According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics for 2009 there are 254,212,610 registered passenger vehicles in the United States. It is generally agreed that the United States is a car culture in which virtually everyone owns or has access to a car, and uses at least one almost every day. Each of these vehicles is registered with the government and most oowner-operators are government licensed to operate their cars. In addition, most states require that operators of cars carry liability insurance.
The FBI estimates that there are over 200 million privately owned guns in the United States in the US, and if you add guns owned by the military, law enforcement and others, the total comes to about 350 million. That’s about 1 gun for every man, woman and child in our great nation. Although it is rarely acknowledged, by the numbers of guns and gun related deaths and injuries, the United States is in fact, becoming as much a gun culture as a car culture.
The ongoing debate over gun ownership in the United States has turned to the idea that if we can’t limit gun ownership because of the SCOTUS interpretation of the Second Amendment, and we are therefore destined to be a gun-centric culture like it or not, then we should at least apply the same safeguards we use as a car-centric culture by requiring that guns and gun operators be government licensed and carry liability insurance. This, it is argued, will preserve citizen rights to self defense and help to prevent the situation in which only criminals have guns.
To many this solution, admittedly partial, seems reasonable, but let’s give it a bit more thought before we go off half-cocked.
Our car culture comes from our enthusiastic embrace of personal devices whose basic purpose, we agree, is transportation. Certainly other values intrude into our culture of cars, like status symbols, the pleasure of driving and possession of transportable personal space. We generally agree that it is wise to license and insure cars and drivers today because, with so many cars out and about, accidents happen.
But is a gun culture the same as a car culture?
Guns are not designed for transportation. They are designed to kill. And unless you rely on subsistence hunting, their principal application is killing people. Once the days of the anarchistic Wild West, where guns, the great “equalizers”, were instruments for meting out instant justice, fell well behind us, owning and carrying guns became an anachronism. Seeing another citizen driving a car does not give us cause to cower, but seeing a gun toting person approaching us, who is not a duly authorized agent of law enforcement, will give (and should give) most reasonable people, reason to fear.
In their recent history, Americans have no basis for appreciating what a gun-culture really is. In Afghanistan, where I lived for almost a year in 1972, most men carry a rifle. Afghans love their guns. The implicit message each gun toting man is sending is, If I think you have done me wrong, I will kill you, never mind what you thought your true intentions. In Afghanistan I learned that in a gun toting culture, you’d better be careful about what you do or say, or into whose eyes you look.
I also spent some time in El Salvador in 1999–another a gun culture. I was told by my host, Senor Juan Wright, that I should never go anywhere without one of his shotgun-armed bodyguards at my side. Unlike Afghans, who carry their rifles boldly displayed, in El Salvador men carry their weapons in holsters, hidden from sight. Salvadorans are forced to assume that anyone they encounter is armed and dangerous. What might occasion gun play in El Salvador?–politics, bandits, drug smugglers, errants look or a bad hair day, will do. Salvadoran’s solution is simple. They make themselves armed and dangerous as well.
So do we really want to model an American gun culture after America’s car culture? Wouldn’t this simply have the effect of making gun play a regular feature of daily life as in Afghanistan and El Salvador? If this is the route we chose to take, it’s exactly what we’ll get. Wherever we go among other people, we will live in fear that for some reason or other, we may be confronted by others with guns. We will live in daily fear, tempered only be the knowledge that we are as armed and dangerous as the next guy.
Is that the America we want to create?