In the US, the gun is a talisman of rugged virtue in the face of a changing world
The American attachment to guns has much less to do with high constitutional principle or even practical need (67% of gun owners may say they have guns “for protection,” but crime rates in America have plummeted since 1990; there is an inverse relationship between rates of violent crime and the manufacture of guns, which has grown exponentially in the last 20 years)columns Updated: Jun 02, 2018 10:30 IST
Even though I live and have grown up in the United States, I remain a perplexed outsider when it comes to one of the defining features of American culture: its obsession with guns. According to the Small Arms Survey, 48% of the supposedly 650 million privately-owned guns in the world are in the United States. For every 100 Americans, there are 89 guns. (At 46 million weapons, India has the second largest stockpile of private guns, but it ranks a lowly 107th in the world in terms of guns per capita.) A more recent study suggests there are now more private guns than people in America.
Those numbers are imprecise in part because guns are so loosely controlled in the United States. The “epidemic” of school shootings in this country continues unabated, most recently in Noblesville, Indiana, on May 25. Every shooting leads to a similar debate, pitting advocates for gun control against those who demand gun rights. But empirically, there are no grounds for debate. After mass shootings in Switzerland, Australia, and Germany, tighter gun laws and outright bans on guns have seen precipitous falls in the numbers of such episodes. Other countries share the American love for violent video games and have similar failures in their mental healthcare systems. All countries have people who are lonely, hateful, destructive and self-destructive. But they don’t have to endure these massacres so often because guns aren’t as readily available.
I have never fired a gun, never held a gun, or ever desired a gun. In my circle of friends and colleagues, I don’t know anybody who owns one. Frankly, I don’t see why anybody should own any kind of gun without an explicit licensed reason to do so (to hunt, perhaps, or to ward off aggressive bears in the woods).
That flies in the face of deeply held convictions in America. Many gun-rights advocates argue that guns don’t simply keep them safe; they keep society free. The second amendment of the US constitution enshrines the right “to keep and bear arms.” The goal of this 18th century amendment was to sanction local militias as checks on the overweening central authority of the state. According to a 2017 Pew study, 84% of American gun owners think that their right to arms is an essential part of their freedom, as important as freedom of speech, the right to privacy, and the right to vote. An armed citizenry, they insist, curbs the State’s monopoly on the means of violence, making an abusive government less likely.
That is a nonsensical position in the modern age. The powers of a 21st century government far outstrip its 18th century equivalent. For an armed citizenry to be able to muster a proportionate check on the state’s military power, they would need tanks and fighter jets, not just semi-automatic weapons and reams of bullets. Yet the second amendment doesn’t grant access to those kinds of machines of war. Moreover, what can guns do to guarantee freedom from the excesses of a technological state? Guns won’t protect you from the State’s expanded systems of knowledge and control. Pulling a trigger can’t stop the State from listening in on phone calls, tracking Internet search behaviour, monitoring private bank activity, and so forth. The 18th century musket may have ably defended physical property from overbearing government officers, but guns have no real role in protecting our modern freedoms.
Curiously, in decades past, Americans were less ideologically committed to guns. In 1959, for instance, 60% of Americans supported a possible ban on handguns, the most common gun owned in the country. In 2018, that number has dropped to a mere 27%.
American gun owners today tend to be white, male, conservative and often from rural parts of the country. Gun-rights supporters have institutional outlets in the Republican party and in the wealthy lobbying group the National Rifle Association. They peddle often laughably preposterous arguments in defence of the profusion of guns in American society, but their success lies less in making sense than in conjuring emotion.
The American attachment to guns has much less to do with high constitutional principle or even practical need (67% of gun owners may say they have guns “for protection,” but crime rates in America have plummeted since 1990; there is an inverse relationship between rates of violent crime and the manufacture of guns, which has grown exponentially in the last 20 years). Instead, the gun is invoked as an almost sacred marker of identity, a talisman of rugged virtue in the face of a changing, complicated world. This is the real reason guns remain tenacious in the United States. They are integral to the “culture war” politics of our times, in which matters of policy become insensible to all reason.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories
The views expressed are personal