Wednesday, 19 December 2012

America, You Need To Talk

In a recent on-line discussion down here about the causes of the shocking mass shooting in Newtown, CT, USA, I suggested that gun ownership stats in Western countries indicated that a prevailing culture of violence (which includes real, virtual and imagined violence) was more contributary to the incidence of gun related crime and shooting massacres than gun ownership per se (and I don't hold a torch for gun ownership, btw; just trying to make some sense of the debate). This, I ventured, might explain why these incidents happen more in the USA than anywhere else - there has always been a violent undertone to American culture that Americans tend to rationalise away but that non-Americans find perplexing. Then today I read a reflection on the topic by Alex Massie, a Scottish journalist who spent many years in America as a foreign correspondent, which appeared in the UK Spectator, which follows a similar line of thought. Here's an extract:
"These horrors happen in other countries too – Germany, Finland, even Britain – but they unquestionably happen more frequently in the United States than elsewhere. And they do so even when you control for the number of households which contain a gun (which is not quite the same measurement as guns per capita). So why? What is it about America that makes it different? Any attempt to answer that question is necessarily speculative. Moreover, like most great American problems (and virtues) any mono-causal explanation should be considered suspect. But if it is the culture, stupid, what is it that makes American culture so different, so extreme, so exceptional? I think, like many American stories, the cocktail of history and myth plays a part in helping to explain this. Because, in ways that are not true of really any other western country, the United States was built by guns right from the beginning. The American experience really was different."

Read the whole thing here.
I remember an Australian seminary lecturer who spent a decade or more teaching in the US telling me how frustrating it was to talk to Americans (even fellow confessionally Lutheran Americans!) about their gun culture and how quickly these discussions became heated. Other Australian colleague pastors who have American friends or contacts have reported the same thing recently. The "cultural exceptionalism" of America on guns that Massie talks about explains why that is, I think. Criticism of the US gun culture is perceived by very many Americans as an attack on what it means to be American. American friends and readers, please understand that by suggesting that you need to have a discussion about your gun culture we are not being anti-American; our concern stems from affinity, not antipathy.    
Please pray for the grieving families and friends of the Newtown victims. 


Kevin Davis said...

Yes, our revolutionary founding is important to consider why we are so protective of our gun rights -- this is especially true in the South (the old Confederate states) where we unsuccessfully tried to break from the North. Yet, interestingly, all the recent mass shootings have occurred either outside of the South or by a foreigner (like Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech), yet we have the loosest gun laws and easily the most enthusiasm for guns in the South.

This is a point that I've yet to hear in the media. This wasn't some redneck, gun-toting community. This was Newtown, Connecticut for crying out loud...the epitome of New England affluence and liberalism! If this occurred in my hometown of Kannapolis, North Carolina, people would be screaming, "Oh, those redneck, Bible-thumping Baptists and their guns!"

So, yeah, I'm questioning the whole "gun culture" argument. I think the isolation of our affluent suburbs is a much more logical explanation. By contrast, our closer-knit Southern communities are, honestly, far less likely to produce mass killers. So, I'll keep my gun-toting, Bible-thumping, Southern Baptist neighbors!

Mark Henderson said...

That's a good point about regional cultures in the US Kevin. Could it be that for all its gun loving the South is a more restrained and less anxious culture than the North East, Mid West and West? As Massie writes, we can't easily boil all this down to a mono-causal argument, but culture seems to be a big part of it.

Paul McCain said...

I wish the solution was as simple as simply banning guns, but it isn't.

As for guns, your fellow Australian, Steve Lee, puts my feelings about guns well with this great song:

Mark Henderson said...

Hi Paul,
Thanks for commenting. I certainly agree the solution is not as simple in the US case as it was with Australia. For a start there was widespread support for strict gun controls here when Prime Minister Howard introduced such legislation in 1996 and only c. 5% of thepopulation actually owned guns, and they were mostly farmers. So, it was quite a different culture to the US. I wouldn't expect that to happen in the US, but a public discussion, it seems to me, needs to be had.

Mark Henderson said...

PS I'd never heard of Steve Lee, Paul, but I point out that if he's an Australian citizen/resident he's free to pursue his hooby within the constraints of the Australian firearms legislation. It's a win-win outcome!

David Cochrane said...

Pr Henderson,

I do not think it wise to compare the USA to much small countries such as Germany and Britain. It is much easier to regulate anything when one does not have such a land mass to monitor.

Illicit drugs have been an ongoing target to stop the inflow of them. The George H W Bush war on drugs has not made any impact. As a matter of fact it has increased the violence associated with the drug trade. Similar events surrounded Prohibition of alcohol. Billions on that has produced very minor results. People have found a way to be more creative in the smuggling.

The inflow of undocumented aliens due to increased concerns for national security. Multiple billions on that effort and the tide has not been stemmed. Violence has increased related to this fight but goes mostly unreported.

So now we add making guns more difficult to obtain. I see three main problems with this;

1. This will increase the black market economy on firearms. The only people who this will stop are law abiding citizens who would not, on an average day, contemplate violence using the gun. Pastor McCain for example.

2. Enforcement. A law is only as good as the ability of police to enforce it. Our land has multiple books on criminal law. Only a small fraction of violations every reach the penalty stage. How many additional police would be needed? How much would it cost? And who will pay for it?

The most horrific mass murder at a school was not accomplished with a gun at all. It was in Bath Township in Michigan 1927. One will see it was a home made explosive loaded into a vehicle. Now home made explosives can be manufactured by using a few easily obtained items. Will these need to be regulated to avoid this? How many police would be required to enforce that? How much the cost? And who will pay?

We should, as Christians, always be in prayer to our Father for daily bread which includes safety from wise government. My heart breaks for those grandparents who will never have a Christmas celebration with the children and adults which were killed.

Christ have mercy.

Mark Henderson said...

Thanks for your comment, David. You are right that the size and sheer variety of jurisdictions in the US makes comparisons with other countries fraught. This is one thing I'm getting at by introducing culture into the argument.

In regard to personal gun ownership being a deterrant to massacres, personally I'd rather live in a society where that was not necessary. Surely all right-thinking people would agree, yes? Wouldn't Americans like to move more in that direction than towards a sort of post-modern Wild West? That's really what I'm asking.

As a matter of interest, in Australia the government does monitor the purchase of ingredients that can be used to make explosives, including certain types of fertilizer. It doesn't seem to be a burden on policing and doesn't impinge upon the legitimate uses of such products.

David Cochrane said...

Pastor Henderson,

Yes I totally understand. I would prefer to not live in a modern wild west society.

My concern is not guns particularly. I have no guns and do not want one. It is a concern about liberty. Nearly all of the amendments in the bill of rights are under assault. This is just one more attempt by the fed at robbing us of our rights.

Local governments have and are able to monitor and limit the purchase of guns. However, these limits did not stop this troubled young man from getting one and using it. Nor will they stop any other person with criminal intent.

I understand how everything we buy or sell can be regulated. But at what cost. Who will pay for it since we are facing the so called fiscal cliff. Where will the money come from?

The thing we can do as believers is pray for and trust our Father for daily bread. This of course includes safety and good government.

Please continue to pray for those who lost children in this tragedy. I am a grandfather and I cannot begin to understand how it is to know I would never see my grandchild again.

It is revolting that both sides have taken the low road to discuss their unique agendas. The real tragedy gets very small amount of attention.

Thanks for speaking with me about it.

God's peace is with you. †

Mark Henderson said...

Dear David,

I certainly appreciate the American devotion to liberty. Australia's advance to self-determination, liberty and nationhood has been largely incremental, parliamentary and non-violent. We don't have a Revolution in our past. This undoubtedly accounts for a major cultural difference betwen the US & Australia that Australians don't always understand. We are more likely to trust government because we have never had to fight it to preserve our liberty, and please God we never will.

Yes, we Christians must pray for good government, especially on behalf of those who don't pray themselves. And we can also provide a witness of good citizenship.

Peace to you too David. It's a pleasure to discuss a difficult topic civilly and hopefully make some progress to mutual understanding.

Btw, Australians have fought alongside Americans in every major conflict since WW1, including Vietnam. That experience has cemented strong cultural ties between our nations. My hometown of Brisbane was for several years Gen MacArthur's HQ in the Pacific theatre following his retreat from the Phillipines.

David Cochrane said...

" Australia's advance to self-determination, liberty and nationhood has been largely incremental, parliamentary and non-violent."

Oh how I would want that to be the case here. Given enough time all that would have been ours. However, other parts of the Kingdom's independence has not been so peaceful. The list is quite long.

But our gaining that freedom was not peaceful either. And we have some very determined figure heads working to enslave us again. So called security and safety is the weapon being used. This is from both major parties speaking from the same mouth in different ways. This must be resisted. God grant it to be resisted without violence.

God's peace. †

Mark Henderson said...

Christians can play a crucial role in non-violent resistance to tryranny through prayer, witness and responsible citizenship. We have evidence of this over the last there decades, eg Phillipines, Poland & East Germany.

joel in ga said...

From what I've heard, the perpetrators of these mass killings are often under the influence of high-powered prescription drugs. If so, it is a factor that is rarely given due consideration.

Mark Henderson said...

That is indeed a factor to be considered, Joel. Is it and mental illness taken into account in the US when guns are sold? (I know that in the Newtown massacre the perpetrator used his mother's firearms, although he had apparently tried to purchase his own.) But not all massacres are carried out by the "mad", some perpetrators are just "bad". It seems to me societies need to weigh up the risks of easy access to high-powered and automatic/semi-automatic firearms. Massie suggests the US has thus far opted to accept the risks, most other Western countries have attempted to reduce the risks with strict gun control laws. In the end, it's not for me or any non-American to tell you what to do; it's a diuscussion Americans have to have. Thanks for your comment.