The shooting of Congressman Giffords and all those others so unfortunate as to be at her event has raised once again the issue of gun violence in the United States, a hardy perennial if ever there was one. It has also raised the question of whether violent rhetoric leads to violence. I have thought a great deal about that question, and I think that the answer, with respect to this case, is yes. It's quite true that Jared Loughner is evidently very emotionally ill, and may well be a paranoid schizophrenic. He was very likely to commit a violent act somewhere, sometime, and America's lax gun laws allowed him to use a semi-automatic weapon to do so. But I simply can't believe that his choice of target had nothing to do with the anti-government rhetoric that was all around him and which had evidently affected him through his own bizarre filter.
The broader issue raised by the shooting, of course, is the general availability of weapons in in the United States. There is not the slightest chance that anything will be done about that now or, quite possibly, for many years to come. The pro-gun movement started out around the same time as the gun control movement, in the 1960s, and it has won one victory after another at the national level with the sole exception of the assault weapon ban, passed in 1994 with the support of law enforcement agencies but allowed to lapse by a Republican Congress and Administration ten years later. Now the NRA has won its greatest victory in the Supreme Court, which I analyzed in detail at the time, and now, bizarrely, it is opushing to allow citizens to carry weapons virtually anywhere, including colleges and bars. As a kid in the 1950s I read about Wyatt Earp and other marshals who civilized western cow towns by requiring cowboys to check their guns when they came into town. That, it seems, is too much civilization for twentieth century America. There has in fact been a big and frightening shift in pro-gun rhetoric during the last 30 years. When Ronald Reagan was shot I remember reading an NRA-sponsored piece on the need to keep handgun possession legal. It focused entirely on hunting situations that required a hand gun. Now hunting has faded into the background as a justification for gun rights (not that there was any the slightest intention on anyone's part to ban hunting in the first place), and self-defense is in fact the preferred jsutification.
A discussion of this subject on my favorite on-line forum led me this morning to do some research. Another poster had suggested, in effect, that one part of our population--black Americans--were responsible for our high homicide rates, relative to other advanced countries. I had heard that before from a colleague who as rather edgy racial views, and I was finally moved to check it out. It turns out that it isn't true.
The data on murder rates I found had one problem: it did not give separate murder rates for Hispanics--it divided Hispanics into black and white Hispanics and put their murders in the black and white categories, respectively. (The vast majority of Hispanics were counted as white.) Data without this glitch would be more revealing and might change the results somewhat but not, I think dramatically.
Here were the 2008 murder rates by race in the United States: 2.9 per 100,000 for whites, 15.2 per 100,000 for blacks. The overall US rate was 5.4. I found data for various regions and countries of the world here.
The white American rate compares to 1.5 for west and central Europe, and .44 [sic] for Japan. And of course, that's a misleading comparison with Europe, because Europe also has minority populations which may well have higher homicide rates. The New Zealand rate is 2, the Australian rate is about 1 (it is broken down because the rate for Australia's "northern territories" is much higher, about the same as athe overall US rate.)
White Americans are in fact about twice as likely to commit murder as western and central Europeans, about three times as likely to commit murder as Australians, and more than six times as likely to commit murder as Japanese. (It is rather fascinating, by the way, that Germany and Japan have two of the lowest murder rates in the world.) The breakdown by region and country includes other extremely interesting findings. Southern Africa and parts of South America are the most violent places on earth; Eastern Europe is more violent than the US as a whole.
But these stats also become misleading if you look at [URL="http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/law_enforcement_courts_prisons/crimes_and_crime_rates.html"] a breakdown of US murder rates by state (table 304.)[/URL] In this as in so many other respects, we are several different nations. Your chances of being murdered are twice as high in the deep south as they are in my own New England, although my chances are higher than residents of Western and Central Europe, much less Japan. And this raises a critical question which I don't have time to address: is the black rate high because of race, or because blacks have southern roots? In 1968 all this was a hot political issue, and George Wallace was running on an anti-crime platform. Researchers discovered that Alabama had the highest murder rate in the nation and Wallace naturally blamed it on the black population. But in fact, it had the highest rate among both blacks and whites. (I learned this from a race relations professor, himself a Virginian, who stressed the traditional role of autonomous violence in southern life.)
There are a lot of interesting things to notice in the country stats. Russia has the same per capita number of murders as Mexico, for instance--two states that by rights should be well into Fourth Turnings, or even finished with them. This is a worrisome sign. Both these nations established strong states early in the 20th century, Communist in Russia and Social Democratic in Mexico (during the 1920s and early 1930s.) Both of these old orders came to an end more or less on schedule in the 1990s, marked successively by the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union and the fall from power of Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. And both nations now have sunk into widespread lawlessness and have spawned powerful organized crime. Let us hope that Western Europe, Japan and the United States survive their own crises with government authority intact. The signs here in the US are not particularly hopeful.