation – such as permitless carry and the arming of teachers – are but the latest manifestations of American gun culture’s deep roots in highly inaccurate frontier mythology.

Wayne LaPierre, executive director of the National Rifle Association, the country’s largest gun rights group, tapped into imagery from frontier mythology and American gun culture following the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. In his call to arm school resource officers and teachers, LaPierre adopted language that could have come from a classic Western film: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Recent studies actually show that giving those “good guys” concealed carry permits is linked to 13-15 percent higher violent crime rates–and accurate history confirms that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is rational gun regulation.

Those shoot-em-up Westerns were fun when we were children, but it’s past time for Americans to grow up.





Guns

I don’t post often about America’s insane gun culture, because the lines have been drawn for a very long time, and the combatants’ feet are firmly in cement.

I could share innumerable facts: how many people die by gun each year, the margin by which the thousands domestic gun deaths exceed deaths in war, how guns facilitate suicide…on and on. It wouldn’t matter to the relative minority of gun owners who stockpile weapons and foam at the mouth at any suggestion that we withhold firearms from wife-beaters, crazy people or people on the terrorist watch-list.

Unfortunately, the foaming-mouth folks can rely upon the congressional GOP to ignore any and all facts, and block efforts to fund research into gun violence.

Research does exist, however, and rational people will find it persuasive. The Guardian recently reported on data from an experiment in the Bay Area.

For each new millionaire household the San Francisco Bay Area has produced, there are at least four new people living below the poverty level. San Francisco’s property crime rate has spiked to the highest in the nation. Many people – tech newcomers and longtime residents alike – complain of feeling unsafe.

At the same time, with little fanfare, the Bay Area has seen a dramatic drop in its homicide rate, driven by a considerable decrease in deadly shootings.
Across the region, the overall gun homicide rate has dropped 30% in the past decade, a Guardian investigation of homicide data across more than 100 cities has found.

The study analyzed homicide data across California’s Bay Area from 2007 to 2017. During that time, gun homicide rates fell across all racial groups, but the decrease was largest for black residents.

What was particularly striking about these findings was that the dramatic drop came at the same time as criminal justice reforms in California reduced the number of people in the state’s jails and prisons.

The reduction came as cities like Oakland and Richmond did what a number of scholars have recommended: they changed their approach to the problem, investing tens of millions of dollars in public health approaches to gun violence.

The study considered–and dismissed–the possibility that gentrification was the reason violence subsided.

Three cities that are undergoing intense gentrification saw the biggest drops in gun homicides. But outlying suburbs – the towns where many residents forced out by gentrification have moved – did not see a corresponding increase in violence…

The Bay Area still sees nearly 300 gun homicides each year. But these changes are profound. The majority of America’s gun homicide victims are black, killed in everyday shootings in segregated, economically struggling neighborhoods in cities such as Oakland and Richmond. It’s this everyday toll of violence, not mass shooting casualties, that drives America’s gun homicide rate 25 times higher than those of other wealthy countries.

The article noted that cities that once ranked among the nation’s deadliest have seen enormous decreases, and emphasized that these decreases spanned a decade– they weren’t single-year drops. The declines persisted over the years.

California has the strongest gun laws in the country, and it has enacted more than 30 new gun control laws since 2009 alone. The Guardian credited those constraints, together with the change in approach to violence prevention, for the reduction in gun homicides.

There’s early evidence that local violence prevention strategies – including a refocused, more community-driven “Ceasefire” policing strategy, and intensive support programs that do not involve law enforcement at all – were a “key change” contributing to these huge decreases.

As the article concedes, there are still plenty of problems in the Bay Area. (Police shootings haven’t declined, for example.) But there is a lesson here.

Of course, lessons are lost on people determined not to learn them.

Connecting The Gun Dots…

Nothing that happens, happens in isolation. That’s sometimes called “the butterfly effect,” the controversial assertion (linked to chaos theory) that a butterfly flapping its wings will eventually cause a hurricane in China.

The various human and social consequences of gun ownership are much less theoretical. A recent study conducted by Vox connects America’s widespread gun ownership to our epidemic of police shootings.

The study was prompted by the recent shooting of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s back yard. Police thought the cellphone he was holding was a gun. This fatal error is increasingly common.

Officers have shot people after mistaking wrenches and badges for guns. Cops have shot people thinking that they’re reaching for a firearm when they’re really pulling up loose-fitting shorts. Police have shot multiple people thinking that a toy gun was a real firearm.

In all fairness, police have plenty of reasons to believe a target is armed. The United States has more guns  in the hands of its citizens than any other country in the world.  According to recent estimates, America has more guns than people.

“Police officers in the United States in reality need to be conscious of and are trained to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told me. “That’s true for a 911 call. It’s true for a barking dog call. It’s true for a domestic violence incident. It’s true for a traffic stop. It’s true for everything.”

This is one potential reason, experts said, that the US has far more police shootings than other developed nations. A 2015 analysis by the Guardian found that “US police kill more in days than other countries do in years.” Between 1990 and 2014, police in England and Wales shot and killed 55 people.

The Vox study, conducted with a researcher at the University of Chicago, established  a correlation between weaker gun laws that facilitate higher rates of gun ownership and elevated numbers of killings by police officers. Correlation, of course, is not causation, but the results are suggestive. The researchers compared state-level gun laws to each state’s fatal police shootings.

The results: There is a correlation between killings by police officers and states’ gun control laws and gun ownership rates. The stronger the gun control laws, the fewer police killings. The higher the gun ownership rates, the more police killings. (You can see the raw data here and the comparison data here.)

As the researchers noted,

That suggests that while America has to address a whole host of issues to bring down its levels of police killings — from department-level policies to systemic racism — it also may be prudent to start thinking of police killings as inherently linked to America’s gun problem in general.

According to the article, the U.S. doesn’t have appreciably more crime than other countries, but we do have more violence associated with that crime. As one expert put it, people everywhere get into arguments and fights. But in the US, it’s much more likely that when a guy gets angry, he’ll pull out a gun and shoot someone.

There’s an old saying that even paranoids have enemies. Police who mistake wrenches and cell phones for guns are wrong, and they need to be trained to verify first rather than shoot first. But America’s gun culture is one reason they’re paranoid.