The American Soul Is a Murderous Soul
Guns make America more lethal than other countries. But getting rid of the Second Amendment won’t make Americans any less violent.
This is where considerations of the allegedly violent American national character run aground, though in a telling way. Because like most goods and ills in America — from job opportunities to education to healthy drinking water — violence is not equally distributed among Americans. Indeed, drilling down into the demographics of violence in America reads like an indictment of society’s broader treatment of the poor and marginalized. As analysts have pointedly observed, black Americans are some eight times more likely to be murdered than their white compatriots and, in any given year, will be killed at rates anywhere from 10 to 20 times the benchmark OECD rates. When the homicide rates for individual states rather than the national average are compared, the results are damning: The murder rates in Louisiana (11.93 per 100,000) and Washington, D.C., (13.92) are on par with figures from countries like Nicaragua (11), the Central African Republic (11.8), and Côte d’Ivoire (13.6).
Those who cast these figures as artifacts of so-called “black-on-black crime” not only often traffic in thinly veiled racism, but don’t even attempt to understand the problem at hand. Most crimes of any sort in any place — not just murders — involve members of the same group targeting one another in close geographic proximity. And in a nation as segregated as the United States remains to this day, the concentration of violence in crowded ghettos and benighted postindustrial areas should be unsurprising. Americans have a history of citing violence as the cause of their racial prejudices. But the reality is that anti-black racism is itself the defining feature of the institutions and social pressures that generate everyday violence in the United States.
What Americans should reflect on is how deftly their society has contained and distilled the phenomenon into marginalized communities — and how that distribution of violence is something the majority of Americans of either political persuasion tend to deem irrelevant to their periodic national debates about the country’s safety or lack thereof. The Washington-based politician or journalist who sees a headline-grabbing rampage of shootings as a sign that America is descending into barbarity, and as threatening its status as an “advanced” country, exists in a kind of cognitive bubble: Literally only blocks away, bodies regularly drop at rates otherwise only seen in violence-prone corners of the developing world. Taking an even broader view, it is arguable that, but for modern advances in antibiotics and trauma care, murder rates in such parts of the United States would surpass those historically associated with medieval Europe. American “progress,” such as it is, has apparently consisted in merely blunting some deadly outcomes and enabling others.
Guns are undeniably a central part of this landscape. In environments in which violence is already present, and in which more violence is probable, the presence of guns appears to quicken lethal outcomes. This is true on both the level of households and the level of communities. Research indicates that, over the course of their lifetimes, one-quarter of American women will experience physical or sexual violence from a domestic partner; this rate puts the United States alongside Jordan, Serbia, Nepal, and Guatemala. But when a gun is present in an American home where there is a history of domestic violence, the likelihood that a woman living there will be killed has been credibly estimated to increase some twentyfold. On the community level, homicide rates in cities like Chicago and New York are roughly equivalent — but only for murders that don’t involve guns; gun homicides in the former are easily an order of magnitude higher than the latter.
But these considerations do not easily translate to the national level. Although in the past year many cities have experienced a sharp and disturbing increase in homicides, with no clear explanation as to why, overall violent crime rates have been dropping for decades, even as Americans have consistently expressed a conviction that crime has been steadily getting “worse” and even as they have accordingly purchased more guns than ever before. From a certain perspective, when considering America’s unprecedented saturation with firearms, observers may be forced to admit that the surprising thing is how much more violent America could be than it currently is.