Guns and society

By November 5, 2014History, Politics, Society

The recent school shooting in the USA took me back to my first experience of living and working in the United States, fifty years ago. I had spent the previous year as a post-doc in Oxford, and was now in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of the most illustrious University of Michigan, founded in 1815. The U 0f M was in the top bracket of American universities, and it seemed to me a wonderful place. Many of the buildings were in the Victorian Gothic style, the trees were large and beautiful, and campus life seemed to me to be immensely civilised. And Dave Brubeck had recently played there. What more could it offer?

My eldest child went to the local primary school, her teacher looked like a Hollywood starlet, and the school’s facilities were superior in every respect. Within a few weeks Susan had traded her Oxfordshire accent for the broad Midwest: I became ‘Deeairdy…’ We went to a concert in the auditorium of Ann Arbor High School, which seemed to seat several thousand. Oh, my goodness, I thought, I could stay here.

It didn’t take very long to discover that Ann Arbor was a sea of privilege, and that surrounding Washtenaw County was impoverished in comparison, so that no one with a family would liven the county if they could afford to live in the city. But wotthehell, as Archy was fond of saying to Mehitabel, I was there, and it was fabulous. One night at the University’s Hill Auditorium I heard Msistlav Rostropovich with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, and a couple of weeks later the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell.

The town of 100,000 was pretty, and we lived close to the stadium, which could seat 101,001 people. Our neighbours and friends were gracious, generous and friendly. The society we lived in  was Australian in its informality, but on a more open and generous scale. Every street was lined with trees, and when fall came there were perhaps three weeks of astonishing autumnal colours, and then all the leaves fell. Trucks with gigantic vacuum cleaners cleared the leaves in a few days. The leaf-removal was provided by a widow whose entire estate went to the city for just that purpose. Many of the people I knew were energetically democratic in their approach to problems, so unlike my own country, where we all companioned about when ‘they’ would do something that needed to be done.

And I worked at the Institute for Social Research, known even then as ‘mother church’ for anyone in the survey research side of the behavioural sciences. I found it a refreshing change from the epigrammatic sniping of Oxford, and the quality of the senior people was the highest. I learned well, and I learned very quickly. Life was at its peak. People were beginning to talk to me about positions in the US. I gave a lecture at another Michigan university, and was asked at coffee afterwards would I consider joining the faculty and serving as the department’s chairman. I was 28 years old.

A week or so before we were due to leave (I had a job waiting in Australia) an Indian postgraduate student sitting peacefully in his car out in the street a few blocks from us heard a knock on his window, wound it down, and was shot in the head by an unknown assailant. Two days before we left, cars driven by a doctor and an off-duty policeman collided at an intersection, there was a disagreement as to cause, and the policeman shot the doctor. Dead.

The undercurrent of violence was never far away. I had just put it aside as something that was not relevant in peaceful, civilised, educated Ann Arbor. But now I knew that I did not wish to bring my children up in America; I had had a similar thought about England, where the reason was the class system. For the USA it was violence, and guns. I had bought a Winchester when my military service had finished, fired it a few times at rabbits and rocks, and sold it when I moved house. No one I knew in Ann Arbor had mentioned possessing a hand-gun, but many citizens obviously did. There was such a lot to admire in the United States of America and its people, but it and they were not for me.

Kids in American schools shoot each other for the sorts of grievances that were sorted out in my schooldays with fists after school. Yes, the USA is home to about 325 million people, and it has 26,407 public high schools and 10,693 private ones, so the probability of anything happening to one’s child at a given school is pretty small. Yet Wikipedia has an extraordinarily long list of shootings in schools, and on one count there have been 74 separate shooting incidents in schools in the past 18 months.

What can be done about it? Apparently nothing. the President has said that Americans should be ashamed, but plainly the silent majority accepts it as part of contemporary existence, while some suggest that all teachers should be armed. It saddens me but, as with so many other aspects of 21st century life, there is nothing whatever that I can do about it, other than write a piece like this, and be thankful that Australia went another way.





Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Doug Hurst says:

    I think they are stuck with the gun situation, Don. I was working in Texas about a decade ago and met a Korean veteran whose wife was standing for local office. He told me he carried a gun – although he had seen more than enough of guns in the war – because he needed to protect his wife. He didn’t like it, but saw no option. There were so many guns out there he had to have one too.

    I don’t understand the whole gun culture. Growing up on farms in Victoria, for me guns were part of life to shoot rabbits and other pests. In the RAAF we did weapons training and at one stage I carried a gun at work. But as time passed, while I still saw the need for guns in such circumstances, I had no personal need for one or any wish to own one and never have.

    • BoyfromTottenham says:

      Hi Don. Like Doug, I don’t understand the US gun culture (if that’s what you want to call it), or have any idea what to do about it, but I had the experience of commenting on a blog to simply state the difference between gun deaths per capita in Australia vs the US (Aust is about 30 times fewer), and was surprised by the aggressive / defensive responses of “stop attacking the US way of life” type stuff. I pointed out that I had merely stated a fact without being judgemental, but it clearly wasn’t received well. As an aside, nobody seems to comment on the fact that the US annually has more gun suicides than gun homicides! An interesting twist on “he who lives by the sword…”?

      • DaveW says:

        Well BFT, Australia also has more gun suicides – six times as many suicides as gun homicides (0.62 vs 0.11) but these are only twice as common in the US (6.3 vs 3.6 per hundred thousand) according to this:

        As I understand it, there is some data supporting an increase in hanging suicides since Howard forced gun control on the states. I suppose hangings are easier to clean up, but I think I’d prefer a gun. One of my cousins hanged himself in the basement and was discovered by his young daughter. She never really recovered from that. The only suicide I’ve yet encountered (on a morning jog) had sat down by a lake and shot himself in the heart. He looked very peaceful except for all the fire ants crawling over him.

        What I don’t understand is the obsession with ‘US gun culture’. If you want to obsess over truly violent cultures with very high rates of gun homicide, then the list above provides many in Latin America and Africa that dwarf the US rate.

  • DaveW says:

    I’m surprised Don. It sounds more like you were looking for an excuse to come home than scientifically analysing the facts. According to Wiki, the US has the highest gun ownership in the world (90 guns for every 100 people) by a large margin (about 50% higher than #2). Yet, its gun homicide rate is towards the low end of the scale. Australia and Mexico are tied at 42nd for gun ownership, but a Mexican is about one hundred times more likely (10 / 10^6) than an Australian (0.11 / 10^6) to be gunned down by someone else (and about 2.5x more likely than an American). I think guns are a convenient excuse for ignoring other problems (e.g. many mass shooters had been exhibiting mental problems for a long time before going berserk; mass shootings tend to be clumped – probably because of copy cat effect resulting from media hype) that we don’t want to or cannot deal with.

    When I had to make a choice between a job in Queensland and a job in Florida, gun violence (a lot in Florida thanks to drugs, Castro emptying his prisons, and other factors) was one thing I never even thought about. Actually, Australian road death rates were a bit of a worry, but parrots had more of an effect on my choice. Now road deaths are down here and Florida has naturalised parrots of its own, so go figure.

  • kvd says:

    Fancy making what could have been a life-defining (or at least career-defining) decision on the remote possibility of harm occasioned by gun violence?! I’m now assuming, Don, that you don’t shower, or drive a vehicle, or bicycle, or eat fish, because the chance of harm – whatever the country – is statistically so much greater than violence by gun.

    Have read this blog for a number of years now, and enjoyed (and am informed by) your climate scepticism. But how to balance that careful scientific enquiring mind against what amounts to an irrational fear? Beyond understanding.

    I have never understood why we in Oz meekly submitted to a nation-wide ‘gun ban’ as the result of one (one!) deranged individual in Port Arthur. I don’t actually care one way or t’other about guns; but the thought of such a sheep-like manipulation of an entire country… no wonder the libertarian end of the spectrum looks at us and sadly shakes collective heads, while their opposites sleep more soundly knowing that ‘someone has done something’ – about ‘something’ that was not worth a moment’s thought past sadness for the victims of a single solitary madman.

    And yet you changed the whole course of your future life upon such ‘evidence’? I don’t get it.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      There was of course more to it. I was not one of those who left Australia because I thought it was boring or run by stuffed shirts. But it was time to find out about the rest of the world. I was 26 when I left, married, with two kids. We were prepared to live overseas if something good came up, and many good things did come up. But they came with costs as well as with benefits, and I also had a strong urge to help improve my country, which I thought was improving rapidly in the right directions — I could assist. The longer we stayed away the more proudly Australian I felt. Yes, we had a lot to learn, but we were learning, and Australia had qualities that neither the UK nor the USA possessed.

      I could go on… but thanks for a thoughtful comment.

    • Peter Donnan says:

      You write, kvd: “I have never understood why we in Oz meekly submitted to a nation-wide ‘gun ban’ as the result of one (one!) deranged individual in Port Arthur”.

      It was a terrible mistake: we should be more like the US where there are regular shoot-ups in schools, children running in terror, parents distraught: we should promote this in Australia.

      Regular drive-by shoots up are a great real-estate attraction and increase values for those who like a bit of rough trade.

      We need more civil liberties around gun ownership and gun carrying: not only, for instance, concealed carry on buses but in cinemas and churches, just like Texas. You never know at any given moment when you have to defend yourself.

      When the American constitutional amendment movers enshrined the right to bear arms, I wonder if they would stop at big bazookas or fully automatic machine guns.

      Michael Moore might be a member of the NRA, self-promoter and exhibitionist but his documentary ‘Bowling for Columbine’ is a powerful statement about a culture of violence and death.

      Of course many people argue that it’s not guns that kill people but people themselves. That despite the fact that many children are victims of gun mishaps; and even this year a trainer, seeking to promote skills in a nine-year old girl, was accidentally shot by her was a bizarre twist.

      If you want a close look at gun culture make an anti-gun posting to the US Yahoo News site and you’ll certainly get a pop. Contesting the NRA ethos one Australian guy wrote in and said how weak may Americans are because he said they settle disputes with guns when they should just use their fists.

      You may call it manipulation but any measures that reduce deaths is perhaps a form of enlightenment. Have a look at the latest K Reeves movie review on ‘At the Movies this week’ and read David’s comments; go for computer games violence – it’s great apparently, and very profitable. And civil rights so flourish in this environment.

      • kvd says:

        Weatherburn responded, “The fact is that the introduction of those laws
        did not result in any acceleration of the downward trend in gun
        homicide. They may have reduced the risk of mass shootings but we cannot
        be sure because no one has done the rigorous statistical work required
        to verify this possibility. It is always unpleasant to acknowledge facts
        that are inconsistent with your own point of view. But I thought that
        was what distinguished science from popular prejudice

        Rather made me think of something Prof. Aitkin might say about AGW. Anyway Peter, sleep on with the comfort that ‘someone has done something’ about a problem which I suspect you lost no sleep over.

        • Peter Donnan says:

          I can’t recall stipulating such a lovely, logical criterion as ‘Howard gun laws reduced trends in gun homicide’, in supporting my popular prejudice.

          It would be wonderful if facts, rigorous statistical analysis, science and appropriate methodologies underpinned developments in the gun business. Or indeed climate change, one might add.

          One of the bizarre facts – dare I use the word – was that a
          Sydney post office was used in 2012 by a syndicate to bring 220 illegal guns into Australia, including some linked to Sydney shootings; in the US it’s commonly in poor urban areas, and with young people, that the sad effects of gun violence are manifest, often linked to drugs and gangs. Don simply didn’t see a family future in a US environment where the menace of a gun-culture lurked, quite reasonable in my view.

          How I come to know things, my epistemology, apparently works in a different way from yours: you, the careful scientific enquiring mind combatting irrational fear, logically based on foundations of differentiating science from popular prejudice, pleasantly acknowledging facts consistent with the point of
          view, and able to deftly pounce upon statistical aberrations, such as driving vehicles in Australia being more deadly than owning a gun.

          My background in literature and history means I value interpretation and imagination in a qualitative sense and don’t, as a matter of course, necessarily subscribe to the proposition: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

          I also tend to agree with some views that seem common sense to me. David Stratton [‘At the movies’} who, in reviewing the film ‘John Wick’ this week said: “So it’s just a series of gun battles and, after five minutes or so, you get heartily sick of it. How many times can you shoot people in the head and
          it’s still entertaining?” Margaret did not agree, so clearly there is room for diversity. Sociological and media perspectives inform me that a gun violence is strongly rooted in films, video games and our popular culture to which many young people are exposed. But hey, maybe that’s illogical or not based on the evidence. Our history in Viet Nam, Afghanistan, Iraq…conjures up the sad impact of a culture of guns and violence. Maybe we’re better off sending engineers to build schools, bridges etc and winning the minds and hearts of people who live in those countries.

          • kvd says:

            Peter, as with most discussions which extend too long, I think we are now talking past one another. If you will re-read my initial comment I expressed surprise that Don might have based his decision upon the unlikely possibility that he or family might suffer via the so-called ‘US gun culture’. (Below here you will see that Don conceded that there was of course more to it) I also said that while I did not particularly care one way or the other about guns, I thought it was remarkable that an Australia-wide policy was put in place in the aftermath on a solitary tragedy. Was it Rahm Emanuel who said something like “never let a good crisis go to waste”?

            I appreciate your point of view, but we differ as to the need for government intervention – the need to “do something”, or more cynically, the “need to be seen to be doing something”. And I appreciate David and Margaret’s views on the worth of various movies they have seen – but wouldn’t place much store by government decisions based upon same.

            In your latest comment above you say “in the US it’s commonly in poor urban areas, and with young people, that
            the sad effects of gun violence are manifest, often linked to drugs and
            gangs” and I agree. However I don’t expect that any such area was being contemplated by Don in his thinking – I could be wrong?

            Anyway, it is a lovely day, so let’s just agree to disagree about the need for the government of the day to solve all perceived ills. Or if that is even remotely possible. Or if they are “ills” in the first place.

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