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On the Guns Thing, I would Just Like to Point Out…

December 15, 2012 by and tagged

This obvious set of facts:

See the differences? See the statistically significant correlation between homicide by firearms and ownership of firearms? See the massive difference between the United States and other developed countries?

Now, since yesterday, we have heard a whole bunch of rationalizations as to why this has nothing to do with guns. So, let me unpack some of these rationalizations.

Rationalization #1: violence is part of human nature.

If that were the case, the rates of violence between the United States and comparable countries would be, well, comparable. Heck, violence rates all over the world would be roughly at the same rate. There is nothing “natural” about violence. There is nothing genetic about it. It is not universal. To state that violence is universal and part of human nature fails to explain the scatterplot above.

Rationalization #2: If the killers had not used guns, they would have used something else (follows a long list of potential weapons).

Except, they did not, did they. These killer had access to these alternative weapons all along. So why did they pick guns? R#2 does not explain the choice of guns in the first place. The reason they picked guns was that guns are available relatively easily. They are also lethally effective (and a lot of  people pointed out that the Chinese attacker went after the same number of children with a knife and none of them died). And the kind of guns these killers chose were those that would provide them with great and easy means of piling up a solid body count.

Also, no one knows whether the killers would have turned to other weapons. had guns not been available. It is pure speculation.

Actually, we may suspect that they would not. When other societies removed weapons, the number of homicides drops to low levels. Again, just look at the scatterplot above.

To be fair though, the scatterplot below shows what percentage of homicides were committed with firearms. The correlation becomes weaker, but still holds with three outliers.

In other words. countries where forearms ownerships is lower than the US are not full of murderers using other weapons available to them.

Rationalization #3: It’s because of diversity. All these other countries have much more racial and ethnic homogeneity than the United States.

Note that no evidence is ever offered of that claim. But let’s accept it for the sake of argument. The majority of homicides in the US are committed within racial and ethnic groups, not across racial and ethnic lines. If diversity was the issue, we would be discussing epidemics of cross-racial / cross-ethnic violence. That is just not the case. And in the vast majority of the killings under discussion, it is usually white killers / white victims. Diversity has nothing to do with it. Illegal immigration has nothing to do with it. When was the last time such killings were committed by undocumented immigrants?

As a general rule, when people invoke “diversity” as the independent variable (never operationalized as a variable, but amorphously invoked nonetheless), it is the PC way of making a racist argument (it’s because of the non-white people that other European countries don’t have) without being called racist. And it’s wrong every single time.

Rationalization #4: the killers are mentally ill, therefore, no gun regulation will do anything.

This one often comes even before we even know anything about the killers but all of a sudden, everyone becomes capable of psychiatric diagnosis. Again, this one does not explain the scatterplot above. One would still be left having to explain why the United States has a higher rate of mental illness. But then, one would still have not explained the link mental illness → gun violence.

This rationalization also assumes that mental illness is an objective category completely disembedded from culture. As I have argued before, mental illness does not exist separate from culture. As Howard Becker showed us a long time ago, a category like “mentally ill” is one that is socially constructed through a variety of social processes having to do with specific professions and producing results such as the DSM. The DSM is not an objective categorization of symptoms and conditions. It is influenced by – and influences – our culture. Once socially produced, the designation of “mentally ill” is then applied as a label to a series of observable behavior that violate norms.

If one wanted to invoke mental illness as an explanation for the shootings, one would still need to explain why the person decided to get guns and shoot others as opposed to, say, run naked in the streets, a behavior that would also get the person defined as mentally ill. And one would still have to explain why mentally ill people do not pick killing with guns as the behavior expression of their mental illness in other countries.

The truth is that mentally ill people are just as influenced by the culture as the rest of us. They are just as socialized in a culture that provides scripts regarding masculinity, violence, power and, yes, guns. It is culture that makes available the idea that one’s masculine anger is to be appeased to murder suicide by gun.

And then, once these rationalizations are in place, solutions are offered:

Solution #1: more guns

Based on the scatterplot above, this one should have been laughed out of town a long time ago.

This idea is based on cultural narrative that have the force of myth: (1) a good guy with a gun will always shoot better than the bad guy; (2) any good guy with a gun will always overpower a bad guy with a gun; (3) a good guy with a gun will never make a mistaken identification; (4) all such situations are always unambiguous, the parties have been clearly identified, the potential victims are out of the way, all that is left is the good guy v. the bad guy, Death Wish-/Dirty Harry-style.

Solution #2: more God

I know this one sounds stupid but it has been trotted out, so, keeping in mind the scatterplot above, consider this:

As you can see, the US has higher rates of religiosity compared to its level of wealth, making its levels of religiosity compared to that of South America rather than the economically-more-comparable Europe. There is already more God in the US than in other part of the developed world.

And if you look at religiosity within the US, you will find all sorts of behavior (like murder) correlated with high religiosity:

The truth is that lower levels of religiosity correlates with lower levels of violence (interpersonal and structural).

So, overall, the data is pretty clear and so are the policy implications. And I would just like to add one more thing:

Now, you will note that the arguments on masculinity, white privilege, mental illness and health care in general, inequality and gun policy are all arguments that we are told to not make because it is insensitive. Then, ask yourselves, who benefits when these issues are not discussed and problems not solved?

Posted in Sociology | 16 Comments »



16 Responses to “On the Guns Thing, I would Just Like to Point Out…”

  1.   Muscat Says:

    I support your arguments, but you are using the wrong data to bust rationalization #2. “% of homicides by firearms” can’t do the work you are wanting it to – it should instead be something like, rate of all homicides.

    •   SocProf Says:

      That’s what it measures. May the phrase is wrong but that’s the measure.

      Edited: actually, I take that back, looking at it again, this is pretty clear. Some people are deliberately misreading this. It’s clear that it’s “% of all homicides committed with firearms”.

  2.   Gabriel Says:

    That should have said “Muscat is right.” I don’t know how I mistyped that… Sorry!

  3.   Chaim Kaufmann Says:

    Muscat is right. What is wanted is homicide rate against firearms ownership.

  4.   ho-hum Says:

    Well, putting your comment in such an aggressive way belies your claim to neutrality. And also, you are quite obviously misreading the chart. As the number of firearms per 100,000 people increases, the percent of homicides committed by firearms increases. The outliers are Italy, Switzerland, and the United States, which reduce the correlation. In Switzerland, there is an argument to be made that the issuance of firearms to all majority-aged male citizens has something to do with the obvious bias towards gun-murder. Otherwise, seems pretty clear cut to me.

  5.   ho-hum Says:

    Actually, now I see the point being made. The problem is that we don’t have a picture of how many homicides are committed in each of the sample countries. With that data, you could refute rationalization #2.

    •   Gabriel Says:

      Right. If Rationalization #2 is false, then I would expect the “Sheet 2″ chart to show all the rates up near 100% (i.e. people /don’t/ turn to other weapons). If Rationalization #2 is true, I would expect the chart to be similar to the “Sheet 1″ chart (which, it /kind of/ is).

      I was being aggressive because Muscat already pointed it out, and SocProf glossed over it. I’m honestly on the fence on the issue.

      •   SocProf Says:

        As I said, the correlation is weaker (mostly because of the weight of the three outliers) but the pattern is the same. And the Y-axis is “% of homicides with firearms”, that’s pretty clear.

    •   SocProf Says:

      Really? Why don’t you do it. Actually, you’re wrong and I’m willing to bet that if I had used that data, the response would have been “oh, but there are more people in the US than in [country X], so, of course there are more murders.” And there are many more murders in the US. The pattern holds.

  6.   Thorstein Says:

    Muscat is wrong; Kaufmann is wrong. Paid trolls (e.g. those paid by the NRA) have powerful “bots” that scour the web, looking for opposing opinions. As soon as one is detected, the trolls seek to be the first to comment and to take control of the argument. If they are unable to directly refute an argument, they resort to obfuscation such as the preceding.

    This is a great post! I am forwarding links to it widely. I wish SocProf would remove the trolls’ comments. They succeed too well in raising false doubt in readers.

  7.   Glen Campbell Says:

    Why do charts like this always include Canada but not Mexico?

  8.   Bparker19 Says:

    Switzerland and Canada have high gun ownerships and homicide rates 1/3 of rate of America’s. Why are the Swiss and Canucks so much more responsible?

    Just as children learn from their parents, citizens learn from their government. Switzerland is neutral. They do not send troops abroad. Canada invented peace keeping. America uses drones to kill “suspected militants” in undeclared wars and invades nations over invented information, and sometimes kills first responders with the “Double Tap” method. Switzerland and Canada have had universal healthcare for decades. Canada was the second nation to legalize same sex marriage and Switzerlands civil union laws have allowed same sex couples the same rights as hetersexual couples since the 1980s. These different views on social and foreign policy percolate through our media and affect our children. So the problem involves guns but it is bigger than that. It is cultural. This is Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame 2000 style.

  9.   Shira Says:

    It might be useful to break out “religiousness” into separate groups. For instance, the top states in the table tend to have high numbers of Evangelical Christians. Utah is also quite religious, but the majority are Mormons, and its scores on other criteria are notably different from the states around it. No, I’m not a Mormon, so I’m not engaged in special pleading. Rather, it seems to me that religions are not alike in their influence on how people live their lives, and that ought to be reflected in the data.

    •   SocProf Says:

      Because the issue is religiosity, not religion per se. One would have to demonstrate that certain religion correlates with higher / lower religiosity. I’m sure Pew Forum has that but the general point was that the US ranks higher in religiosity than the rest of the developed world.

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