Statistics of gun violence coldly quantify a reality of American society: 467,321 Americans were victims of a crime committed with a firearm in 2011, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. In the same year, data collected by the FBI show firearms were used in 68 percent of murders, 41 percent of robbery offenses, and 21 percent of aggravated assaults nationwide.

But what does gun violence say about American culture more broadly? And what does it mean when regions of the United States as well as political factions are so divided in their opinions on gun rights and laws?

There may be both geographical and racial underpinnings in the current debate. In 2012’s “Why Are States So Red and Blue?” Steven Pinker traces the roots of America’s divided political map to how a region’s settlers confronted social anarchy. He argues red state/blue state ideology emerged not due to inherent differences in human nature, but differences in how to tame and regulate immoral human impulses. Settlers of red states tended toward the political right’s “tragic Vision of human nature, in which people are permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason” and must be tamed. Settlers of blue states had a more “Utopian Vision, which emphasizes the malleability of human nature, puts customs under the microscope, articulates rational plans for a better society and seeks to implement them through public institutions.” Pinker implicitly ties these ideologies to views on gun control. Guns, after all, might serve as a means to corral the tragically wild among us, whereas it is difficult to imagine a defined-to-the-letter Utopia featuring assault rifles.

That said, notably absent from Pinker’s discussion on red-blue politics is race. “Gun Deaths Shaped by Race in America,” by Dan Keating of The Washington Post begins with a sentence that speaks volumes on the relationship of race to gun violence: “Whites are far more likely to shoot themselves, and African Americans are far more likely to be shot by someone else.” Keating’s profiling of white and black families who’ve lost members to both homicide or suicide concludes:

Contrasting life experiences, whether from a family member’s suicide or the death of a relative in a homicide, drive the nation’s split over an essential element of the gun debate: Would fewer guns save lives? Survivors of homicide victims consistently tell pollsters that the answer is yes, but the response to suicide is different.

This comparison highlights an oft-unspoken truth. Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, is quoted in Keating’s article as saying suicide is “absent from the discussion of gun policy. The availability of firearms does indeed increase the risk of suicide, but most people don’t see it that way.” He goes on to explain:

Opponents of gun control counter that some countries with high gun ownership rates, such as Israel, have few suicides and that countries such as Russia, where guns are scarce, have high rates of suicide. The reasoning is that determined people can find a way to kill themselves, although suicide experts say the prevalence of guns allows for impulse suicides that otherwise might not occur.

The most ardent advocate for gun rights, the National Rifle Association, casts the link between guns and suicide as something of a virtue. “Gun owners are notably self-reliant and exhibit a willingness to take definitive action when they believe it to be in their own self-interest,” the NRA wrote in a fact sheet, called “Suicide and Firearms,” on the Web site for the group’s lobbying arm. “Such action may include ending their own life when the time is deemed appropriate.”

Both Pinker and Webster highlight differences in gun mind-sets underscored by geography, race, and the deep-divide in opinion about guns used in suicides verses those in homicides. “America’s Gun Divide” published in The Economist’s blog series “Lexington’s Notebook,” further complicates this argument by noting that “rural and urban Americans, as well as blacks and whites, might as well live in different countries when it comes to their exposure to gun violence.”

Enter the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Just seven weeks after Pinker published his NYT article in the thick of pre-election tension, a tragedy bridging the gap between white and minority experiences of gun violence occurred: on December 14, 2012, a lone gunman opened fire on an elementary school in ocean-blue suburban Connecticut killing 26, 20 of them children.

The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.

— Steven Pinker in “Why Are States So Red and Blue?”

In “America’s Gun Divide,” the columnist draws a parallel between this shooting and the rise in American support for tighter gun control. Immediately after the Sandy Hook shooting, levels of support rose to 57% after having remained stable for ten years. “One way of describing post-Newtown opinion is that a shocking event briefly closed the divide between Americans who live with high rates of gun homicide and those who do not,” says the columnist.

Yet as time passed and this tragic mass shooting faded from public discourse, support for stricter gun laws fell again. Once more the gap has widened (polls cite 61% of Americans supported stricter gun laws in February 2013, dropping to 50% in April). Once more Americans ask how best to address the divide.

New York Times columnist Michael Luo argues the answer to such a question lies in research. In the wake of the mass shooting that injured Congress Woman Gabby Gifford’s, Luo published an article addressing accusations leveled against the NRA by the scientific community. He states:

In the wake of the shootings in Tucson, the familiar questions inevitably resurfaced: Are communities where more people carry guns safer or less safe? Does the availability of high-capacity magazines increase deaths? Do more rigorous background checks make a difference?

The reality is that even these and other basic questions cannot be fully answered, because not enough research has been done. And there is a reason for that. Scientists in the field and former officials with the government agency that used to finance the great bulk of this research say the influence of the National Rifle Association has all but choked off money for such work.

Accusations against the NRA are nothing new. Twelve years ago, Jim Shepard wrote “The Gun Lobby,” a short story from the perspective of an unnamed narrator under siege by his armed to the hilt wife. While held hostage, the narrator has time to ponder the role of firearms in American society. He says, “in my opinion, the gun lobby is not pernicious or evil or embattled or heroic; it just is. It’s like the Samarian gorge, or German efficiency, or beans in the soup, or the death of the sun. What does it mean to ‘stand up’ to the gun lobby?”

What pumps the lifeblood of the American gun divide? As evidenced in the articles curated here, likely a heart crowded with ideological disparity. Is that heart – belonging to liberals, conservatives, moderates, and the gun lobby alike – capable of compromise? Will it ever settle on the role of firearms in civilized society?

“How do you solve a problem like Maria?” asks Shepard’s protagonist of his short story. “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”


Image credit: Michael Saechang via flickr

About The Author

Kara Waite
Novelist and Writing Teacher Bunker Hill Community College

Kara Waite is a Boston-based novelist fascinated by all things popular and political. By day, she teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College and freelance writes for various digital content outlets. By night, she’s working on Swallowed in Skin, a memoir chronicling her experience with advanced-stage melanoma. She recently finished Love Is Our Poison, a novel