Anthropology of Gun Violence

Gun Violence Anthropology

by Jason Antrosio

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:

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  • Daniel Lende

    Solid post, Jason. For better or worse, in the US I think gun control might be like the fiscal cliff – a mish-mash in the middle, where no one is happy, and only forced deadlines might produce compromise. Otherwise, just kick the can down the road. But we’ll see what happens with the White House efforts in the New Year. I’d really like to see the gun show loophole closed, and to mandate some licensing (like cars). And I think that insurance idea was really innovative, as well as promoting gun buybacks.
    For the gun buyback, I think it makes sense to pursue federal funding to support local and state initiatives to continue to do just that. I think then it wouldn’t be the “federal government taking my guns away,” but local communities having the support to pursue their own initiatives. It might just be more palatable politically.

    • Hi Daniel, thank you for inspiring this post. Your assessment seems spot-on. For me, the enduring lesson here has been that while I would like changes to the economic safety net, healthcare, and education, it is also important to keep talking about the weaponry. As sociologist Scott Melzer writes in A History of Violence, liberals usually think about gun control as one issue in a mix of many, whereas for the gun crusaders, it is *the* issue.

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  • Dawn

    I want to start out by saying that I am not against better gun control. And the idea of armed guards patrolling schools to protect the students is one of the most inane ideas I’ve heard in a long time.

    But here’s something that I think is interesting: if you compare that (admittedly problematic) Wikipedia list of countries by intentional homicide rate with their list of countries ranked by per capita handgun ownership (, it would appear that there is little correlation between gun ownership and societal violence.

    If we can use intentional homicide rate as a reasonable proxy for levels of violence in a given culture, the most violent countries are fairly easily explained. They are generally politically unstable countries with high rates of crushing, inconceivable-to-most-Americans poverty.

    What is more interesting is what happens at the other end of the list.

    Finland, ranking #10 in per capita handgun ownership, is pretty low on the violence list, with only a 2.2% intentional homicide rate. Switzerland, #4 in per capita handgun ownership, has a 0.7% intentional homicide rate. Even the United States, ranked an unsurprising #1 in per capita handgun ownership, “only” has a 4.2% intentional homicide rate.

    By this measure, it seems pretty clear that the problem is not just the guns.

    Your thoughts?

    • Hi Dawn, thank you for this thoughtful response and for digging into the data.

      I would first point out that the issue of mass shootings is very specific. Those countries which experienced mass shootings–Australia and Britain–but then enacted tougher gun control laws, saw the mass shootings reduced or eliminated. Full stop.

      I would also say that comparing gun ownership rates is interesting but can be deceiving. Switzerland has compulsory weapons training for a standing militia, but even there the Swiss have moved more toward a system of keeping the guns at a depot rather than in individual houses–in fact, as of 2011 they seemed to not have much ammunition in their homes! For Finland, gun owners must state a valid reason for owning a weapon, and “self defense” does not count. In short, just because people own guns does not mean they own them in the same way.

      The issue of the intentional homicide rate over a national area–and with international comparison–is of course even trickier. As a more policy-oriented response, I’d like to write something on that over at my more policy-oriented blog, Local is Possible, which oddly enough was partly inspired by your Rural Solutions conference with Michael Shuman. Will try to get that up soon!

      • Dawn

        Actually, I rather like the idea of having to state a reason why you need to own a weapon. After all, that fabled 2nd Amendment gives a reason for gun ownership and if a would-be purchaser is looking for a weapon for some reason other than joining the militia (would that be the National Guard nowadays? don’t they supply you with guns anyway?), they should have to convince somebody.

        *giggles wildly imagining the NRA’s reaction to that suggestion … *

        • Hi Dawn, thank you, and although it may seem strange to many of us in the U.S., most of the countries that have high rates of gun ownership (none as high as the U.S., but some have higher rates than others) do require people to state and prove their reasons for owning such weapons. Often, as in Finland, the answer can’t be for “self defense.” It would be interesting to see rates of gun ownership outside of people who really do hunt (Canada, Finland) and people who are really in national militias (Switzerland).

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  • William

    Thank you for this thoughtful (and thought-provoking article). I
    appreciated reading your thoughtful engagement with a number of
    published opinions, and I think we are probably of the same mind that
    the U.S. does, indeed, have a gun violence problem. Still, after reading
    some of the equally
    thoughtful responses to your article, I wanted to offer a couple
    thoughts to complicate the matter — without, I think, providing anyone
    with ready-made talking points.

    The first is that I don’t feel
    comfortable with the lack of representation of actual people in the U.S.
    would oppose gun control. IThe NRA, which would seem
    to be more a gun manufacturer’s lobby than a 2nd amendment lobby, is a
    different matter, and I have no appetite to defend them. On the question
    of actual gun owners, though, I would recommend commentary by the late
    Joe Bageant (especially
    his recent book, Deer hunting with Jesus, but also his book Poor, white
    and Pissed). [1] I think of Bageant as being one of the finest authors
    to translate, empathetically and without the contempt that sometimes
    colors ‘outsider’
    characterizations, inhabitants of the Deep South and
    the Appalachian region, to say nothing of the Southwest. (To be fair, I
    feel that you began by citing Skynyrd, thus complication our
    understanding of *who* opposes handguns, but did not pursue the point

    The second issue has to do with a
    question raised by your use of the Skynyrd quote and the Hemenway
    article, and which was raised again by Dawn’s thoughtful response. All
    of the major statistics that I’ve seen about the gun violence problem in
    the U.S. seem to reveal that the
    problem is primarily one of *handguns*. Yet even your “Semi-Automatic”
    article frames itself by making reference to assault rifles and the
    focus on mass shootings. It is difficult to read your convincing
    explanation about colonial histories without agreeing and then wondering
    whether mass
    shootings, rather than simply being more dramatic and interesting,
    emerge as attention-grabbers precisely when they happen in wealthier
    neighborhoods in America (in
    Colorado, Connecticut, etc.). Yet the facts about our gun violence
    problem suggest that the
    violence that affects most communities has to do with handguns, do they
    not? Why should we focus on assault rifles, extended
    ammunition clips, etc., rather than handguns?

    The third issue is
    another leap of logic that I do not follow, but which is frequently made and raised here in your
    exchange with Dawn. The uses of guns are many, but some guns (as Skynyrd
    notes about pistols) are only good for one thing. Beyond handguns, as
    Dawn points out, there are militia-type reasons for owning guns and there are
    hunting-type reasons. The second amendment, in its historical
    context, alongside the 3rd and 4th amendments, constitutes a limitation on
    repressive governments. Many opinions are possible
    with regard to the 2nd amendment, and I do not begrudge or prejudge
    anyone’s opinions on the matter. Yet whatever the cause for invoking it, the second amendment is clearly
    not about deer hunting but rather
    about the right to resist tyrannical governance.

    finish this point, I want to acknowledge that David Graeber and many
    others have pointed out that gun rights are hardly the only way to
    preserve the public’s right to overthrow a government. He says, “I think
    you need to consider all possibilities. There’s this idea that
    people in power will never give up power voluntarily, therefore it will
    end in battles on the streets – but I always point out, it’s not like a
    bunch of anarchists are going to military defeat the 101st Airborne
    Division. Anyway they have nukes. The only plausible scenario for
    revolution is when it comes to the point that the forces of order refuse
    to shoot. For most revolutions in world history that is what ultimately
    happens.” [2] Like many of your
    readers, I prefer the peaceful revolution. But it’s not completely
    honest that the 2nd amendment is
    therefore an outdated right to armed rebellion. You can still carry out
    asymmetrical warfare with light arms, as many
    contemporary militias/liberationary armies continue to demonstrate, and
    it’s not as if the U.S. has some dearth of citizens with military
    Even if you’re a committed pacifist — and I generally have greater
    sympathy for their position than even the most principled advocate of
    armed rebellion — I think it is important to be honest about what the
    amendment means, why it ends up being so centrally located in our Bill
    of Rights, and the dangers of glibly writing off the Bill of Rights in
    general as outdated.

    I hate to give the wrong impression. I do not personally own a gun, have no intention to
    join a militia (and know of none I would support), and so I hope I
    cannot possibly be misconstrued as expressing my personal preference for
    gun ownership or violence in any way. Nor do I mean to imply that I read your essay as unduly harsh of any group or
    unfair in its characterizations. My goal is simply to raise the question of
    responsible representation when we frame this debate. I want to ask whether the commonsense
    solutions we propose are rational with regard to the
    kinds of guns we want to restrict, and whether our commonsense solutions may be based more on preconceived
    notions about gun owners and gun rights advocates than on solid reasoning about violence in America.

    I only raise this
    question here because I was impressed by your article and thought you
    might be singularly positioned to help reason through some of these
    problems. Also, anyone who can use Skynyrd to frame their take on gun control is all right by me. 🙂

    Warm wishes,


    • Hi Will, thank you for this, and forgive the delay getting back to you. I’ve taken up some other topics on the blog, but your response has remained on my mind, and I’ve just written a brief follow-up, Shoddy Anthropology & Gun Control: Human Nature, Culture, History, which you might rightly read as a too-glib dismissal of positioned arguments. I doubt that I am uniquely positioned (as you so nicely say), but I do hope to be sensitive to the intricacies of these matters. And it gives me another chance to put the Skynyrd song on repeat!

      You are correct that perhaps some of the common-sense responses are based on reacting to lots of attention on particular events. However, it would be important to note that there has been a lack of empirical research on gun violence and gun reform, blocked at the legislative level, and it would be nice to have more of that. I would also say that the Australian example of a gun buyback–which eventually did include semi-automatic handguns–was probably originally conceived as a common-sense response to big headline-grabbing events, but it seems to have had far-reaching effects, and my own idea for a semi-automatic weapons buyback would include the handguns: Semi-Automatic Weapons Buyback – The Future of Gun Reform.

      I’m grateful for your nuanced reading of the Second Amendment. I don’t want to unfairly and glibly dismiss it, but it still seems to now be allowing military-style weaponry to be in civilian hands–and enabling mass shootings–while not really providing the protection against tyrannical government that may have been envisioned.

      Many thanks too for the additional references, which I will need to check out! Again, with thanks, and apologies for the delay,

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