In the wake of a spate of high-profile, violent killings, it is easy to get the impression that America is, more than anything else, the land of the rampaging shootist, a place where every crowded theater has a bulls-eye stamped on it, and no classroom is safe from marauding gunmen. But despite the personal tragedies out of which these fears spring, there may be some consolation in the much more impersonal field of statistics. Consider the following two graphs.
If we can believe that the background check data does mean more guns in more hands, the conclusion is clear. While research does positively correlate higher rates of firearm ownership with higher rates of firearm related deaths in a country-by-country analysis (as everyone, I think, would expect), the above statistics suggest that even in the US, a country with the highest gun ownership rates in the world and a high rate of firearm related deaths, an increase in gun ownership within the country does not indicate a higher number of firearm homicides.
In plain speech, we have a lot of guns here in the US. Many people are killed with guns here too. However, the more guns we buy, the fewer people are murdered with them. This should be good news. While living in a country saturated with guns and ammo does increase your chance of taking a bullet, (which is not ideal) there is every indication that the trend toward supersaturation doesn't further increase that risk (which is somewhat comforting).
I’d like to suggest that this data supports a theory proposed by sociologist Norbert Elias in his 1939 work, The Civilizing Process. While I am sure Elias' work must have run into the standard critique of civilization so fashionable in our era, I must admit, I was quite happy to run across it*, because it articulated an idea I had long suspected to be true, but had never deeply explored.
My instinctive formulation of the idea was as follows. As we industrialize (and even post-industrialize) increasing technological power falls into the hands of an increasing number of people. While this seems to correlate with lower mortality rates and greater quality of life in the long run, it also magnifies the power of the misfit to wreak havoc on his neighbors. Before we learned to drill for natural gas, it was impossible to stop at a local gas station and buy, for half a day’s wages, a steel cylinder capable of leveling a house. Now Blue Rhino provides that opportunity. No rogue terrorist could smuggle a nuclear weapon into a stadium a la Tom Clancy before nuclear weapons were invented. Drunk drivers couldn't kill thousands annually when there were no cars. There is no Great Fire without a great city to burn. But even though our local supermarkets (not to mention our home improvement stores) are now packed with industrial chemicals sufficient to poison, suffocate, or incinerate any number of innocent shoppers, fewer of us die, especially in violent conflicts. Paradoxically, the more and cheaper the avenues we have to murder, the less we employ them.
There is some interesting (if not entirely reliable) data to suggest that this process has been going on for a very long time, hundreds of years even. In his paper, Long-Term Historical Trends in Violent Crime, Michael Eisner argues that pre-modern court records do indicate that violent crime has been on the decrease at least since the Middle Ages.
From a policy-making standpoint, these data are not particularly helpful. “Ignore the problem,” they suggest, “and it will slowly go away.” When we want to find concrete and satisfyingly immediate solutions to our problems (as I usually find I want to do), such advice seems not merely irresponsible and negligent, but positively vexing. It demands explanation.
The most idealist gun-owner's take on the situation might be that we are seeing the doctrine of mutually assured destruction writ large: when everyone has a gun, no one pulls the trigger. The cynic might argue that as the ever softer folds of civilization lap up round us, we ourselves become too soft and weak to properly do one another in. Probably neither is the case. Even the Darwinistic interpretation, that in societies drowning in oversupply, competition for resources ceases to become a factor figuring heavily in mortality rates, seems somewhat lacking. As Eisner puts it, (after exploring many other possible causes in considerable depth) "The problem that divides scholars is the identiﬁcation of the causal factors that have brought about sensitization to violence" (125).
Whatever the explanation, it is to be hoped that the trend continues, that we will continue to be able to lay our hands on the ever-more-empowering products of scientific growth and development, and in so doing, find them less often wrapped around one another’s throats.
*It should be noted that I am not a sociologist, or I suspect I would have been acquainted with Elias work at a much earlier date.