Why Americans love guns - interpreting for Europeans

Over the past year+ of lockdown, I have attained an unexpected view into the American psyche with respect to legal gun ownership. The summer of 2020 demonstrated to a lot of "regular" American people that

  1. city, county and sometimes state governance was not particularly interested in safety for business owners and home dwellers,
  2. local police were overstretched at best, and unable to respond in a timely and effective manner to widespread domestic insurgence, and
  3. local political interest in protecting the populace was rather racially selective.

As a result, Americans are buying guns and ammunition. A lot of guns, and more ammunition than you can shake a stick at. A best guess[1] is that 8.4 million Americans became gun owners for the first time in 2020.

If you hail from a gun-phobic country like... most of Europe nowadays, certainly including the UK and Germany, then this might all seem like paranoid insanity. It is anything but. In this blog I'm going to try to explain, to a UK mindset, why the American love of guns is actually very rational - and maybe something to emulate.

The American Gun Situation - Overview

If you want to understand how a very well-informed - albeit highly opinionated - USA gun owner thinks, particularly in regard to mass shootings, you need to read Larry Correia's 2012 blog post "An Opinion on Gun Control". His assertions have repeatedly been proven correct in the past 9 years. Go read that article, then come back here. As an optional exercise, you may like to evaluate the circumstances of this year's San Jose Valley Transport Authority mass shooting with Larry's assertions in mind.

Hopefully, you came away from that article with some understanding of the American gun owner mindset. Let me try to summarize in bullets (hah!):

  • Gun ownership in America is much more heavily regulated, at both federal and state level, than you think;
  • Mass shootings are highly publicised but a small fraction of overall gun homicides;
  • Mass shootings occur almost universally in "gun free zones" because shooters are not stupid, and pick places where people won't shoot back;
  • The various federal and state restrictions on firearm ownership ("no assault weapons!") since 1990 have been pointless and ineffective, except in provoking Americans to go out and buy a shedload more guns;
  • Defensive gun use saves a lot more lives than offensive gun use takes (this surprised me too, but Larry's source is not exactly known for being a pro-gun camp);
  • It is not practically possible to ban guns in America. Really, it isn't.

The Legal Situation

There is the perception in some countries that Americans can wander into their local Walmart, and wander out with a military-grade assault weapon. This is not an accurate statement of the facts. In fact, it's so far off base, it's wandering around the baseball stadium car park.

Suppose you want to buy a gun; that you are of the relevant age (18+ or 21+, depending on state); you are not otherwise disqualified from gun ownership by being a felon, illegal immigrant (yes! you need valid residence and identity documentation) or other locally disqualifying status such as being an accused domestic violence perpetrator.

You rock up to the gun store, browse the various firearms on display - currently, very limited - and pick one that suits your lifestyle and aesthetics. What happens now? You fill in the form for the ATF Form 4473, then - in many states - you leave the establishment and wait for them to contact you. Hopefully within the week, they will inform you that you have passed the checks, and you have 30 days to come in and formally pick up your firearm.

You also may have to, if this is your first firearm purchase, complete a state-defined written multiple-choice test, and there may be a required "waiting period" distinct from the 4473 check until you are allowed to take possession of the firearm.

So next time you hear a politician say "it is easier to buy a firearm than vote!" you know that they are talking complete bollocks.

Now you have a gun, what can you do with it? It varies depending on state. Larger weapons like rifles and shotguns can be taken hunting, can be kept in your house (there are often requirements by states on how they are to be secured) and in some states can be carried around outside ("open carry").

If you want a gun for self-defence in any location other than your home, then practically your only choice is a handgun. Here the states, counties and even cities in the USA have a patchwork of different requirements. Carrying around a (legally owned) handgun with you is referred to generally as "concealed carry", and there is a wide range of what's allowed - from "unrestricted carry" which means you don't even need a permit, to "restricted may-issue" in places like the Bay Area and New York city where they actually don't issue a permit unless you donate generously to the local sherriff's campaign. Allegedly.

Ammunition is generally easy to buy - if you can find it these days - with the exception of gun-hating states like California which restrict who can buy ammunition, where you can buy or import it from, and require background checks for purchaes.

Oh, and "assault weapons"? Go re-read Correia above - but in short, politicians are deliberately conflating a fully automatic ('selective-fire') rifle, exclusive to the military, with a semi-automatic (one bullet per pull of the trigger) rifle which happens to be the most popular kind of rifle in the USA. It turns out that you can't own a "machine gun" in the USA in practice - unless you buy a smuggled one illegally, which criminals do because they don't actually "obey the law".

That's how you get a gun, and what the major types of gun are - now, who's actually getting them?

Gun Ownership in the USA (it's everywhere)

People often make the mistake of underestimating gun ownership in America. They say blasé things like "you know, literally everyone has a gun!"

If you took that as an estimate, you'd be low by at least 20%. In 2018 the USA had more guns than people - 393 million guns compared to 325 million population. There have been a lot more guns bought since then, and guns don't really 'wear out', although they can rust and become unreliable. Note also that these numbers are only estimated, because of the general lack of registration of guns. My personal opinion is that it's a lot higher now; about 40 million guns were purchased in 2020, and we're probably on target to beat that this year if the supply can keep up.

About half of the civilian weapons in the entire world are held in the USA. And civilian weapons are 90% of the total, because there are many more civilians than military.

Obviously, many people have many guns, and many others have none, so it makes more sense to look at per-household gun ownership. This ownership is not distributed evenly. Republican states have a higher rate of household gun ownership in general; Alaska, Montana and Wyoming all have rates above 60%, whereas the populous northeast states are under 20%. But it's mixed - liberal Washington state has a similar ownership rate to redneck Texas (42% to 45%). Even hippie California has a 28% ownership rate, though my guess is that it's higher in the rural parts and lower in the heavily liberal Bay Area.

A joke goes that China's People's Liberation Army is the largest standing armed force in the world - but Texas has a much larger, better trained, and more heavily armed force which deploys in pickup trucks. I would estimate that there is somewhere in the range of 35-40 million firearms in Texas, handily beating the PLA's 28 million firearms. If Beta O'Rourke[2] really does intend to take away guns in Texas, it's going to take him quite a while. I hope he has a big truck to carry them.

Even in the Bay Area, if you assume that ownership rate is half that of the rest of California, 1 in 7 houses have a firearm. And, since it's so expensive and bloody awkward to buy and supply it, they are probably not just owning the firearm because they like the look of it above their fireplace. (Why do so many homes in sunny California have fireplaces? Why? Why?)

Let's talk about sex, baby; and eth-ni-ci-ty

Sorry, Salt-N-Pepa, I couldn't resist.

Over many visits to shooting ranges, you get an idea of what kind of people - phenotypes - are interested in firearms ownership. Now, I'm only going by what I see locally (Bay Area in California), but it's told me a lot:

  • The majority are white men, and generally older (40+). So far, unsurprising.
  • There are more women than you might think. Most shoot handguns, but I've seen several shooting rifles including one who's shooting a heavy calibre (7.62mm or .308) with very tight groups at long distance. (Side note: intermediate calibre rifles like the infamous AR-15 are in fact the easiest firearm for smaller people to shoot: they have remarkably little recoil, so are easier to keep on target than a handgun or shotgun)
  • Strongly represented ethnic groups: Hispanic, Korean and Chinese
  • Under-represented ethnic groups: Black, Indian
  • A number of men bring along their children (teens) - and in my experience, this happens disproportionately with Hispanic men. They're clearly interested in teaching their daughters to shoot.

Those people familiar with Bay Area Asian demographics might be thinking: Why Koreans? Well, let's talk about the Rooftop Koreans cultural meme. Back in 1992, the Los Angeles riots resulted (for complex cultural reasons) in Los Angelino criminals - primarily black - looting Korean stores. The Koreans had generally settled in the area in the 1970s-1980s and made a successful living with small retail businesses, but in '92 found rampaging mobs trying to loot and burn their livelihoods.

Korean men - at least, those born in Korea - all serve in the military. When you have a succession of unhinged dictators in North Korea, controlling a huge standing army and artillery, South Korea is going to make damned sure that its populace is trained in military skills and able to react quickly to an attempted invasion. This is not like the previous West German conscription where you had options for conscious objection, or the ability to volunteer in Civil Protection Services - in South Korea, you're going to serve in the active duty military for at least 18 months, and you're going to like it. And if you don't like it, they really don't care. Even famous actors have to do their part. It took until 2018 for South Korea to recognize conscientious objection as even a thing.

As a result, in Los Angeles the Korean male population had a) ready access to firearms and ammunition, because they were in America, and b) the training, discipline, and community coordination to mount an effective defence to looters. It's notable that in 2020 the LA rioters generally stayed well away from Korean businesses - because they knew that the Koreans would shoot them with no compunction, and the local police would not give a crap. Even USA-born Koreans get the indoctrination from their appa (father) about the potential threats to their family's prosperity, and their need to be able to defend the family from them.

Let's not forget Hispanics. The USA Democratic Party likes to think that, because Hispanics are generally lower on the income ladder, that they're sympathetic to Democratic social justice aims. In my experience, this is rather an optimistic reading. If you're struggling to make your way in the USA, as many of them are, the last thing you want is a criminal scumbag coming into your small business and robbing it because it's an easy way for him to make money - and so, you take protective measures into your own hands. And if it's a scumbag criminal Hispanic, you're going to be very relaxed about taking him out, even if he thinks you're his compadre.

Finally, and even The Guardian admits this, middle-class blacks are buying a whole lot of guns. When you see sustained riots in your community, and respected community members gunned down for having the temerity to resist violence, what are you going to think? Are you going to rely on the police? The hell you are. You're going to tool up to defend your family - whether you're a man or a woman.

How it Plays in Practice - Deaths

There are many guns in America, so there are a whole lotta shootings. The connection is undeniable.

There are lies, damned lies, and gun death statistics, but a good place to start is the number of homicides by firearm. You can see that it has kicked up in recent years, but it's about 10,000 deaths per year. Don't confuse this with the number of deaths by gun which is far higher (about 34,000 deaths a year) - because there's a lot of gun-induced suicide, and note that the higher the gun ownership rate in an area, the easier a suicidal person finds it to use a gun instead of hanging / tablets / car exhaust, etc.

Now, remembering our table of household firearm ownership, check out Figure 2 (state-by-state ranking of gun homicide rates) at the americanprogress.org site. Heavily armed Texas is #22. Liberal and lightly armed California is at #25. Those are two very big, populous states with a number of large cities. Liberal and disarmed Illinois (home of Chicago) is #9. Top ranking Montana and Wyoming are #37 and #38 respectively. Now, the overall picture is complex, and it's hard to compare state-to-state completely, but you should at least be convinced that just having a large number of guns doesn't inherently make a state more dangerous.

So Why Do Americans Own Guns?

Based on the ownership numbers, and noting the firearms death numbers, Europeans could be forgiven for assuming that Americans have to be insanely and irrationally paranoid to own all those guns. But as the saying goes, "you're not paranoid if 'they' really are out to get you."

Home defence

Americans do not like people breaking into their homes. Not at all. Over the years many US states - including highly liberal California - have passed laws stating in essence that if someone uses force to break into your house, you don't have to hide or retreat, or wait for an imminent threat of violence to you or someone else. You are presumptively allowed to shoot the invader, and when the police rock up, the worst they will do is temporarily confiscate your firearm (after giving you a receipt), and comment on your shot groupings.

Shooting home invaders who are actively fleeing the property is a little dicier legally (sorry, Tony Martin) but I suspect rural police forces are more tolerant in this regard. In rural Alabama I wouldn't be surprised if they helpfully drag the bullet-ridden body back over the property line into your yard before taking the crime scene photo. And then throw the corpse in jail for 20 years for felony robbery, just to make the point.

Bear in mind just how big the USA is. Even in crowded regions like the Bay Area, the population density is far below the UK's average. It can easily take 10-20 minutes for the police to reach you, even if they're available. Out in rural parts, that number could be half an hour, or much longer. If you have a crime problem, that's a very long time to wait. Americans are not inclined to wait.

Note that, although Antifa are happily rampaging in the center of major cities, there are very few suburbs where they'd try that on. Because the homeowners would shoot them - in many cases, with actual glee - and, again, the police really would not care.

Self defence

If you want one reason why Americans own handguns, self defence (the aforementioned concealed carry) is it. As Larry Correia noted:

Handguns are tools for self-defense, and the only reason we use them over the more capable, and easier to hit with rifles or shotguns is because handguns are portable. Rifles are just plain better, but the only reason I don’t carry an AR-15 around is because it would be hard to hide under my shirt.

Are Americans paranoid about being attacked while out in public? Maybe. But it certainly seems to happen a lot. See my Asian Lives Matter series for what happens in cities like NYC, DC, and San Francisco where handgun carrying is effectively banned. I assure you, these attacks will happen less in concealed-carry-permitting cities, because a bystander will pull out their weapon and shoot the attacker in short order. You will rapidly run out of motivated scumbags.

Take a look at what happened in the West Freeway Church of Christ in 2019. A scumbag pulled out an (illegal) handgun and started firing, killing two church members. A church member pulled out his concealed pistol and shot the scumbag dead, with a single shot to the head, doubtless preventing many more deaths. Interestingly, weapons had not been allowed in places of worship until shortly before then.

Incidentally, if you want to understand some of the issues around effectively using a handgun for self defence, read Correia's article on CCW training. Suffice to say, it's not something to be undertaken lightly.

The Gummint

And now we get to the real point of owning a firearm, and why so many have been bought in recent times.

The essential difference between the American and the British psyches, from my observation, is in their obedience to government. British people often don't like their government, and hold it in polite contempt, but with few exceptions they will still nearly all follow "the rules" even if the rules don't make sense, because - well, they are the rules, and they don't want to make trouble. As a demonstration, see the past year and the COVID restrictions.

Tell a rural American to follow a pointless and obnoxious government diktat, by contrast, and his or her response is very likely to be along the lines of "f*cking come and make me, you bastards." And if you do try to make him or her do it, there is not an insubstantial chance that you will get shot. Ask the Internal Revenue Service about their previous experience trying to collect taxes in places like the Ozarks, for instance.

I don't think most Europeans fully understand how serious many Americans are about having firearms to resist government tyranny. Part of the reason, of course, is the recurring incompetence and actual malice of US governmental institutions. Anyone dealing with the Social Security Administration, immigration authorities or - my favorite - the public school system quickly starts to understand some of this mentality. The government is not generally seen as benevolent, and it doesn't really matter which party the titular President belongs to.

Americans know what malevolent, unaccountable government looks like. They run into it with uncomfortable regularity at a small scale, and they don't like it, at all. It's not a stretch for them to think that the malevolence could scale up with a suitably "we know what's best for you" government. That's what the firearms are a brake on. If you doubt this, ask yourself why approximately eighty million firearms will have been purchased between March 1st 2020 and December 31st 2021. Government saying "we're going to tax, regulate and take your guns" a) is an overtly aggressive act, and b) shows that the government actually thinks that the current firearms are a barrier to them governing "effectively". And the last thing that most Americans want is "effective" government.

What the UK Could Learn

First, it was a mistake to peacefully give up nearly all guns. Probably an unavoidable one, given the media climate at the time, but there is now no practical way for the British population to resist government oppression. Maybe you don't think that's a problem for now, but sooner or later it will be. An unarmed population is remarkably tempting as a takeover target for self-favouring politicians. That's not true in places where they will overthrow you, shoot you, and stick your head on a fence post as a warning to others.

Second, stop respecting all the laws. Politicians make stupid laws, regulations and "emergency powers" impositions all the time. Tell them to get stuffed. Make the politicians and low-level clipboard-carriers fear the people, not the other way around. You think that a fluorescent-vested busybody going around the Alamo in San Antonio telling people to wear a mask outdoors is going to get any traction? He'd be lucky not to be thrown in the nearest pond.

Third, you're going to have to defend yourself and your family eventually. It seems clear that the police are more interested in prosecuting people for silly speech on Twitter than going after actual hard-core criminals, people smugglers etc. - well, you can do the former from an air-conditioned office, but the latter actually requires hard work and personal risk. So if you can't rely on the police to defend you, how are you going to defend yourself?

Fourth... oh, sod it. Just emigrate to the USA. Pick a suitable gun-favouring state, go to the local gun store and ask for help. It'll be the most liberating thing you ever do. Not to mention, it'll annoy Polly Toynbee.

[1] There is no national register of who-owns-which-guns in the USA, and that's very deliberate. A gun ownership register tells you where to go to confiscate guns should you be inclined towards a dictatorial rule.
[2] Actually "Robert Francis O'Rourke", known as "Beto". But I like "Beta" better.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are subject to retrospective moderation. I will only reject spam, gratuitous abuse, and wilful stupidity.