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.
- 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. [↩]