Our Romance With Guns

Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
New York City, 1935


When James Holmes, a twenty-four-year-old neuroscience student from the University of Colorado, walked into a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in late July in Aurora, Colorado, and opened fire, killing twelve and injuring fifty-eight, the national spotlight was, once again, trained on America’s peculiar romance with guns, and gun violence. As after the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and a Tucson shopping mall, gun control advocates revived their calls to ban guns and gun rights advocates renewed their arguments that if more people carried guns, killers like James Holmes might have been stopped. National politicians, meanwhile, including President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, expressed sympathy but steered clear of proposing any specific reforms, apparently unwilling to take on the National Rifle Association. When, just a few weeks after the Aurora killings, a white supremacist gunned down six worshipers in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, the response was virtually identical: plenty of sympathy, but no solutions.

While the Aurora and Oak Creek massacres justifiably sparked the nation’s horror and sympathy, the deeper tragedy is that every single day in this country, more than thirty people are killed by guns. Few of these everyday victims generate national headlines; indeed, gun homicide is so routine that many do not even warrant a local news story. But it is the decidedly nonglamorous, quotidian infliction of death and serious injury by gun owners that deserves our focused and sustained attention. And politicians’ cowardice in the face of the NRA is not the only obstacle to meaningful reform; an even greater hurdle lies in the fact that we seem willing to accept an intolerable situation as long as the victims are, for the most part, young black and Hispanic men.

The United States has had a long romance with firearms. Evidence of the affair can be found as far back as the Constitution, which contains a hotly disputed right to bear arms as the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, following only the First Amendment’s protections of speech and religion. Our infatuation with guns pervades popular culture, from Gunsmoke and The Rifleman to gangsta rap, Dirty Harry, and Sam Peckinpah’s glorification of self-defense in Straw Dogs. The NRA has over four million members. Americans own 280 million guns, an average of close to one gun per person in the country. Forty-five percent of American households possess a gun.

The United States also has a long history of gun violence. In 2009, there were 11,493 gun homicides in the US.1 In a comprehensive review of the social science literature, the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found solid evidence that the more guns that are available in a jurisdiction, the higher its homicide rate will be. If George Zimmerman had not been permitted to carry a gun, much…

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