The Way of the Gun

“The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away.”

In the opening paragraphs of To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout ponders the meaning of her brother’s broken arm. “It began with Andrew Jackson,” she decides: “if General Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama,” and so Jem Finch’s fracture was ordained in the flames of Atlanta. Southern literature is obsessed with History, largely defined by the attempt of a conquered people to make sense of that legacy – or the failure to do so, which drives Quentin Compson to drown himself in the dirty water of the Charles River. This struggle to shake free of the past does not stop at the Mason-Dixon line – James Gatz’s efforts likewise end with his body beating on against the currents of his gilded swimming pool. Our country started with a gun shot at Lexington and Concord, and the violence dogs us still.


As Steven Pinker argues, the problem of violence in the United States is very much a regional question. If one sorts the list of US states by homicide rate, an instructive pattern emerges: the list correlates primarily with latitude, rather than gun ownership (there are three main exceptions to this, about which more in a moment). Louisiana and Mississippi top the pack, with other states such as Nevada and Georgia close behind. Wyoming – number two in the country in terms of gun ownership – is 39th. Vermont, where 45% of households own a firearm, ranks 47th. By the time one gets to New Hampshire, at 1.1 homicides per 100,000 people, one sees a data point very much comparable to the Western European rubric anti-gun advocates insist upon.

Why, then, does violence increase as one approaches the equator? The most likely answer comes from our history. As Pinker points out, and as documented in works such as David Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, what came to be the United States was settled by a variety of disparate groups, each bringing their particular cultural background to bear on a particular environment. The Scotch-Irish in Appalachia and the rural South, Germans and Scandinavians in the upper mid-west, etc. These migration patterns, though tempered by centuries of deviation, still contribute to the heterogeneous amalgam that is America.

In short, the places where a high level of violence persists in America are the places where violence was long a necessary part of life, first settle by people who came from similarly unforgiving circumstances. Rural populations, living far from any governmental authority upon which they might depend, kept their own counsel and forged their own justice. Adam Winkler, in his book on the history of the Second Amendment, claims that the infamous Dodge City only saw a murder or two per year – hardly the violent old west of the cinema – but neglects to mention this works out, on a per capita basis, to something like six times the current homicide rate of New York City. Researchers have documented this in part, pointing to the “honor culture” of the American south as a driver of its higher homicide rates, but anyone with a passing understanding of the history and culture of these areas doesn’t need peer review to understand the phenomenon.

And now we return to our three outliers: Maryland, Illinois, and Michigan, which should really be rewritten as Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit. The exception to the regional pattern is therefore a racial pattern, driven by the violence in predominantly black inner cities. But on reflection this proves not an exception at all, but the same rule: communities that could not historically depend on the more polite institutions of bourgeois society developed their own systems of self-defense.

Pearls clutch themselves from Park Slope to Kalorama when we describe the Second Amendment as our bulwark against tyranny – how boorish and crude an idea, in twenty first century America, to speak of taking up arms: this is the rhetoric of those who buy “25 year survival food” off late night infomercials, if not Timothy McVeigh. But it was not all that long ago when extermination and plunder were official state policy. In the words of Ida B. Wells, “the only case where the proposed lynching did not occur, was where the men armed themselves.” We speak often of our failure to learn the lessons of history, but certain lessons take generations to unlearn.

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