Anthropology of Gun Violence

Update 2 June 2017: Revisited this analysis on gun violence and gun control for the #WearOrange National Gun Violence Awareness Day. I wrote this post in 2012, and the issues are still very much with us today. The article in the New York Daily News Armed husbands and boyfriends are killing hundreds of U.S. women each year is yet more evidence.


Lynyrd Skynyrd had gun violence figured out in 1975:

Hand guns are made for killin’
Ain’t no good for nothin’ else
And if you like your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don’t we dump ’em people
To the bottom of the sea
Before some fool come around here
Wanna shoot either you or me
–Lynyrd Skynyrd, Saturday Night Special

If they could make gun control palatable for their audience in 1975, why can’t we do it today?

In December 2012 even David Brooks and Gail Collins were in rare agreement that we were headed for some sensible gun regulations. Brooks speculated that the NRA would “get out in front of this by making some immediate concessions on gun rights, and they should promote a practical agenda on mental health and gun access” (The Newtown Aftermath). A consensus clamored for strengthening gun laws. But as Frank Rich wisely put it, “let’s see what happens when the circus folds its tent and we are back in the bitter winds of January, redirecting our attention to the Inauguration and the Super Bowl” (America’s Other Original Sin).

We did not need to wait that long. Many people, even Republicans, thought the NRA stance was unhelpful, disgusting, disastrous, and a thirty-round magazine of crazy. But plenty of support remained for NRA-type arguments, especially in districts controlled by House Republicans. This was something I already noted before the NRA announcement. Not a single sitting House Republican had announced any change in position, even after Newtown. The rhetoric from many places, including my own Republican representatives, had hardly budged (see Semi-Automatic Anthropology). For most of these politicians there has been no political gain from supporting even the mildest gun control regulations, and substantial backlash risk for not holding the line.

The math is simple. As long as Republicans hold Congress, we will not be getting any national gun control legislation, of even the mildest variety. The legislation dies. As Gail Collins aptly describes, it is “hard to imagine any reform getting past the great, gaping maw that is the House of Representatives” (Wish You a Gun-Free Christmas). There have been some local and state-level legislative measures introduced. There are hopeful signs of interest and participation in weapon buybacks. Of course local and state-level gun control measures are notoriously ineffective. Current buyback programs are voluntary and underfunded. Still, if local and state-level measures resulted in a coherent regulatory framework across a geographic region, then local controls could be effective.

Instead, politicians attempted the NRA approach of mandating armed guards in every school. And of course, gun buybacks are minuscule in comparison to the gun buying. After every shooting, people choose to stock up on assault weapons and ammunition. A chilling headline: Gun sales surge; 3 1/2 years of ammunition magazines sold in 72 hours. People buy body armor and bullet-proof backpacks for schoolchildren.

Intensified lock-down and other security measures have now become routine in most school districts. After 2012, the overall picture in the United States became an even more militarized and insecure society. If this is the result of horrific gun violence toward first-graders, teachers, police officers during the NRA press conference, and firefighters, then the US has arrived at a point-of-no-return for political dysfunction. We seem more than ever unable to pass any meaningful legislation, unable to coherently discuss the issues at hand.1

Anthropology on Gun Violence: Don’t make it so complicated!

I wrote Semi-Automatic Anthropology as an attempt to focus on the immediate issues. For the first time in many years it appeared some gun control legislation could be accomplished. At that time, some anthropologists were falling into an “it’s all so complicated” routine, which in many cases inadvertently echoed right-wing talking points.

I was not so much worried about people appropriating anthropology. It would be great if something like Daniel Lende’s No Easy Answers got more appropriated! My worry was that our own tendency as anthropologists to emphasize holism, complexity, and long-term causes contributed to the NRA narrative.

At a time when even conservative columnist David Brooks said “I should say I like the idea of buying back guns and melting them down” (The Newtown Aftermath), and many people were interested in the Australian experience with a semi-automatic weapons buyback, I tried to do the math for how much it would really cost. And although I readily conceded that spending $50 billion for a semi-automatic weapons buyback was “hilariously optimistic” (a Twitter accusation), the point was to try and push for the best deal possible. Fifty billion happened to be the same amount as the fiscal-cliff stimulus proposal. Considering that the NRA arm-the-schools proposal would have cost at a bare minimum $4.1 billion annually, this one-time expense would surely result in long-term savings. It should not have been dismissed as impossible. Plus, between Newtown and the Fiscal Cliff, we needed something optimistic.

Anthropology in the moment

2012 seemed a potentially powerful political moment. It was a time to concentrate anthropological energies on issues that touched those classic anthropology concerns: human nature, good, evil, society, culture, history.

The political math was always daunting. There was some hope that at least for some people the framing of this issue had shifted. We can still be hopeful for change in the medium-term. Or as the Pew Research Center reported in 2012, After Newtown, Modest Change in Opinion about Gun Control. The flurry of commentary reveals other tactics available, like pushing for gun company divestment, restricting gun advertisements, requiring gun insurance, or taxing guns.

An Unfinished Conversation on Gun Violence and Anthropology

As Gail Collins wrote in a touching editorial, Looking for America:

America needs to tackle gun violence because we need to redefine who we are. We have come to regard ourselves–and the world has come to regard us–as a country that’s so gun happy that the right to traffic freely in the most obscene quantities of weapons is regarded as far more precious than an American’s right to health care or a good education.

We have to make ourselves better.

I find myself also Looking for Anthropology. On the issue of gun violence, we have to make ourselves better. Anthropology could and should be at the leading edge of redefining who we are. Anthropologists are the best observers to comment on the place of the United States in the world.

For anthropology to participate in this redefinition, we need more pieces like Daniel Lende’s Newtown and Violence–No Easy Answers. In that sense, I completely agree with Lende’s comment. His post is timely, jargon-free, and direct. It addresses the medium-term and long-term conditions of possibility regarding issues of violence in the United States.

However, I should address what Lende terms our fundamental difference: “It’s about violence, not about guns, not about mental health. That’s the main message of my piece. In that sense, I don’t think it’s that complicated. We have a violence problem in the United States. That problem comes at the intersection of social, economic, and behavioral issues. Anthropologists are really good at analyzing those things. Taking away all the guns won’t change the underlying problem.”

I am not so sure. Put most baldly, the idea that taking away all the guns won’t change the problem is potentially an NRA talking point. Second, it makes it seem that we in the United States are fundamentally incapable of doing what other countries have done through gun control. Finally, and most importantly, I do not think it has empirical support. Lende provides a link to The Simple Truth about Gun Control by Adam Gopnik which puts all these issues together:

So don’t listen to those who, seeing twenty dead six- and seven-year-olds in ten minutes, their bodies riddled with bullets designed to rip apart bone and organ, say that this is impossibly hard, or even particularly complex, problem. It’s a very easy one. Summoning the political will to make it happen may be hard. But there’s no doubt or ambiguity about what needs to be done, nor that, if it is done, it will work. One would have to believe that Americans are somehow uniquely evil or depraved to think that the same forces that work on the rest of the planet won’t work here. It’s always hard to summon up political will for change, no matter how beneficial the change may obviously be. Summoning the political will to make automobiles safe was difficult; so was summoning the political will to limit and then effectively ban cigarettes from public places. At some point, we will become a gun-safe, and then a gun-sane, and finally a gun-free society. It’s closer than you think. . . .

On gun violence and how to end it, the facts are all in, the evidence is clear, the truth there for all who care to know it—indeed, a global consensus is in place, which, in disbelief and now in disgust, the planet waits for us to join. Those who fight against gun control, actively or passively, with a shrug of helplessness, are dooming more kids to horrible deaths and more parents to unspeakable grief just as surely as are those who fight against pediatric medicine or childhood vaccination. It’s really, and inarguably, just as simple as that.

In other words, to say that guns are not really the problem, or that gun control would not change the underlying problem, is an outlier or non-consensus argument to existing empirical evidence. This is not to say, obviously, that gun control would by itself produce the panacea of a violence-free society. But gun control is an essential element. Until we have some form of meaningful gun control, it really is impossible to tell whether there is a violence problem or a gun violence problem.

Does the United States have a violence problem? Or is it really a gun violence problem?

I will state upfront that I am unsure about this issue. I’ve tried reading some numbers from the Wikipedia List of countries by intentional homicide rate. The homicide rate is hardly an indicator of violence generally, and there are obviously flaws, but if one figure could be used to capture successful violence in a given country, this seems like a good starting place.

The United States obviously stands out in comparison to most Western European countries, Canada, Japan, and Australia. In comparison to this customary grouping, it does appear that we have a violence problem. However, in comparison to the Americas, including the Caribbean, the United States is the fourth lowest in the region, behind Canada, Chile, and Argentina. As I emphasize in my class on the Anthropology of Latin America and the Caribbean, the United States has been shaped by many similar processes as Latin American and the Caribbean.

In this context of colonialism and slavery, the violence problem of the United States is not particularly different from elsewhere in the Americas. Similarly, widening the comparison across the Eurasian countries, reveals rates that are approximately 30% higher in the U.S. A problem, yes, but perhaps not magnitudes higher than many other countries. Moreover, and this point perhaps takes us back to Lynyrd Skynyrd, there seems to be an association between homicide rates and southern states. Again, this is surely related to historical connections of colonialism and slavery.

As David Hemenway put it: “People think we have a violence problem in the United States, but we really don’t. We’re an average country in terms of all the violence measures you can think of, in terms of crime. But where we’re very different is guns. We have lots more guns than anybody else, particularly handguns” (Hemenway, “Gun violence in America”).

I agree with Lende about the need for prison reform and reform of drug laws. I would also say that three of the biggest issues that affect violence problems in the U.S. are

  • our healthcare system overall, which needs to encompass and treat issues like mental healthcare holistically. We need a single-payer system, Medicare for all;
  • our chasm of inequality, and the geographic nexus of race and class. At a minimum we need higher tax rates on top earners and accumulated wealth;
  • our educational inequalities. Again at a minimum we need a national funding system to make education work as opportunity, rather than exacerbating existing inequalities (a suggestion from Daniel Lende back on Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism).

Effective gun control and these three reforms would go a long way to bringing US violence closer to international norms for industrialized countries. Admittedly these measures seem currently unimaginable, “hilariously optimistic.” But in other ways, as Adam Gopnik writes, “it’s closer than you think.”


This post from December 31, 2012 was written during a time of pessimism about whether the Newtown gun violence would lead to gun control. The pessimism was warranted. This post is part of a series about the need for anthropology to directly address gun control and gun violence. The series includes: