My friend and former colleague — oh heck, let’s get real: my friend and former boss — Jonathan Kay argued recently in these pages that America’s “gun cult” looks to Canadians “like a suicide pact” (‘God, fear & conspiracy theories,’ Jan. 9). “The tip of a privately owned gun,” Kay writes, “has become the great singularity of American cultural and political life — a nexus for all the country’s sour neuroses about government, liberty, religion, crime, race and action-movie virility.” As a Canadian who is no less disgusted than any other feeling human being by the mass shootings in the United States, and as a Kay fan who is familiar with his strengths of logic and argument, I’d nonetheless like to respectfully challenge his conclusions about guns in the United States.
It is clear that there is a strong gun culture in the U.S. And while I think people often underestimate the degree of support gun ownership enjoys in Canada, particularly in rural areas where the practical uses for guns remain in closer contact to everyday life than in cities, it’s still clear that Americans are many degrees of magnitude more committed to guns than Canadians. What is not so clear, however, is that this is a uniquely American phenomenon, or that enacting stricter gun controls is the answer to reducing gun violence.
As of 2012, the rate of gun-related homicides in the Philippines was higher than that in the United States — 8.9 per 100,000 people, compared to 3.3 per 100,000 people, according to the latest numbers I could find from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — while the controls on gun ownership in the Philippines are stricter. And as lawless as the United States can seem when it comes to killing, the Philippines has it beat.
Indeed, murder has become a regular part of that country’s political process. According to a 2010 article in Time magazine, “The past three elections (in the Philippines) have each seen around 120 killings of candidates, supporters and (elections) officials.” The country has tried to counter the problem with a ban on citizens carrying guns during the six months of an election campaign, but the main effect of that initiative seems to be creating a windfall for illegal gunsmiths by heavily increasing demand for black-market weapons.
We talk about America as though it has a perverse monopoly on viewing guns as status symbols and a necessary means of protecting freedom — and your family. In truth, this is not exclusively an 18th-century hangover from the American Revolution. It is true of many other countries, including the Philippines; and it is especially true of countries with recent histories of political tyranny and endemic corruption in police forces.
Kay has previously suggested that Americans’ obsession with guns is rooted in paranoia. I don’t know about that. In a country such as the Philippines, feeling the need to protect one’s self and one’s family from violence committed by those in power is pretty natural given real-life experiences with violent unrest and insurgency since the Second World War. In a country such as the United States, where as I wrote last week, blacks in cities such as Los Angeles can’t and don’t expect police to bring their murderers to justice, it doesn’t strike me as paranoid for people to want to own a weapon to settle things themselves.
I’m not saying that vigilante justice is good, or that we shouldn’t do everything we can to stop gun violence in the United States, and in the rest of the world, for that matter. I’m merely saying that it’s possible — and in my view probable — that there are more effective ways to do that than through gun control.
Combating police corruption, bolstering the speed and efficiency of the legal system, and insisting on race-blind sentencing and prosecution would all help to make citizens feel less vulnerable. Most people don’t buy guns because they’re gun nuts; they buy them because they lack faith in the honesty and fairness of their government and legal systems — and the respect these institutions show for individual rights. Sadly, in most of the world, and even in the United States, that’s really not very paranoid at all.
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