Gun control isn’t enough; we need a revival

America has a gun problem, but gun control legislation isn’t enough; we need a 12-step program.

Since the tragic shootings in Newtown CT, we have been buried in a welter of statistics. Support for gun control is rising, we are told, but the polls vary as to the extent of the shift. We are reminded that 60% of men but only 39% of women favor gun rights over gun control, and that Republicans (72%) are more likely than Democrats (32%) to place the priority on gun rights.

Those inclined to dig deeper into the figures recently compiled by the Pew Research Center will discover that support for both gun rights and gay marriage has been advancing in recent years, a sign that libertarian arguments are impacting a wide range of issues.

The Pew study also shows that whites are twice as likely as African Americans or Latinos to value gun rights over gun control. Moreover, white opinion changed radically in the wake of the election of Barack Obama. In 2007, 37% of white Americans valued gun rights over gun control; the figure is now 57%. White opinion on the gun issue flip-flopped in the space of four years.

Americans are far more likely to own guns than anyone else on the planet. Here in the USA, 88.8 out of 100 people own at least one gun, that’s almost one firearm per person. In North America, Americans own guns at three times the rate of Canadians and six times the rate of Mexicans.

Americans are also far more likely to use firearms to kill people. In the United States the homicide by firearm rate is 3.2 per 100,000 per year. In the rest of the developed world, the rate varies between 0.0 in Japan (where a grand total of 11 gun-related homicides were recorded last year) and Belgium, on the high end, with a rate of 0.7 firearm deaths. In Canada, the rate is 0.5, less than one-sixth the American rate.

These numbers can be misleading. As Adam Winkler points out in his book Gunfight, American deaths via firearm are generally related to suicide (there is nothing so sure as a bullet to the brain if you are desperate to leave this world) and gang violence. Fifty-seven percent of American suicides involve guns. The next highest percentage comes from Switzerland (28%), but in Canada it’s only 19% and in England, where gun ownership rates are particularly low, the rate is only 2.8%.
As David Kennedy argues in his book, Don’t Shoot, gun violence is endemic in many inner city neighborhoods. Hip Hop culture both reflects this trend and, in some cases, encourages it. Kennedy argues that most of the shooting is perpetrated by a small number of gang leaders who enjoy the thrill of gun violence. This forces other gang members to arm themselves in self-defense and ensures that when gang members disagree over turf and trade issues, as they inevitably do, gun play is part of the resolution.

But Kennedy points out that most of the killing in these neighborhoods is over minor beefs and is driven more by machismo than the economic and social realities of street life. Most gang members, Kennedy believes, would lay down their guns yesterday if they felt safe. But they don’t.

Shooters interested in killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible have a fondness for semiautomatic weapons and enormous ammunition clips. This doesn’t mean that semiautomatic weapons are more lethal than ordinary handguns. With most modern firearms, one bullet is fired each time the trigger is compressed. The appeal of semiautomatic firearms is more symbolic than practical. Many of these weapons are designed to resemble combat weapons such as the M-16. They don’t spray dozens of bullets per second, but they look as if they could.

If young black males are more likely to use guns to settle street beefs, white males have been responsible for most of the mass shootings in America. And Americans have a frightening proclivity for mass shootings. Ezra Klein points out that fifteen of the 25 worst mass shootings in the past fifty years took place right here in the United States of America. Finland, with two mass shootings, is a distant second.

Conservatives point to the prevalence of gun violence in American movies and video games. The concern is legitimate. Mass shooters tend to see themselves as characters in a video game or a war movie. Massive exposure to graphic depictions of violence can desensitize us to the real thing. Faux violence can create an appetite for the genuine article. The facts suggest that shooters like Adam Lanza do what they do because they live where they live.
Gun violence has become a fetish among us. Our celebration of guns and our faith in redemptive violence create an atmosphere in which alienated, mentally disturbed loners get lost in blood-drenched fantasy.

Non-violence was at the heart of the message Jesus preached. American evangelicals betray their Savior when they reinforce America’s sordid love affair with weaponry. We can’t anticipate the coming of the Christ child unless we embrace the non-violent ethic bequeathed to us by the Prince of Peace.
America has a gun problem. Legislative remedies won’t go deep enough. We need a 12-step program. We need a revival.

Alan Bean

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About the Author
Alan is executive director of Friends of Justice, an organization that creates a powerful synergy between grassroots organizing, civil rights advocacy, the legal community, the mass media and ultimately the political establishment. Friends of Justice is committed to building a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration and mass deportation. Dr. Bean lectures frequently at universities, legal conferences, churches and community organizations on the issues of mass incarceration, drug policy and criminal justice reform. He has been quoted extensively in leading publications such as Newsweek, The Washington Post, USA Today, La Monde and The Chicago Tribune and CNN and his work with Friends of Justice been featured in the religious media outlets such as EthicsDaily.com and the Associated Baptist Press. Dr. Bean is the author of "Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas," an insider account of the events surrounding the Tulia drug sting. He lives in Arlington, Texas with his wife Nancy, a special education counselor and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

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  • Righteous Gun Owner

    I agree that we have a moral deficiency in the United States, but I would better describe the problem as a “fetish for violence in general” rather than specifically for gun violence. The gun is merely the tool of convenience. Further, this fetish exists not among all, but in particular among the young, who have been raised in a culture that increasingly glorifies violence as a solution to one’s problems, and is absent of teachings to love and respect thy neighbor. A gun can murder, and a gun can protect. A good man with a gun is a protector of his neighbor and a deterrent to evil. Self-defense and the righteous defense of life are not sins before the Lord.

    ‘Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’

    We need to focus on the root cause of these killings (moral and spiritual decay) and not on inanimate objects with no will of their own.

  • Jack Byas

    Alan Bean says: Support for gun control is rising, we are told, but the polls vary as to the extent of the shift. We are reminded that 60% of men but only 39% of women favor gun rights over gun control, and that Republicans (72%) are more likely than Democrats (32%) to place the priority on gun rights.

    Reply: Alan you make some valid points in your article. But this one is really wrong. We should not change the rights that we have in the “Bill of Rights” because of polls. Should we change the 1st Amendments right to freedom of the press because the press acts in an irresponsible way? No!!! This nation is a republic not a democracy as many popularly use that term. We are protected from the “tryanny of the majority”. That means protecting free speech even if that speech angers the majority of people. No, we can’t change the “Bill of Rights” based upon what the majority likes or dislikes.