Violence In America

In some sense, I suppose, this post can be read as a follow-up to my previous one since both seek to explain the same thing.

Numerous theories have been advanced to explain why it is that America is so prone to violence and leads the world in violent deaths by firearms. Perhaps the most popular study was that by Michael Moore in his documentary Bowling for Columbine in which he concluded that the only thing that set America apart from the rest of the world was the violence shown on our news programs. I always thought this a weak conclusion, but I saw the difficulty in finding a key ingredient in the formula to explain America’s past and present tendency toward violence.

Upon reading John Murrin’s essay about the “Making and Unmaking of an American Ruling Class”  (in his book Rethinking America) it occurred to me that perhaps the answer to the question why America is such a violent country lies in the historical record which shows Americans to have always, from the beginning, insisted on having a firearm ready at hand. To understand this a bit better, it might help to have some background.

Murrin argues that many of the earliest settlers in this country were never from the elite classes in England (in particular) but, rather, “the younger sons of English gentry or merchants.” These men aspired to leadership in the new country and managed to create an appproximation of the English ruling classes, albeit not bound by the same rules that might lead to an aristocracy — though there were some, such as Alexander Hamilton, who would have loved to mimic the English royalty as much as possible. Americans, for the most part, prized their independence and while early on they regarded themselves as English citizens, with all that that entails, they eventually, as we know, threw off the English yoke in order to achieve the independence they had come to value so highly. And they never trusted those who aspired to aristocracy. Hamilton and the Federalists hung on until Jefferson’s presidency, but they then faded into the dust. America’s thirteen colonies  became, in Murrin’s words, a “paradise for the younger sons” who were denied status among the landed gentry in England by laws such as entail and the so-called rights of primogeniture.

More to our present point, early on the colonies had no standing armies — with the exception of New York which had a small one — and the governors, appointed by England for the most part, ruled by deference and the handing out of privileges rather than the use of force. This made America unique among civilized nations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, as Mullin points out,

“. . .the absence of a standing army in most colonies for most of the colonial era compelled the government to insist (except in Quaker societies) that the settlers arm themselves. In no American province did the government establish the monopoly of violence that Europe took for  granted by the eighteenth century, and firearms were always and still are more widely available in America than in any other Western countries.” [Italics added]

This helps explain the insistence in our Bill of Rights upon the “right” of the militia to bear arms — the Second Amendment that is so very controversial today. That Amendment, please note, guarantees every male citizen the right to bear arms because he is expected to defend his colony against any presumed outside threat to peace and order; like Cincinnatus in ancient Rome he was a citizen-soldier. In the end, of course, the militia was called upon to free the colonies from English rule, which provided George Washington with his greatest challenge, constantly frustrated by his inability to mold such a diverse group of volunteers, who deserted in appalling numbers, into a disciplined army.

In any event, the notion was with us from the very start that all men were expected to bear arms because of the lack of a standing army; the possession and use of firearms has always been a characteristic of the American male (at least). It’s in our blood, so to speak. And as we fought to protect ourselves from the English, the French, and even the Spanish — not to mention to remove the Native people from the land we wanted for ourselves — we became a violent nation, a nation that not only insisted that we be allowed to possess arms but to use them to get what we wanted.

I am not sure this will pass as a complete explanation as to why we are such a violent nation (causal connections are notoriously difficult to make, as I noted in my previous post) but it certainly helps us to understand why we might share a deep sense of this so-called “right” to arm ourselves and resort to violence whenever opposed by the will of another. I seriously doubt whether it explains why demented young men force their way into our schools and shoot unarmed teachers and children, which I sought to understand in my previous post.  But it helps us to understand the prevalence of firearm in our homes and makes it easier to see why those who own them might be more inclined to use them if harried or thwarted in their desire to have their way. As I say, it’s in our blood — or so the historical record would suggest.


7 thoughts on “Violence In America

  1. Hugh, as you know, there are very few one reason answers to complex problems. I think with our being a frontier nation for the longest time coupled with the second amendment are key parts. It would be interesting to see longitudanal comparative data and look for inflection points.

    To me a telling point is we have more guns per capita by far than the next 22 wealthiest nations, but our gun death rate has even greater differential. So, it is more than our abundance of guns – lack of civility, entertainment violence, high poverty rates, drug industry, and mental health issues. I would love to see comparative data with those countries that have national healthcare. Keith

  2. Thanks, Hugh, for a thoughtful — and calm! — look at this. We know, or many of us know, that the 2nd Amendment is at the heart of much of the debate today over guns. But to take the subject deeper, beyond just “we need to protect ourselves,” does a great service to the discussion.

    Probably the wisest person I include in my “1940” book is the Rev. Guttormur Guttormsson, whose unpublished memoir I had access to. He was born in Iceland, came to the U.S. while young, but stayed in close contact with Iceland. Before World War II, there was a lot of criticism of newspapers for publishing what was considered comic strips that violent or considered to promote juvenile delinquency. He sharply disagreed, adding that for centuries Iceland’s leading form of literature and story-telling—its version of newspapers and TV—was the sagas. Medieval stories, fiction or epic poems, of ax murders, wholesale slaughter of families, etc. Guttormsson wryly noted that Iceland was one of the most peaceful nations on earth for a long time. The sagas didn’t make everyone ax murderers. He didn’t think, then, that comic strips were going to corrupt American youth.

    Violence in the media, maybe video games that give players a shooters’ point-of-view perspective, might help some of these school shooters fire their real-life guns, but it’s hard to say how much of a cause of the shootings they are. As Keith notes, there are several factors. And they probably are not identical in each case. … That said, we have to figure out ways to put a stop to it, can’t say it’s too complex to solve. There are a couple of irrefutable facts that the debate must include. One is since the lifting of the assault weapon ban in 2004, mass murders have increased greatly over where they were while the ban was in place. Factoring in the historical perspective on our use of guns, as you do, adds another important layer to the discussion.

    • Many thanks for the insight. You and Keith are correct, of course. It is a complex issue and the solution, if there is one, is not close at hand. To be sure, passing stricter gun laws is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse is gone. But I do think it all starts at home where parents are remiss not to spend more time with their kids helping them to get a firmer grasp on reality and enabling them to distinguish clearly between reality and the imaginary world of games and television. The comparison of those games with fairy tales and comics is a bit thin because of the saturation factor: the games are designed to take the player into a world in which he or she is all powerful and all problems are solved by pulling a trigger. It’s a difference of degree that amounts to a difference in kind.

  3. Good article. The 2nd amendment right to bear arms has become so utterly outdated that to even mention it should make one an object of absolute scorn. It’s as relevant today as, say, testing individuals for witchery then burning them alive, hanging them or drowning them. Let’s say that an individual has a firearm (or 20, doesn’t matter) on the stated pretext it is to defend his country from an alien enemy. So the enemy sends off some missiles armed with nukes in his direction. Is the well armed American male going to shoot them down with a machine gun?

    • The Second Amendment could be clarified, as Judge Stevens pointed out, by simply making it clear that the militia has a “right to bear arms.” No one else.

  4. You, Keith and Dana all make excellent points. I’m not sure I can add much, other than that Americans seem to have an over-abundance of arrogance. Not all of us, but many. They seem to consider certain things as ‘rights’ that really aren’t — or at least shouldn’t be and aren’t in most other nations. And they are strangely disconnected from the idea that ‘rights’ are accompanied by responsibilities. And so … we have a society that believes almost anything they want is their ‘right’, and they are willing to defend those ‘rights’ with whatever it takes. If that means shooting somebody, then so be it. As to the school shootings … I don’t know … lack of parental guidance, a sense of entitlement? I don’t know, but as Dana said, we cannot afford to simply sit back and say it’s too complex to solve. Great conversation starter … I look forward to the next installment!

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