Is That A Gun Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?

German police fired a total of 85 bullets in 2011.  49 were warning shots.  With the rest, 15 people were wounded and 6 killed by police countrywide for the entire year.  As a contrast, in the U.S. in 2011, 84 shots were fired by police at a single murder suspect in Harlem.  90 rounds were fired at an unarmed man in Los Angeles.  And the police in Columbus, Ohio, all by themselves, a city one-tenth the size of Germany, wounded 6 and killed 8.

These are not isolated incidents.  Across the nation last year, over 1,000 people were shot by police, and more than 600 killed.  It’s an astonishing statistic.  Germany’s figures, if adjusted proportionally for the larger U.S. population, would still result in a total of only 24 fatalities.  Think of it this way.  In the Afghanistan War, for 2011, there were 418 American military deaths, compared to 600 Americans killed by police.  We literally have warfare on our streets.

I don’t mean to imply that American police are out-of-control murderers.  They are simply symptomatic of our larger culture.  600 deadly police shootings compared to 24 is a snapshot of America.  We’re a violent, gun-toting society.  In England, not even the police are armed.  Most carry handcuffs, a baton, and a spray can of tear gas.  I can’t imagine the cops in my rural North Carolina village of 2,500 traveling around without pistols.  They’d be laughed out of town.

We seem to think, as Americans, that life is supposed to be this way.  We like gunslingers and are inured to the carnage.  But, as other cultures show, the level of violence in America is not inevitable; it isn’t even the norm for civilized societies.  Rather, American culture has a heightened level of aggression, and the statistics to prove it.  Drive across the border to the north and you will enter a society with much less violence.  For every 100,000 Canadians, there are 1.6 murders.  The American rate is almost four times higher.  In 2010, Canadian authorities reported 554 homicides.  The U.S. FBI reported 12,996.

Like it or not, Americans are more prone to assault and kill each other than the citizens of other modern nations.  Belligerence is part of our national psyche.  Strict gun control laws, such as in Canada or Germany, do not exist because Americans like guns.  The NRA is the most powerful lobby in Washington.  The United States, by choice, is one of the most violent societies on earth.

Why we’re this way is another question.  Violence is not instinctive, as shown by the Germans and Canadians being so much less murderous.  Humans are actually social creatures; cooperation is why our species survived.  We can even make a case that the level of aggression found in America is the result of encouragement.  Violence is used as a stimulant.

Both Freud and Mae West saw a connection between violence and sex, and I don’t question the insight of either.  It’s why most serial killers are males, and sex is often involved in their crimes.  Defeated men feel powerful by subjugating whom they can.  Aggression arises out of weakness, and we’re a society that breeds insecurity.

Or perhaps American aggressiveness is a product of capitalism, our economic system.  Violence results from the value our society places on competition, winning, and success at all costs.  If the pursuit of profit ruins some lives, so be it.  Score when you can, on whom you can, as often as you can.  Their loss is your gain, and your gain is good for everyone, so don’t worry about it.  In that kind of culture, should we be surprised if a gang member or drug dealer pops another kid in the head, because there is reward to be found?  In a different venue, it’s the same thing.  What matters is the bottom line.  Casualties are expected.

Or perhaps our high level of violence can be attributed to our cultural obsession with individual freedom.  As Americans, we pride ourselves on our lack of social constraints.  We are beholden to no one.  We’re the nation of the self-made man, known these days as “entrepreneurs.”  We don’t want to be like anyone else and don’t want anyone to stop us.

But don’t tread on me doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t tread on you.  Individuality loosens the bonds that bind.  After the recent tsunami, the Japanese people stood politely in line for countless hours waiting for relief supplies.  No one complained.  No one got into a fight.  There weren’t any rapes.  There wasn’t any looting.  Gun fights didn’t break out.  The police didn’t kill anyone.  In other words, it wasn’t New Orleans after Katrina.  Japan isn’t America.  In Japan, simply butting in line would bring shame to a family and maybe disgrace to the neighborhood.  Americans tend not to care about shame and disgrace; we’ll shoot the bastard.  That way we’re no longer butting in line.

In the end, knowing the causes of our violence doesn’t change its reality.  There are Americans who live in fear of stray bullets flying through their windows and doors.  An unarmed 24-year old was shot by police last week in Anaheim.  James Holmes committed mass murder in a theatre and every weapon he used was legal.  Welcome to the place we call home.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

One Response to “Is That A Gun Or Are You Just Glad To See Me?”

  1. was waiting for that shoot the bastard! What about the media? Don’t they play a large roll as well? They brought us those great Westerns in which we Americans never quite grew out of our cowboy mentality.

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