Chris Blattman cites a recent estimate that Americans own 42% of the civilian guns in the world.
You’ll also see estimates that America accounts for about half of the world’s defense spending. I believe those numbers are a misuse of purchasing power parity comparisons, but with proper adjustments it is not implausible to believe that America accounts for…about 42% of the defense spending. Or thereabouts.
I see those two numbers, and their rough similarity, as the most neglected fact in current debates about gun control.
I see many people who want to lower or perhaps raise those numbers, but I don’t see enough people analyzing the two as an integrated whole.
I don’t myself so often ask “should Americans have fewer guns?”, as that begs the question of how one might ever get there, which indeed has proven daunting by all accounts. But I do often ask myself “should America be a less martial country in in its ideological orientation?”
Note that the parts of the country with the most guns, namely the South, are especially prominent in the military and support for the military.
More importantly, if America is going to be the world’s policeman, on some scale or another, that has to be backed by a supportive culture among the citizenry. And that culture is not going to be “Hans Morgenthau’s foreign policy realism,” or “George Kennan’s Letter X,” or even Clausewitz’s treatise On War. Believe it or not, those are too intellectual for the American public. And so it must be backed by…a fairly martial culture amongst the American citizenry. And that probably will mean a fairly high level of gun ownership and a fairly high degree of skepticism about gun control.
If you think America can sustain its foreign policy interventionism, or threat of such, without a fairly martial culture at home, by all means make your case. But I am skeptical. I think it is far more likely that if you brought about gun control, and the cultural preconditions for successful gun control, America’s world role would fundamentally change and America’s would no longer play a global policeman role, for better or worse.
So who’s in this debate?
1. There are the anti-gun modern Democrats, who want Americans to own many fewer firearms, and who maybe favor slight cuts in defense spending, in order to spend more on redistribution. They don’t come to terms with the reality that their vision for America’s international state requires a fairly martial supporting culture at home, including strong attachments to gun ownership.
By the way, citations of the Australian gun control experience are a good indicator of this position and its partial naivete; Australian pacifism can to some extent free ride upon American martial interest. Another “warning sign” is if someone is incredulous that the San Bernardino attack is strengthening America’s attachment to a relatively martial internal culture, rather than leading to gun control. That person is out of touch, even if he or she is right about the substance of the issue.
2. There is the radical, anti-war, anti-military-industrial complex, semi-pacifist, anti-gun Left. Their positions on these issues are quite consistent, though this branch of the Left has disappeared almost entirely.
3. There are the libertarians, who hate martial culture on the international scene, but who wish to allow it or maybe even encourage it (personally, not through the government) at home, through the medium of guns. They are inconsistent, and they should consider being more pro-gun control than is currently the case. But I don’t expect them to budge: they will see this issue only through the lens of liberty, rather than through the lens of culture as well. They end up getting a lot of the gun liberties they wish to keep, but losing the broader cultural battle and somehow are perpetually surprised by this mix of outcomes.
I except non-American libertarians from these charges, and indeed many of them, albeit under the table, in fact support gun control as a libertarian and indeed pro-peace position.
4. There are the “right-wing conservatives.” They support a martial ethic, they support America’s active foreign policy abroad, and they are anti-gun control for the most part. And they find their greatest strength in the relatively martial American South. Like the old anti-war Left, their positions are consistent, and their positions are rooted in a cultural understanding of the issue. They see the gun control movement as a war on America’s greatness, America’s martial culture and the material embodiments of said culture. They don’t understand why “the world’s greatest nation” should give up its superpower role, and its supporting internal martial culture, all for the sake of limiting the number of suicides and maybe stopping a few shootings too. To them it’s not close to being worth it.
OK, now look at who is winning this debate in terms of actual policy changes. It is the conservatives, for the most part. No matter how much you may disagree with them, they have the most coherent cultural and intellectual position, apart from the old anti-war Left. And in a fight between the right-wing conservatives, and the old anti-war Left, for the hearts and minds of the American people, we already know that, for better or worse, the conservatives usually will win.
I find that pro-gun control Democrats, and libertarians, are incapable of understanding the issue in these cultural terms. But if you read something by a “really stupid conservative” on gun control, the more emotive and manipulative the text the better, it is often pretty close to the mark on the actual substance of what is at stake here.
Here is my earlier post, The culture of guns, the culture of alcohol.