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Harold Meyerson: The party of the packing

  • Washington Post
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, at 12 a.m.

Compare the rate of murder by gun in the United States to the rate in any other advanced industrial nation, and you’re forced to draw one of two conclusions: Either there are far more homicidal people in this country than just about anyplace else on Earth, or far more guns. We must either be home to more people who succumb to murderous rage or who kill out of the coldest of calculations, or it’s easier to pick up a gun and start shooting here than in any comparable country.

And yet, I’ve never heard even the staunchest gun advocate make the case that Americans are inherently more homicidal than everyone else. They repeat ad nauseam that people, not guns, kill people; but they don’t argue that there’s something about Americans that make them kill more than their counterparts in other nations.

Meanwhile, look at the numbers. In the United States, there are 3.2 gun homicides per 100,000 residents every year. Switzerland has the next highest rate of any advanced Western democracy, at 0.7 per 100,000. After Switzerland, the rate drops to 0.5 in Ireland and Canada; 0.4 in Sweden and Finland; 0.2 in New Zealand, Spain and Germany; 0.1 in France, Britain and Australia; and a flat zero in Japan.

Want to argue that we have 32 times the rate of dangerous mental illness that they have in Australia? That Americans are characterologically 16 times more murderous than Spaniards or Germans? I thought not.

But in America, people who snap are a heck of a lot more likely to have a gun close by. The rate of gun ownership in the United States is 89 per every 100 people. No other advanced society has a rate even close to that. In Austria, France, Germany, Norway and Sweden, the rate clusters between 30 and 32 guns per 100 people. In Britain, the rate is six guns for every 100 Brits.

The idea that guns make a place more dangerous rather than safer is borne out within the United States. The states with the highest level of gun homicides – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama – are among those with the highest levels of gun ownership.

None of this is to argue against the need for better mental health treatment and counseling. But unless an incomprehensibly higher share of Americans are dangerously deranged than are Frenchmen, Aussies or Swedes, the way to bring down the number of deaths by gunshot is to reduce the number of guns.

That may not be quite the Sisyphean struggle that we assume. For one thing, the percentage of Americans who own guns has been declining for decades. According to the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey, the percentage of households that reported owning guns declined from 54 percent in 1977 to 32 percent in 2010. That shouldn’t be surprising: Fewer Americans live in rural areas, while the number of hunters has shrunk. At the same time, however, the number of guns abroad in the land has increased – because a minority of Americans are stocking up on handguns and rifles.

There’s a name for those gun buyers: Republicans. The 2010 General Social Survey showed that 50 percent of adult Republicans owned guns, while only 22 percent of adult Democrats did. This gap in gun-ownership rates has swelled over the past 40 years: In the 1973 survey, 55 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats had a gun at home. Polls suggest this gap will continue to widen: In the 2008 national exit polls, the percentage of Democrats with guns declined as the age cohorts grew younger, while the GOP rate of gun ownership was the same across all age groups. Increasingly, then, it’s our shrinking Republican minority that is buying guns.

There are multiple ways to interpret this partisan split. In part, it reflects the continuing shift of the white, disproportionately gun-owning South into the Republican column. In part, it reflects the paranoid hysteria that right-wing media and the gun lobby stir up every time there is a Democratic victory.

But the numbers are plain: Just as the danger of gun violence rises with the number of guns, so the share of adamant opponents of gun control – disproportionately, gun owners and Republicans – is waning. Making America safer by restricting the sale of guns is politically safer than many of our leaders believe.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of the American Prospect.

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