Culture Trumps All

I was a political science major in college, and many of the upper-level classes in my major dealt specifically with electoral law.  American electoral law, British electoral law, continental European electoral law, comparative electoral law.  I studied systems used by democracies all over the world.

If there was one overriding, take-home message I absorbed from the very fine education I received in that area, it was that . . . electoral law doesn’t really matter.

Well, let me clarify.  That’s not precisely correct.  Electoral law clearly matters, but what I mean is that a nation can take any sort of a system it wants, superimpose it over an existing culture, and that culture will revert back to the old system (or a form of it) unless the change in electoral system is accompanied by a shift in cultural norms as well.

A concrete example may be found in many parts of the Middle East, where cultural tribalism and authoritarian religious fundamentalism informs nearly every aspect of life there.  Nations in which “democracy” has been infused by Western powers usually revert to non-democratic regimes, either through a form of theocracy, a thinly-veiled dictatorship, or some combination of the two.

I bring this up because I think the same holds true for the law of gun control.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of the horrors of the Newtown shooting, both because the facts are still coming to light, and the depressing details aren’t really germane to the point I want to make.[1]  However, the broader element of this is that I think we’re reaching (or possibly have already reached) a critical mass of sorts when it comes to a national debate over gun control.

We’ll hear the usual alternating chorus from each side.  “Guns should be banned!”  “But Second Amendment!”  “But muskets and militias!”  “But freedom and liberty!”  “But dead children!”  “But tyrannical government!”  “But f**k you!  “But f**k you, too!”  Rinse and repeat.

Yet, do gun control laws really help?  Libertarians and NRA folks are quick to point out helpful facts, such as Washington, D. C. having some of the strictest gun-control laws in the country, yet facing massive violence by American standards.  Or, they point to the example of Mexico, which bans private gun ownership but possesses tremendous criminal gun activity and an unbelievable murder rate for a nation of that size.

On the other side, liberals and gun control advocates point out how much lower homicide rates are in European countries where gun ownership is banned or effectively banned (for example, the U. S. homicide rate is 4.2 per 100k, whereas the U. K. rate is just 1.2 per 100k).  They also point out that there have now been 31 school shootings in the U. S. since Columbine, while the rest of the world has had a total of 14 school shootings, combined, in that same period.  Or, they’ll highlight the fact that violence in a Chinese elementary school on a similar scale (22 victims) resulted in no fatalities as yet, since the assailant used a knife rather than a gun.

So, then, which is it?  Does gun control work, as in most of Europe, where homicide rates are low?  Or does gun control just ensure, as in DC and Mexico, that only criminals will have weapons, and will be able to annihilate an unarmed public (or each other) at an alarming rate?

These questions are similar to this one: Does democracy guarantee freedom?

It does.  But only if the populace is culturally supportive of democracy.

Likewise, gun control and gun culture work in a complementary fashion, with culture trumping when the two are at odds.  That’s why cultures that are heavily involved in criminal enterprise and are desensitized to (or even celebrate) violence remain violent, notwithstanding strict gun laws.  While, at the same time, gun violence is virtually unknown in Switzerland, despite a high rate of gun ownership and usage.[2]

My belief is that, as with electoral law, the underlying culture is the driving force.  The United States has a unique history in which suspicion of government, private firearm ownership, and a pioneering spirit are all strong themes.  All of those are still evident, if less-pronounced, over 200 years after the ratification of the Second Amendment.

To conservatives, I would say that, yes, I agree that we would still be a nation with significant gun violence, even if we banned guns altogether.  But it would certainly be more difficult for incidents like today’s massacre to happen semi-frequently.

But, to liberals, I want to caution them that conservatives definitely have a point.  Banning guns isn’t a panacea, just like imposing an American-style democracy on a Middle-Eastern nation wouldn’t turn that nation into the United States.  There’s a cultural problem and a criminal problem, and trying to eliminate guns would be, to some degree, an exercise in futility.

Finally, this is what I want to say to folks on both sides: Regardless of whether stronger gun control measures are passed (or are even constitutionally possible) in the immediate future, we have begun to move culturally toward a society in which guns are increasingly frowned-upon.  Much the same as smoking might have been seen as unremarkable or as a standard part of middle-class American life 60 years ago, gun usage is increasingly becoming stigmatized as something seen as harmful to society as a whole.

The good news for conservatives is that the Second Amendment is no small thing—and rightly so.  The right to bear arms is meaningful.  Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis (and God help you) knows that I believe that actual constitutional rights are not to be taken lightly or dispensed with in a hasty manner.  The likelihood of an imminent widespread ban or near-ban on guns, as exists in most parts of Europe or in Mexico, is very low.

However, the good news for liberals is that, gun control measures or not, the cultural shift toward a nation that collectively casts a more skeptical, fearful eye toward firearm ownership has already begun.  That will not only make the population more open to common-sense gun control measures, but, more to the point, it will slowly but surely make such measures less necessary in the first place.


[1] It appears as of this typing that the culprit is one Adam Lanza, who murdered his mother before going to the school.  He then killed a teacher and several other adults, and chose to murder a classroom full of children before taking his own life.  How I wish he had elected to conduct that business in a different order.  Stories like these also remind me of how lucky I consider myself to have had such a wonderful and loving relationship with my parents.  I loved my now-deceased father with all my heart, and I feel the same way about my mother, being thankful every day that I drew such a fortuitous hand in terms of who raised me.

[2] Switzerland has no standing army, and, instead, maintains a citizen militia, necessitating that hundreds of thousands of assault rifles are in circulation in a country with a population roughly equal to that of Virginia.

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6 Responses to Culture Trumps All

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  5. Scott B says:

    The law doesn’t change anyone’s heart. While it is useful for making us aware our deprivation and need, it isn’t going to correct anything in and of itself. That’s the fundamental flaw of “legislation as societal cure” political philosophy.

  6. Kellie says:

    I belong to the NRA. I do believe that if you have to have more than one hand gun you are a nut! I hunt and have a large number of rifles and shot guns that are used for different type hunts for food. I am a meet eater! I am a mother of a four year old beautiful baby girl. Her name means gift from God, yes I am a card carrying republican. Having said all this I so wish some form of gun control would happen but that means the federal government can’t be giving guns to criminals either! A gun in the hands of a mentally competent individual is a piece of steel and a gun in the hands of a mentally disturbed individually who is not being properly medicated is unfortunately a tragedy.

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