9 points about the Americans and their guns

1.Most of us, who live throughout the rest of the world, find it very difficult to understand the Americans’ attachment to guns, which has both cultural and constitutional aspects. Without this understanding, it is very easy to be shocked, outraged or mystified whenever another mass killing involving guns takes place in the United States, and to mock or berate the Americans about their seeming irrational and bloody-minded responses to such atrocities. But while virtue signalling only requires conspicuous emotions, and not data, logic or practicality, without understanding the American gun realities you can’t make any reasonable and informed contribution to the debate.

2. Why can’t the government just take the guns away? Because gun ownership is a constitutionally guaranteed right. You might find the 2nd Amendment laughable, terrible or absurd, but that will not make it disappear; the constitution does not depend on your likes and dislikes. There is, in fact, a mechanism for amending the constitution (involving legislative actions on the state level followed by a national vote), so everyone who disagrees with the 2nd Amendment has a chance to work towards its repeal. But there are no magic shortcuts.

3. Don’t hold your breath for such a repeal, however. In a nation of over 320 million, some 45 per cent of all household own firearms (with further 5 per cent refusing to disclose whether they do or don’t). While no one knows the exact number of firearms, some estimates put it as high as 357 million, or more than one per person. The absolutely overwhelming majority of American gun owners are peaceful and law abiding citizens who never figure in any statistics and don’t understand why they should give up their guns because of a tiny minority who commits crimes with theirs.

4. Even if the 2nd Amendment did not exist or by some sheer fluke it managed to get repealed, it bears to contemplate the impossibility of the American government, which hasn’t so far managed to win the war on poverty, or drugs, or terror, somehow being able to confiscate over 350 million firearms, held in some 50-60 million households. If you think this is possible and achievable, you arguably have the faith in the efficiency of (any) government that is really unsupported by any historical experience.

5. This is so even if the substantial majority of people actually cooperated with such a government confiscation. The libertarian, Revolutionary tradition in the United States sees private ownership of firearms as the ultimate insurance against any tyrannical or dictatorial turn in their government. Imagine how different the Nazi occupation of Europe would have unfolded if there was a firearm for every European. This is not to argue about the likelihood of the United States becoming a dictatorship in a foreseeable future, merely pointing out the popular belief in the widespread ownership of guns being a protection against an oppressive government. You might consider this belief to be ridiculous but you won’t change it by ridiculing it. In fact, any attempt at a general firearm confiscation would be seen as precisely an indication that the government is heading into a dangerously dictatorial direction. Millions of average Americans would simply refuse to hand in their weapons, as would, of course, the criminals.

6. All this is why well-meaning calls for the United States to adopt the Australian, or the British, or the Japanese, or any other gun laws, miss the point. The constitutional, political and cultural conditions in the United States are vastly different to just about any country you want to hold up as an example to follow, and make such a straight-forward adoption impossible.

7. Where to from here then? Clearly, even under the 2nd amendment, the right to bear arms is not absolute – private individuals cannot own nuclear weapons, missiles or artillery pieces. Fully-automatic weapons are very rare and access to them is quite restricted. It seems now that while the Las Vegas shooter did not have access to an automatic weapon, he has used a special device – which is quite legal – to effectively convert his semi-automatic into an automatic weapon. There is no reason why such a device should be any less restricted than automatic weapons themselves, since their effect is pretty much the same. This might sound like a ridiculously minor and inadequate response to the tragedy, but it would be a) achievable and b) constitutional.

8. It bears noting that while the atrocities like the ones in Las Vegas or at the Pulse nightclub in Florida not surprisingly generate massive media attention, in many ways they are the outliers, which can create a somewhat misleading overall picture, as the table below demonstrates:


9. I will leave you with an interesting op-ed from yesterday by Leah Libresco:

Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.

Then, my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.

Whether suicides, deadly domestic violence, or gang crime, which together account for an overwhelming majority of gun deaths in the United States, there are no sweeping, utopian solutions, only unsexy, piecemeal and often indirect ones. It’s not what the world – and large number of people in the United States – might want to hear, but it’s the best we can realistically hope for.