Guns, death, property and the state, in the US and EU
The gun culture in the US is something completely alien to the European citizen [I am not homogenising US and EU citizens, see below when discussing the possible disagreements]. The difference lies not so much in the perceived right of the individual to own a fire-arm but rather on the relationship of the individual and by proxy the state, with property and death. The issue of gun control is not one that can be strictly analysed in the context of self-defence or protection of one’s property. The right to bear a gun, and in extend to protect one’s life, family or belongings should be thought as part a wider rationale, that includes the death penalty and other actions that legitimise the removal of a life on behalf of the state or the individual. (Granted of course that the two are completely different rights, relying on different constitutional articles and laws. This is not a legal argument.)
There is a fundamental cultural difference between what people in Europe and what people in the US consider appropriate issues that are up for deliberation when death and property are at play. See the position of the European Union towards the death penalty and the EU directive 2008/51/EC that aims to prevent the development of a gun culture similar to that of the US.
It seems to me that Americans have a more ‘intimate’ relationship with death, whilst in the EU, or at least in the UK and Cyprus that I live for extended periods, people are less likely to consider ‘death’ as a right, or as an accepted form of punishment.
Now, where does that leave us? Is it the more intimate relationship of Americans with death to blame when someone goes around killing people? Of course not, but it is not irrelevant either. If you consider death a worthy punishment, then it is not much of a shock when a mentally ill person, shoots someone because he considers them gravely responsible for the one or the other reason.
[I know that some might say that one needs not be mentally ill to go around killing people–like the Norwegian racist murderer–but I do not accept that this is the case, since I do not believe that someone in their right mind can commit such atrocities during peace period. The history of the previous century, with the highlight being the Nuremberg trials, demonstrated that perfectly healthy adults are capable of committing the most hateful crimes. The Nazi killings were committed during war and under a nation-wide and nation-supported panic, stress and propaganda. To construct your reality in such a way that would rationalise such violent behaviours during peace is I think, in itself, a manifestation of mental instability.]
We have so far touched upon the more intimate relationship of Americans and death. A similarly different and more intimate relationship is the one they have with guns. People in the EU do not go around carrying guns. Those who have guns, are either army reserves or hunters. Note that hunters in the EU are not allowed to use automatic weapons like their US counterparts who are allowed to carry such guns when hunting ducks [this is just one example]. People in Europe do not consider guns as something that would guarantee their safety, since they know that if they do use them for such purposes, they will most likely end up in prison.
A logical extension of the European detachment of gun possession and securitisation, is also reflected in their conception of what would constitute an appropriate reaction against the violation of one’s property rights. The way Europeans guard what is their own, seems to be different than the way Americans do. This might have to do with how people in the two continents experience their relationship with the state; the citizens of the EU tend to trust the mechanisms of the state more, whereas people in the US are characterised by a fundamental mistrust towards the institutions of the state [this, of course, can be explained both historically and empirically, but it is not of interest here]. The American scepticism towards the state might explain why a large part of the population seeks alternative ways to empower their position in an attempt to enhance their security. When people feel exposed, it is not surprising to arm themselves. In this context then, gun possession becomes a matter of securitisation.
There are two obvious disagreements with what I am saying here. The first disagreement would be that the gun culture, being a ‘culture’, is not something that is a product of autonomous reflection, or rational decision making. Fair enough, I do not dispute that and I do not suggest that I provide the only explanation of the gun possession frenzy that exists in the US. That being said and based on the same reasons, an argument which maintains that my explanation is not one that explains at least some of the proponents of gun possession rationales, cannot be sustained.
The second disagreement is related to the first one. It goes like this: you keep referring to ‘Americans’ or ‘US citizens’ in general, homogenising the different attitudes of diverse individuals and you provide a holistic account of what people in a vast country believe in response to a certain issue. This is a more substantial criticism, since it is one that needs more clarification. First of all, it is not the case that by ‘Americans’ I mean all the American population. We are obviously talking about a very specific part of the population, which is the one that carries guns, or the one that considers gun-possession a right worth preserving. It is obviously true that there are enlightened people in the US who consider fire-arms to be weapons of mass destruction that ought to be banned or more thoroughly regulated. Hence, if a group is being homogenised, it is the one who considers gun-possession as important. These different individuals are not arbitrarily homogenised–they form a group that can be rightly treated as a coherent whole, since their justifications follow a very similar pattern: they are either arguments for freedom or argument for security, or a mixture of the two justified by their scepticism towards the ability of the state to provide security without violating individual freedoms.
This second disagreement would be more effective when applied to the way the EU or the European citizens are presented. I am indeed homogenising in respect to the EU, but not without some factual basis. One of the central practices of EU institutions is to encourage the standardisation of domestic laws across the different state-members. This is of course an ongoing process, one that is sometimes progressing and sometimes retreating. There are still obvious differences across countries, often labelled under the core-periphery, north-south, or east-west label, yet there is significantly more legal integration than a decade ago.
The overall conclusion of this post is that the people living in the two continents differ in how they approach the relationship of rights and death and the relationship of guns and securitisation, which has been explained as one that is fuelled by the trust or lack thereof towards the institutions of the state.
culture death death penalty gun control guns property property rights United States United States of America US USA