Americans, more than any other nationality, love guns. As a corollary, we have way more of them than any other nation has. So it isn’t surprising that we have a relatively high rate of gun violence. However, relative to the number of guns in America, gun violence is actually low compared to other nations. Despite the fact that violence as a whole has declined steadily over the last 20 years, and continues to decline, the American public perceives an increase in gun violence. This perception has, of course, led to wide politicization of the issue, with Republicans generally pro-gun and Democrats in favor of stricter gun control laws. Neither side has a stance that is in line with both American history or culture and the reality of gun violence. And, since Americans, for the first time since the question was asked, overall think that gun rights are more important than gun control, Democrats are making a huge political mistake.
While Republicans would have gun rights and implicitly decreased liberties by the ubiquitous presence of police and continued National Security Agency (NSA) overreach, Democrats would have increased safety at the price of gun rights. This is incompatible with the history of guns in America and other parts of the Democratic agenda. Gun use in America has been historically linked to nature conservation, with figures like Theodore Roosevelt and John James Audubon campaigning for conservation because of their love and respect for nature that they more or less exercised by hunting. It is ironic that being a hunter now results in a conservative perception, lax on environmental issues, when it is essential to hunting that natural habitats are kept healthy. Democrats’ positions on gun control go back to the seldom-quoted part of the famous line from the second amendment. The full quote is:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Democrats ostensibly think that they are enforcing the first part of the statement, the “well-regulated” part. The question, then, is to what extent is regulation in line with the Constitution? The answer to that is complex, but, given that the proposed 2013 Assault Weapons ban would prohibit 48 of the 143 weapons used in mass shootings in the last three decades, they seem to be operating fairly within the spirit of the law. However, the political ramifications of supporting gun control measures like the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 are a great cost when the problem of mass shootings would be better addressed by mental health reform. I do not mean reform for people with severe mental disorders — only 23 percent of mass shooting perpetrators had severe mental disorders, according to a 2001 study — but rather more extensive and available therapeutic support for substance abusers and adolescent males and females in general, measures that have already been proposed in Congress.
Media and schooling in the United States is overwhelmingly anti-gun and anti-violence. Obviously, we cannot tell children that violence is the answer. But that ignores the times, even in America’s history, when violence was so prevalent that, for oppressed groups, it was the answer. The civil rights movement was such a time. According to Charles E. Cobb, Jr., professor at Brown University who recently wrote a book on the importance of armament to the American civil rights movement:
“There was never a family I stayed with that didn’t have a gun. I know from personal experience and the experiences of others that guns kept people alive, kept communities safe, and all you have to do to understand this is simply think of black people as human beings, and they’re gonna respond to terrorism the way anybody else would.”
So it was not just the “extremist” factions of the civil rights movement — like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers — that supported gun rights and violent self-defense. It was every household that felt under threat and unprotected from a white majority, racist influenced power structure. That power structure still exists and, though citizens are technically equal under the law, still clearly discriminates against blacks and other minorities. The idea that gun ownership decreases violent crime overall has been refuted by multiple studies, but when there is a demonstrated bias against a certain group of people from law enforcement, they cannot be blamed for wanting protection.
Protection is now the most cited reason Americans give for gun ownership, trading places with hunting since 1999. This represents a trend in the same spirit as the false public perception of rising crime rates. A common argument cited in the pro-gun crowd is National Rifle Association (NRA) Vice-President Wayne LaPierre’s claim that:
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The idea behind this quote — that gun ownership rates correlate with safety — has been shown to be false by multiple studies, and a majority of researchers in the area consider it false. But at least that statement is sane enough to merit research. What is not sane is the line of LaPierre’s continued argument, which goes on to say things like:
“I call on Congress today, to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation.”
That would be an overreaction, considering that “children are almost 100 times more likely to be murdered outside of school than at school.” And that overreaction points to the heart of the issue with Republican stances on gun control. Americans do not need or want a police state; we want safety and liberty without sacrificing one for the other.
It is hard to separate nationalist, crazed rhetoric and fear-induced paranoia from sound arguments around gun control. Such is the emotional association many Americans have with guns. But that is the point. Americans have a unique gun culture in the world that runs so deep that to work against it in even small ways is discordant. It would take a massive effort to change American attitudes about guns, and anti-gun policies could achieve their goals without reducing gun rights, so when the Democrats allow themselves to be portrayed as the anti-gun party, they concede a political failure.
Alec Woodard is a College freshman from Burlington, Iowa.