The shootings at Virginia Tech University first provoked a welter of condescending lectures from European media outlets (‘USA’s gun-mad culture reaps what it sows’ and the like); then a counter-reaction of outraged letters to the editor from Americans. Der Spiegel does us a service — possibly — by reprinting samples of both here (G). Neither side covers itself in glory, which is why I try to stay out of these debates.
Nevertheless, I thought I’d weigh in with a few points. First, this massacre has no implications for policy. Spree killings like this one are an frightening, but extremely rare, occurrence in modern societies, including Germany. They probably cannot be prevented altogether. The amount of media coverage they attract, while understandable, is wildly disproportionate to their real importance.
America’s ‘gun culture’ takes a lot of flak from Europeans, because it plays into the treasured stereotype of trigger-happy Americans. All cultural condescension aside, though, the evidence shows that the widespread distribution of portable firearms in the United States is the most significant factor driving the difference in murder rates between the U.S. and Europe.
Anyone who would like to go into the issue further might want to read Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins’ 1997 book Crime is not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America. After establishing a basis for comparisng crime rates between the U.S. and Europe, they come to some conclusions that might surprise some people. Europe is actually just about as crime-ridden and violent as the U.S., in general. Crime also follows very similar patterns in the U.S. as in Europe: it’s concentrated in urban areas and among ethnic minority populations. This means the much larger ethnic minority populations in the U.S. are an important explanatory factor in the difference in crime rates.
The U.S. does have a dramatically higher murder rate than Europe, however. And about half of this higher murder rate is explained by guns. Especially pistols, which are much more dangerous than rifles or shotguns, because they are portable, easy to conceal, and lethal. (This is why all those stories of how many Swiss own rifles are red herrings). An example: The homicide rate in the U.S. by all means (shooting, poisoning, stabbing, etc.) is about 3.4 times higher than the homicide rate in England in Wales. The homicide rate by firearm, however, is 175 times higher in the U.S. Drawing on this staggering difference, Zimring and Hawkins conclude that about half of the difference between European and U.S. homicide rates is explained by the prevalence of firearms, especially portable ones. (pp. 109-110).
The chance of any given citizen being killed by a mass-murdering fanatic are practically nil. That person’s chance of being killed by an enraged ex-spouse; angry drug supplier or gang competitor; opponent in a drunken brawl; or armed robber (together, these categories account for something like 85% of all murders), vary greatly depending on whether the attacker uses a gun, as opposed to something much less lethal, like a knife, club, or his fists.
So the lesson is: if you’re not in any of these categories I just mentioned, your chances of being murdered, both in the U.S. and in Europe, are virtually non-existent. Great news, isn’t it? However, they will be slightly higher in the U.S., because there are lots of pistols in circulation over there. One reason I like living in Europe is that I never worry, for a single second, about getting shot here. Sure, I might get mugged, or somebody might take a swing at me in a bar (although this has never happened to me), but the chance I will be shot for some reason is so small I can safely ignore it, along with the possibility I might be hit by a radioactive meteorite, or selected to win the lottery even though I didn’t buy a ticket.
In most U.S. cities though, you feel a very slight current of nervous awareness anytime you’re in public, mixing with strangers. It’s nothing crippling, but it’s there. Not because you’re likely to run into an alienated, pistol-packing mass murderer. Rather, because there’s a tiny risk that any routine confrontation that does take place could end up with your opponent pulling a gun. Granted, it’s incredibly unlikely even in the U.S., but if it does happen, the consequences can be devastating. And we tend to worry about rare, spectacular risks more than ever-present, mundane ones.
What, if anything, the U.S. should do about this state of affairs is a can of worms I don’t want to open too far, which will surely disappoint some readers. I will limit myself to the following observations: We are not worried here about law abiding accountant John Smith, who buys a pistol to do weekend target-practice. The key factor is how easy it is for society’s most unstable, dangerous members to somehow come by pistols. Of course, liberal gun laws allowed the Virginia Tech shooter get his guns.
However, most guns used in crimes are stolen or borrowed. They are just not that hard to find in dicy neighborhoods and public places in the U.S. So, even if you can’t buy a gun, you may, for example, find one when you’re robbing a stranger’s car. You’ll certainly take it, since it (1) is worth a couple hundred bucks; (2) prevents the car owner using it on you if he finds out you robbed his car; and (3) and ‘could always come in handy sometime.’ Or you can buy one from the shifty guy down the street for money or drugs; borrow one from your neighbor; steal one when you burgle a home, trailer, or gun shop (in some neighborhoods, there’s one in almost every house, and you’ll certainly take it — see above); pinch one from a drunk or dozing policeman or security guard; find one in an abandoned or lost duffel bag, etc.
Once again, in Europe, your chance of just accidentally coming across a usable pistol are much lower, although obviously not nonexistent.
So any solution that stops short of massively reducing the number of free-roaming pistols in the U.S., or fitting them with indefeasible security devices that let only the owner use them, will probably be ineffectual. That’s as far as I’m prepared to open that can of worms, feel free to open it further in comments!