home Commentary, Crime, Culture, North America, Politics, Society America doesn’t have a gun problem: It has a violence problem

America doesn’t have a gun problem: It has a violence problem


On Wednesday morning, two very different incidents unfolded on opposite sides of the United States. In Virginia, a practice for the traditional Congressional Baseball Game was interrupted by a gunman who shot Republican Congressman Steve Scalise, who fortunately survived, in part thanks to the swift action of Capitol Police, while in San Francisco, a man entered his workplace, shooting and killing three coworkers before killing himself. Two brazen acts of terrible, senseless violence, committed in two very different settings.

And two more entries in the long list of mass shootings in the United States. There is a mass shooting nearly every day in America, while overall, 93 Americans die of gunshot wounds every day. Two thirds of gun deaths in America are suicides — an issue commonly skated over in coverage of this issue — while 54 percent of mass shootings are instances of intimate partner violence gone horribly wrong. People die in gun homicides at work, at school, at the movies, at malls, in parking lots holding ‘Congress On Your Corner’ events.

The rest of the world may look to the rapidly mounting number of shootings in the United States and say that the nation has a gun problem, pointing to the country’s incredibly lax gun laws and resistance to enforcing what scant laws here are. The worship of guns in US culture, paired with Republican leveraging of the political system, has made it functionally impossible to admit that perhaps some checks on gun ownership would be sensible. Not in the wake of the deaths of school children in Newtown, moviegoers in Aurora, club attendees in Orlando.

Surely, the rest of the world says, if the United States could address the gun problem, this horrific spate of mass killings would trickle away to nothing. Surely not, say conservatives, who insist that gun ownership is a fundamental human right and deny the evidence that guns are designed for use in killing people, and are regularly put to that purposes.

Both sides are wrong. Both sides are right. To understand why, you must expand your understanding of American culture in general, for while this is pitched as a ‘gun problem,’ this is actually a larger issue. It is a problem of violence. Guns amplify violence, streamline it, make it far easier to enact than it would be otherwise. But guns are the symptom, and if we treat the symptom — as we clearly should — we must also treat the disease.

For here is something about about the epidemic of violence in the US: It is very strongly correlated with a history of prior violence, particularly in the form of intimate partner violence. People who witness or survive violence in childhood may in turn become violent as adults. Men (for it’s usually men) who abuse their partners are more likely to escalate that violence over time, and having a gun in the home radically increases the risk that women in abusive relationships will die at the hands of their partners. Those same violent partners are also perpetrating mass shootings, with legally acquired weapons that they got either because gun laws are so lax that they can buy weapons despite having a history of violent convictions, or because they’ve never actually made it into the system, making it impossible to limit gun ownership.

Discussions of the link between intimate partner violence and gun deaths are not entirely novel in the United States. A number of groups are calling for tougher gun laws, to close the loopholes that make it so easy for violent partners to get and keep guns. The problem, though, is that even with these loopholes closed, many mass shooters with a history of violence would still be eligible to own guns, because they either weren’t convicted, or were never brought to trial in the first place.

The United States has a culture of violence, and a culture of misogyny. These two things are a heady mixture, because when men beat women, those same women do not necessarily feel safe or confident about reporting that abuse to law enforcement, about following that through to trial. They fear retaliation and more abuse, targeting not just them, but their children and pets. They’re concerned about economic abuse, the risk of being unable to leave a relationship due to financial entanglements. They’re ashamed, or fear being caught in a situation where friends, family, and coworkers are dismissive, taking the side of the abusive partner.

Those who do report may face indifference or hostility from police officers — intimate partner violence is pervasive in the law enforcement community — or they may be unwilling to face the grueling process of report, investigation, and eventual trial. Misogyny means that men win trials involving violence against women because juries are sympathetic. This week, 12 people declared that they were ‘deadlocked’ on the question of whether noted rapist Bill Cosby is in fact a rapist. Because America cultivates a culture of abuse and disdain for women.

Women in America are not just shot. They are beaten and stabbed and choked. They are screamed at and chased down the street. They are killed for wearing hijab, not smiling, being sluts, not wanting to have sex, or just because.

They are harassed and tormented on social media, on platforms that have a clear disinterest in addressing the abusive climates they have allowed to bloom. That online harassment spills offline, too, with primarily male abusers stalking primarily female victims to their homes, workplaces, and public events. In the United States, this kind of violence is treated as ‘just part of being a woman,’ instead of the profound violation that it is.

If you want to stop gun violence in America, you must stop the larger culture of abuse that feeds it. Children need to learn that violence is not acceptable, and that violence has actual consequences. Adults need to create a framework for identifying and addressing violence, rather than dismissing it as a minor concern. People who behave violently toward others need to be provided with resources to address that violence — such as counseling — while victims of violence need to be supported.

America cannot create a culture of nonviolence in a single generation. But treating this simply as a gun problem isn’t going to address the fact that America is a violent, dangerous place — even when no guns are present.

Photo: Paul Stein/Creative Commons