Charleston Was No Accident; It Came Out of "The System"

Like so many others, I cannot get the shootings in Charleston out of the center of my mental screen, but, before I continue, it’s important to tell you where I stand on the matter of guns, even though that’s not the theme of this post. I am strongly opposed to the prevalence of firearms in the US. And I am also skeptical about virtually every proposed solution to deal with the non-obvious result of having so many firearms, the world record on non-military homicides. It is not as obvious as those who are appalled by what has been happening here argue.

The issue here is the same one I wrote about concerning sustainability. Our responses to gun violence are only aimed only at the symptoms, not the causes. Gun control measures are analogous to recycling. They aim to make the problem less worse, but have little or nothing to do with the basic causes. The most recent murderous act in Charleston had exposed this. Gun violence is deeply embedded in our culture, and so is its variant, gun violence against blacks. Until we are ready to admit to these roots and change our beliefs and values, we will still lead the “enlightened” world in violent acts. I have plotted some publicly available data on guns and homicides to see if some sort of explanatory patterns might result. I find the data do tell a unique story about the US.

The first graph plots the number of guns per 100 people against GDP. I wanted to see if there was some correlation between wealth and gun ownership. Since guns cost money, I expected some upward trend and found it as the correlation line indicates, but the US is a huge outlier, requiring some non-economic explanation. I will come to that later, but first some more data.

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The next plot shows the homicide incidence plotted against GDP. The data clearly divide into two groups, the rich and the poor. The poor countries show very high rates of gun violence, but form a distinct cluster with quite a bit of scatter. Almost every South and Central American country falls into this group, that is, low wealth and high violence. India is an interesting exception with very low GDP, but homicide rates like the rich European countries that fall on the high end of the GDP axis.

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Looking at that end, the US is once again an outlier with a rate of homicides about 15 times the average of other wealthy countries. The average poor country has a rate of violence almost 90 times that of the wealthy countries (without USA included) and about 40 times that when the US is included.

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The last plot shows the homicide rate against the frequency of gun ownership. Except for two outliers, Honduras and the US, there seems to be little correlation, that is, the level of violence indicated by gun homicides and the number of guns are unrelated. Again we can see that the US is an outlier. The opponents of gun ownership making their arguments largely on 1st amendments rights and invoking excessive threats to life and property fail to see or simply ignore the fact that the US cannot be compared to any other country rich or poor. Any way you look at it, we have a different relationship to guns than the rest of the world.

If gun homicide frequency can be taken as an indicator of general societal threat level, we should not need so many guns to protect ourselves, as this last graph shows. The relationship between gun ownership and homicides as an indicator of societal danger is weak and fails to explain why a country with so little relative violence (measured by homicide levels) needs so many guns. I have inverted the usual relationships and used homicides, as the independent variable.

Now let me get to the point. If we want to understand and do something about the terrible consequence of gun violence, we must find something other that trying to regulate gun purchases. The NRA’s opposition to gun control is more likely a ploy to keep us focused on the wrong issues that a real concern that gun control will change much. As I argue when I write about flourishing or sustainability, the problems arise from a systemic set of causes. Recycling or carbon taxes may make the problems less bad, but have no effect on the processes that create the problem in the first place. The real culprit creating unsustainability is our culture and its underlying structure of beliefs and norms. If we do not change our fundamental, modern beliefs about the world, all our technical fixes will come to no avail. Behind every program with the name of sustainability is the intention to continue to grow economically. But growth is not the correct target; it should be flourishing. Growth, even eco-efficient growth, cannot continue forever in a finite world in spite of the flag waving of technological optimists.

Gun control is no more than such a technical fix to a problem arising from our culture. There is no rational reason to own a gun for protection against random violence. The data I showed above negate this argument. Nor is there any real threat of government suppression, but the American creation story lives still. Our nation was born out of a reaction to such suppression by another sovereign, but it is rationally so unlikely that our own sovereign, that is, we, will turn against ourselves that this argument falls flat. Against the First Amendment arguments, the right to bear arms does not mean that it is right to carry arms. If we are serious about reducing the prevalence of gun deaths in the US to the same level that other similarly modern countries exhibit, it is imperative that we examine the system within which these events occur, and find causes and solutions at that level.

Events like the Charleston massacre are not an accident as Rick Perry said. Shame on you, Rick Perry. This was the result of the white supremacy culture still deeply embedded in the old South. It is no longer politically correct to talk out of a racist mouth, but actions belie the words. The notion of supremacy is even more dangerous when coupled with the frontier mentality that still lingers in many parts of the US. The egalitarian principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence are a mockery when seen against the idea of Southern or Western justice at the end of a rope or gun. Violence is in our DNA and will continue to shape action until we face that fact and change it is we want to.

We are the arms dealer to the world. We believe we can dominate other nations, less superior to us for reasons not unlike those invoked in historic arguments about race in the US, by out gunning them. If we do not start to examine both our violent foundations and our persistent racism, we will only continue to suffer the consequences of gun violence both at home and abroad.

I find it very sad and disheartening that the conversations that accompany violent acts such as that in Charleston show such complete lack of both systemic understanding and empathy for those caught up in twisted thinking of gun owners. This extract from a Guardian article was the trigger for this post.

Board member Charles Cotton, however, strayed from the script late on Thursday, when he posted a comment online blaming the pastor killed in the South Carolina shooting, Clementa Pinckney, for the death of his eight congregants.…Cotton, who did not return a message left at his Houston-area law firm, pointed out on a Texas gun forum that Pinckney was a state senator who had voted against a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits.…“Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead,” Cotton wrote. “Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

The “script” mentioned is the practice of avoiding any comment on noteworthy killings. I find this the ultimate in proposing a purely technical fix instead of a system examination. More guns is clearly not a solution unless we want to see more and more public shootings. The data above also show that more guns are poorly correlated against violence.

So let me begin an investigation into ways to reduce gun violence in the US at least to the level of our sister developed, rich nations. Looking at the first graph, we can see a very strong relationship between wealth (or poverty) and gun violence. I suspect that gun deaths are a good proxy for violence in general. This alone is a good excuse for poverty reduction beyond the moral foundation of our Nation. Apologists for gun ownership like to point out that our outlying position, vis a vis, other wealthy nations would not be so extreme if we segregated the data from inner cities. They are correct, but that’s just the point. Our inner cities have gun death statistics similar to the cluster of poor nations. More guns to keep the minority inhabitants of the inner cities under control is absolutely the wrong solution. I know there is much written about this by scholars much better trained than I am. For me, and I hope you, it doesn’t take rocket science (or a good sociologist) to see through the smoke and haze that accompany our public discussions of gun violence and what to do about it. Let’s start with inequality and old still-festering prejudices of all sorts, racism being the name of only one.

Prejudices are part of being human. Everything that means anything to us is the result of filtering a meaningless world of perceptions through what might be called our prejudices. There is nothing good or bad about this statement. That we see a white and a black person as different beyond their skin color is the result of a prejudice. We cannot help that, but what we can and should do is not to act unthinkingly on our prejudices without further considerations. Life gets dicey when our prejudices conflict with the moral structure of society. It is clear to me that this is happening in spades. We do need, as many are saying now, a national conversation about racism and classism (which has become even more prevalent that racism writes Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis). Only through a process that exposes the systemic causes of the problems we want to get rid can we begin to make progress. I urge all those who believe that better gun control will solve the problem to take another look.

ps. Removing the Confederate flag won’t change anything significantly. It might make matters even worse as visible signs of a pathological prejudice would disappear, thus appearing to have dealt with the source. Relabeling a bottle of whiskey as milk has no effect on an alcoholic.

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