Last Sunday it was announced that Piers Morgan’s prime-time show on CNN was going to be canceled. The British Morgan had become best known to his new American audience for his anti-gun positions in the wake of the 2012 massacre at Sand Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Indeed, it has been pointed out that Morgan's comments on guns may have contributed to his show's sinking ratings. As a fellow Brit I understand Morgan’s bemusement at Americans’ fascination with guns. However, Morgan’s anti-gun crusade demonstrates not only an understandable anthropological confusion with the U.S., it also highlights a common misunderstanding of America’s relationship with violence.
I have lived in the U.S. most of my life and in 2009 gladly became an American citizen. While it is of course for others to judge, I like to think that my understanding of my adopted home has become better with time and travel within the U.S. I have come to understand that Americans (for whatever reason) like mind-numbingly boring sports, have an affinity for family sized portions, possess an admirable sense of optimism as well as a healthy skepticism of government very rarely seen in Europe, and hold onto a perhaps sometimes misplaced faith in American exceptionalism.
However, I am almost resigned to the fact that guns are one of the two cultural pillars of America (the other being the degree of religiosity in the U.S.) that I will never fully understand. I suspect that Morgan may have felt the same way while observing the gun control debate in the wake of the shootings that took place while he was hosting “Piers Morgan Live.” To someone who has grown up in a country where the state has banned nearly all private ownership of guns, it is almost beyond belief that after a mass shooting lawmakers wouldn’t take swift action, as was seen in the U.K. after the Dunblane massacre in Scotland and in Australia after the Port Arthur shooting. Morgan was a fan of pointing out that the number of gun deaths in the U.S. was far higher than any other developed nation. It is true that the U.S. has far more gun deaths per year than any other developed nation, it is also true that the U.S. has far more per capita assault deaths than almost any other country in the OECD (see graph below).
Yet despite all of Morgan’s talk about gun violence, there are a few facts that he should have discussed. As inconvenient as it might be for Morgan to come to terms with, the U.S. was far more violent than England long before the invention of automatic weapons and the introduction of restrictive gun control legislation on either side of the Atlantic. In 1870, Britain introduced a license that was required for anyone wanting to take firearms off their property, and in 1903 a law was passed requiring a license for guns with short barrels. After the First World War more restrictive gun control legislation was passed. Graph from Eric Monkkonen's Murder in New York City comparing American and English homicide rates from 1900 to 2000, which is featured in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, is below:
Pinker explains in The Better Angels of Our Nature that America’s rate of homicide is notably higher than Europe's even if you only consider non gun-related deaths. Pinker also summarizes a theory put forward by historian Pieter Spierenburg, who has suggested that America's high murder rate could be explained by the fact that “democracy came too early” to the U.S.:
In Europe, first the state disarmed the people and claimed a monopoly on violence, then the people took over the apparatus of the state. In America, the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms — which, as the Second Amendment famously affirms, they reserve the right to keep and bear.
That Americans have historically been more homicidal than the English is almost never discussed in the contemporary gun control debate, and it is understandable that pro-gun control advocates would be hesitant to highlight this fact. Something else you don't hear often mentioned by gun control advocates is that even in Europe there are plenty of illegal guns. Gun control advocates of the British variety don’t like to point out that gun control in the U.K. did not reduce the number of murders. In the Institute of Economic Affairs book Prohibitions Professor Gary A. Mauser points out that the homicide rate in England and Wales continued to rise after a handgun ban was introduced. Below is a graph of English and Welsh as well as American homicide rates with the British handgun ban introduced after the Dunblane massacre highlighted:
Given that data shows that the U.S. has long been a more violent country than England and that the handgun ban in England failed to slow the murder rate, it should be considered that Morgan’s anti-gun crusade on his prime time CNN show was founded in part by an immigrant’s misunderstanding of his new home’s culture. And you know what? I get it. As stated above, I don’t understand the American relationship with guns. I don’t think guns are somehow testosterone-boosting or particularly fun to shoot. The ability to kill something at a great distance doesn’t impress me very much.
That said, firearms have been a part of some of my family’s life. Below is a photo of guns my uncle Mike recently said he was trying to sell. Mike, like my father, is a New Zealander and because the weapons in the photo are so-called A-Category firearms, a standard firearms license is all he needs for them. The Heckler and the AR-15 are legal as long as a magazine that does not have a capacity of more than seven rounds is put into them. The maximum capacity for a Ruger 10-22 magazine is 15 rounds.
Perhaps because I didn’t grow up with guns I will forever find them alien and not particularly appealing. That said, facts are stubborn things. The reality is that violence is complicated. It is widely used as an enforcement mechanism by people all across the world who live in effectively stateless societies and is the predictable outcome of awful policies such as the war on drugs, which forces buyers and sellers to operate in a dangerous black market. Perhaps at his next gig Morgan will spend more time addressing how to reduce violence, however it is carried out, and not the particular violent tools he finds so disturbing. I’m not getting my hopes up.