The Second Amendment and Closed Horizons

By Steven Fake

The horror of the Oak Creek and Aurora shootings has once again revived the recurring national debate on the relevance of the Second Amendment for modern society.

The controversy is typically framed by the National Rifle Association – essentially a gun industry front group – on one end, and liberal gun control advocates on the other. This polarity generates much heat, yet skillfully avoids any serious consideration of the underlying cause of the explosive violence in our society, and forces a closing of the political imagination.

It is striking that the extensive media analyses that follows in the wake of these periodic shooting outbursts scrupulously avoid a salient fact. Namely, that it is well established in the academic literature that there is a robust correlation between a nation’s economic inequality and its violent crime rate.1

Proponents of gun law reforms often imply that the Second Amendment is no longer relevant to modern society. Why this should be is not entirely clear. Contrary to stated national foundational aspirations, the U.S. now supports a large standing army. The military is so powerful that private weapons ownership is actually supposed irrelevant to the original concern to provide a check on government force. However, parity with the military is not necessary to act as a disincentive against government heavy-handedness.

The Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement knew this well and would have likely found an erosion of the Second Amendment guarantee troubling. No doubt any sensible popular movement is well advised to remain as scrupulously nonviolent as possible. Yet the basic concern motivating the Second Amendment remains as real as ever.

A heavily armed populace can indeed be remarkably violent. An authoritarian police state with an unchallenged monopoly of force begins to look attractive in comparison with bloody chaos.

However, the choice – between gun rights and potential popular power versus public safety – is a false one.

In fact, gun ownership is not particularly correlated with national firearm homicide rates. To take an example, in Somalia the rate of firearms ownership is only 9.1 per 100 people (compare to 88.8 in the U.S.).

Many of the opinion shapers pushing heightened restrictions on gun ownership are no doubt sincerely concerned with public safety. But they jump to a troublesome solution to a symptom that leaves the underlying problem of inequity utterly untouched. There is also a concomitant underlying assumption that the government is essentially legitimate – that it should have a monopoly of force. The Bacon, Shay, and Whiskey rebellions are a very distant memory.

The U.S. will not be adopting British gun laws anytime soon. The debate actually hinges on stricter background checks and restricting high powered weaponry like assault rifles and large magazines weaponry. Unquestionably, some line on firearm ownership must be drawn. No sane society will allow every citizen who wishes to obtain, say, a tank, or a bomb. We don’t want Sheldon Adelson purchasing fighter jets for his own private militia.

Moreover, there are very legitimate grievances against the U.S. gun industry and its sales to illegitimate international forces ranging from Mexican drug cartels to unsavory armed actors in conflicts across the globe. The U.S. leads the world in lubricating lethal conflicts with such opportunistic small arms sales.

However, that discussion is a different one from a focus on tackling the source of violence in our society. The obvious first step towards reducing crime is straightforward – drastically reduce inequality. Is it any surprise that such talk is permitted no space in the sanctioned public dialogue?

Steven Fake is coauthor of Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA. He resides in Washington D.C.

  1. See, for instance, radical sources like a couple of World Bank economists publishing in the Journal of Law and Economics here and the American Political Science Association here (which states that “A significant positive relationship has been shown to exist between income inequality and violent crime.”); or consult a leading international expert on violent behavior within psychology, as noted here. []

Comments

Comment from Robin
Time: August 8, 2012, 8:56 pm

If there is a correlation between violent crime and inequality, why has crime in the US declined over the last 20 years? Inequality has gone up.

Comment from Steve Fake
Time: August 9, 2012, 1:08 pm

Hi Robin,

It’s a good question and beyond the scope of this post to answer properly. Briefly, though, note that we’re talking about a statistical correlation among nations. Plenty of nations will be outliers and, moreover, violent crime rates are far too complex to be reduced to just one factor. In the case of the U.S., there’s been a concerted move towards a police state in many working class areas of the country. That arose in the last four decades after the riots and revolts of the 60s-early 70s, at about the same time inequality began to grow. That authoritarian policing may well be responsible for depressing crime (along with freedom) despite other factors that would tend to push crime up.

Comment from Jonathan
Time: August 20, 2012, 5:06 pm

While there does seem to be a correlation between certain types of crime and inequality, I don’t think the correlation should be made to do too much work, or at least not without careful nuance. For one thing, it implies that the poor resort to criminality because they are poor and distanced from wealth. While this is true in some cases, it is rather simplistic and perhaps more than a little demeaning. That said, if one adds the further metrics of political, cultural, and so on inequity, or disbalance, arguments from inequality work better. But even then, local conditions and particularities- the contingencies of human life- have to be taken into account. Viz., I feel safer among, say, desperately poor Berbers in the Atlas than I do in some neighborhoods here in St. Louis. Both populations suffer from inequality; the latter, however, also suffer from a very up-close repressive state, as well as criminal networks and patterns not really found in the rural Atlas Mountains.

I would also suggest that a society in which defense is broadly distributed- whether through gun ownership or some other means- would tend to be a less violent society, and certainly a more equitable one. It would not totally eliminate violence, however; there are historical examples of societies in which power was (among men, anyway) pretty equitably distributed among communities in a given region- stateless societies, that is. Full-scale war tends to be rarity, or non-existent, in such societies; small-scale feuding exists, but tends to be regulated and contained. Fending off larger aggregates of political power- state or proto-states- is another issue, however…

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