Second Thought: Wednesday, April 25, 2007
With Liberty and Guns for All

The tragedy at Virginia Tech isn’t likely to change our violent nation.


You can imagine lots of countries where a candidate for the presidency might lie about owning a gun so as not to alienate the voters, but only in the United States would he lie and say he does own a gun when he doesn’t. That was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s sin earlier this year — and he compounded it by claiming that he was a lifelong hunter. Diligent reporters checked and found that Romney had never taken out a hunting license anywhere. (Where were they when President Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”?)

The notion that the voters might punish a candidate for not owning a gun would seem simply bizarre in most jurisdictions, but it is a serious political reality in the United States (and especially in Texas, of course). That’s why hardly anybody in the U.S. is using the Virginia Tech tragedy — only the latest in a long line of mass slaughters by gun-toting killers — to argue for more gun control. There’s not even pressure to renew the federal law banning the sale of assault rifles, which was recently allowed to lapse.

Gun control is a dead issue in the United States, and it isn’t coming back. There is a sound political reason for this, and there is also a rational explanation for it (which isn’t the same thing).

The political reason is simplicity itself: The Democratic Party realized that it wasn’t going to win back a majority in either house of Congress if it didn’t stop talking about gun control. The party’s leaders looked at the political map after the 2004 election — a sea of Republican red with a narrow strip of Democratic blue on either coast — and decided that their problem was more than just George W. Bush’s fatal charm. They weren’t winning in “heartland” states because they were seen as trying to take Americans’ guns away.

So now the Democratic Party’s national platform commits it to uphold the Second Amendment — the right to keep and bear arms — and in the 2006 election it won, just for example, both the Senate seat that was being contested in Montana and the governorship of the state, a long-time Republican stronghold where people care passionately about their guns. The new Democratic governor of Montana, Brian Schweizer, says that he has “more guns than I need but not as many as I want. ... I guess I kind of believe in gun control: You control your gun, and I’ll control mine.” It’s a whole new image for Democrats, and it won them control of both houses of Congress in 2006. (Yes, the war helped, too, but by itself it wouldn’t have been enough.)

There is another, quite rational reason why gun control doesn’t get much traction in American politics any more: It’s simply too late. This is a society that owns approximately equal numbers of wristwatches and guns, around a quarter-billion of each. There’s no going back — and if practically everybody else has guns, maybe you should have one, too. As various commentators have already pointed out, if just one of those 33 murdered students had been carrying a concealed handgun, maybe the killer would have been stopped sooner. At least, that is the way the argument is usually put in America, although the reality is not one gun per citizen over the age of 12, but half of the citizens with one or more guns (mostly more) and half with none at all.

More fundamentally, the gun-control argument may be missing the cultural point. Most Swiss and Israeli households with a male between the ages of 18 and 45 also contain a fully automatic weapon, because the national military mobilization model in those countries requires reservists to keep their weapons at home. Yet the Swiss and Israelis don’t murder one another at a higher rate than people in countries like Britain or Turkey, where there is relatively strict gun control.

“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is the best-known slogan of the National Rifle Association, the most effective pro-gun lobbying organization in the United States. But it’s really a cultural thing: the British have bad teeth, the French smell of garlic, Americans tend to have more bullet-holes in them than other people. Despite the nationality of the Virginia Tech killer, the slogan should actually go: “Guns don’t kill Americans; Americans kill Americans.”

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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