The antipathy of many urbanites who reside in Greater New England (think Old New England and the Midwest) toward firearms and their possessors has always left me puzzled. Aside from editorials and the parade of talking heads, I have come face to face with firearms aversion among some of my wife’s kin. And, being a “nat’ral born durn’d fool” I have form time to time rushed headlong into the fray to convert the heathen to the gospel according to Remington, Mossberg, and Marlin (I’m low church when it comes to firearms.). Dashing my head against a brick wall or perhaps spitting in the wind might have been a more fruitful use of time. After a bit, I decided it was time to withdraw from mission work and seek to understand my kin-in-law’s unregenerate, unenlightened, and superstitious stance on firearms.
So how come so many “dem Yankees” (though not all) hate and fear guns? Good question. In the past I fought against the darkness of ignorance by supplying my opponents with a plethora of data, and data a plenty there is. A Pew Foundation study found that firearm homicides peaked in 1993 and by 2010 had trended 49% lower. Likewise, non-fatal incidents with firearms also dropped by 75% during the same period. The Department of Justice found a similar drop in firearms homicides and non-fatal firearms incidents for the same period (a 39% drop and 69% drop respectively). What about all those school shootings you ask? Well the National Council on Educational Statistics found similar falling trends with respect to violence in schools. After peaking in 2006, violent incidents at school dropped to an eighteen year low by 2010. Likewise, non-fatal school violence has been trending down since its peak in 1993. Even on a global basis the United States comes off well. Nowhere else is gun ownership higher than in the United States, yet the United States ranks below the global mean and median for total homicides (Crime Prevention Research Center, 2014). All of this occurred even as the number of firearms in private hands across the United States soared to 310 million.
Child safety advocates have consistently argued that the presence of firearms in the home presents an unacceptable risk to children, since accidents do happen. Well, not according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2007, the CDC found that automobiles, drowning, fire, and suffocation were far greater risks to the lives and health of children than firearms. Drilling down a bit on drowning deaths of children, one finds that 75% of accidental drownings of children occurred in pools. Put another way, in 2007 more than 450 children died in pools as a result of accidental drowning, meanwhile a total of 124 children died from a firearms accident. I have yet to see child advocates call for the banning of swimming pools and automobiles—I suppose the mortality rates among children from these are acceptable risks, as well as an acceptable cost of the American Dream.
What we do know from all of these studies is two things: widespread gun ownership does not per se create a more violent society or an unacceptable risk to children or adults and that in a society where there is widespread gun ownership, the weapon of choice to do someone in will be a firearm, more accurately a handgun. Does this mean that if we get rid of firearms the homicide rate will trend even lower? Not necessarily, the United Kingdom, according to Home Office crime statistics, experienced a spike in homicides after their gun ban was imposed (The trend has since come down to pre-gun ban levels.) And while a handgun is easy to operate, a Louisville Slugger is even more so. The advocates for banning guns also focus their ire upon semi-automatic versions of rifles that sport an AR-15 or other military platform. Yet these firearms account for fewer homicides than knives and blunt instruments (FBI Uniform Crime Report, any year). Anyone with a modicum of gun sense knows that the iconic bolt action deer rifle is built upon the military rifle platforms of World War One, but as Senator Dianne Feinstein once pointed out, the AR-15 looks “scary.”
So what is really going on here? Why does the debate over guns remain heated and passionate and nearly immune to reason? The reason, I believe, is that the debate is fundamentally cultural. Allow me to explain. I asked my wife about her many extended kin from the deep North, and why they did not agitate for the banning of swimming pools since these represented a far greater risk of accidental death than firearms (My apologies if any of y’all have formed the City on the Hill Central Committee for Keeping Our Children Safe From Rogue Drowning’s by Swimming Pools). My wife kindly replied, “It’s simple knucklehead; they would tell you that the only thing a gun was made for was to kill people.” My cool and rational rejoinder was, “So what.” Now the reality is that firearms do have other purposes, and I know that far more ammo is expended in target shooting than in hunting and homicides combined. But the view of my kin-in-law, and my response, does suggest a provocative cross regional analysis is in order.
I do believe that when the average northern urbanite sees a firearm their visceral reaction is to see, ipso facto, an instrument of chaos, disorder, and bodily harm. Our urban Yankee, whether he is aware of it or not, is the inheritor of a tradition that views government as the entity that keeps the darkness at bay, and his rights intact. It is the passions of the individual which must be curbed and brought into order, for without order, no liberty is possible. When Mr. Obama chided rural voters for wishing to “cling to their Bibles and their guns” he gave perfect voice to this sentiment. The Bible is a rather passé and dated for the new swinging Christianity, and guns, well fools don’t you know the government is trying to protect you from such things, and the people that wield them? What is most interesting is the Greater New England habit of finding evil in instruments rather than in acting moral agents, unless you happen to be Southern. New Englanders have been in the fore front of the crusades against alcohol, cigarettes, and firearms, because all of these represent an instrumental threat to the progressive order they champion. And my dear reader, whether you wish it or not, that progressive order includes you!
Now your average southerner doesn’t quite view the world in the same way. Disorder, though it can be a problem, is best handled and regulated at the local level. This is merely an expression of the old idea that all justice is essentially personal. The greatest danger for an old timey southerner is the perennial human lust for dominion and power. Old timey southerners have always been distrustful of BIG, be it big government, big money or big corporations, which really are all the same thing— they go together like love and marriage, horse and carriage. Moreover, the old timey southerner loves the old constitution, but he knows it is a paper barrier. So guns make sense to him. They afford protection from the local disorders that may afflict him and those he must defend (think home invasion), and they serve as a counter weight against BIG. The poor Yankee urbanite has his sleep disturbed by the mere thought that there are over 300 million firearms in the hands of private citizens; the old timey southerner sleeps better for it.
Thus dear reader, we will never really see the end of the gun debate. Most southerners of my acquaintance really don’t care if Massachusetts bans everything from pea shooters to AR 15s, none of them are making plans to move north. Ah, but we know our good Yankee progressive can’t stop at the borders of his home state; he wants to bring the City on the Hill to you. So, on the issue of guns, we are and will remain still Rebels, still Yankees.