The Great American Gun Addiction


Yet another brutal massacre in yet another school in which the perpetrator should have been easily identified and never allowed to get anywhere near the military grade weapon he used in his bloody mission.

So let the rhetorical acrobatics begin.

To me, it’s nothing short of amazing watching one side of what should not even be a debate contort itself around a discredited reality in a selfish effort to protect a flawed notion of “gun rights.” Now part of this is the professional framing with which the NRA and its political lapdogs protect the $15 billion industry. Part of it has to do with a “cult of the gun” that has emerged in the last hundred years or so as a result of, yes, gun marketing, but also from the cultural mythology evolving from popular mass media starting with dime novels and cultivating in Hollywood pictures. Finally, the last part is the cultural hysteria and paranoia that is stoked by the political class and a media driven by “it bleeds it leads” twenty-four-hour news cycles–ironically reinforced whenever there is a mass shooting.

So we jump on the merry-go-round. One side screams “gun control! Gun control!” The other side screams “2nd Amendment! 2nd Amendment!” Lately, the embattled gun-rights folks, no longer able to make a credible “right to bear arms” argument has turned to a distracting “Mental Health! Mental Health!” paradigm which, of course, it has no intention of addressing.

Around and around we go, accomplishing nothing…only to mourn and become outraged when the next massacre happens. The underlying issues do not get addressed.

Does our nation need a sensible and comprehensive gun control policy? Yes! Of course. It’s insane that we have civilians walking around with military grade weapons. It’s insane just how easy it is to get a gun. It’s insane the raw number of guns that are lying around in our country.

Do we also need to invest in better Mental Health identification and treatment? That goes without saying. The U.S. clearly has a problem with mental health at all levels of the treatment process. This ties in with physical health, as well. Access to health care, in general, is a predictor as to whether or not a mental health issue goes untreated. In the U.S. the poor, covered by Medicaid, are less likely to go untreated than those who do not qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford insurance. So if you are a gun rights advocate who wants to cry about mental health, great! Let’s get together on single-payer.

Will focusing on these two issues solve the problem?

I’m afraid not. Even if we can ban the sale of all guns and perform the kind of comprehensive, house-to-house gun confiscation that was a mainstay nightmare of the right under the Obama Administration, the underlying anomie that is animating our gun problem will go unresolved.

Look, before we start, any conversation about guns and gun-control should be centered around a basic set of accepted facts. In the face of horrific tragedies such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Stoneman Douglas, let alone Las Vegas and Orlando and…well, just fill in the depressing blanks…it’s easy to forget the facts and respond to our grief and anger irrationally.

First, violent crime rates in the United States are stable at historic lows. Our nation is not becoming increasingly violent overall, but the number of homicides have increased in the last couple of years. This increase is disconcerting, but still not comparable to the highs of the late 1980s and early 1990s. [Note: Italicized is an addendum to the original post to account for the recent spike in homicides]

[Note: Data has been updated from the original to account for the recent spike in homicides that was not a factor when this post was originally published]

And the United States is not a particularly violent society as compared to our peer nations.

Violent and non-violent crime in the US and other rich countries

Violence leading to homicide tends to be very localized under predictable conditions: high poverty, low educational attainment, and racial segregation.

St Louis Profie
Violence in the United States is localized by neighborhood and differentiated by social class. (Source: The Guardian)

Despite the low levels of violence, mass shootings are becoming more frequent and more deadly.

Mass Shootings
Mass Shootings are becoming more frequent. (Source: CATO Institute)

And Mental Health is only a small part of the problem. The vast majority of shootings, in general, do not involve people with mental health issues and only about 1 in 5 mass shooters has a mental health diagnosis.

Most gun homicides have nothing to do with “good guys” or “bad guys.” They just have to do with guys. Specifically, most gun homicides involve guys in arguments.

[Note: This chart is updated from the original. The original included data from 2012. The same overall trends apply] Data pulled from the Uniform Crime Report

Most importantly, the United States has an obnoxious amount of guns, and there’s absolutely no evidence that being so heavily armed equates to safety. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.

A chart shows America’s disproportionate levels of gun violence.
If guns kept us safe, the United States would be the safest nation in the world.

So where does all of this information leave us? We have to ask ourselves, why are people turning to guns to express their anger or frustration or desperation. What is going on in our society that Americans, when becoming violent, are more likely to become violent with a gun?

The first explanation is as clear as the nose on our faces. Because we can. Guns are absurdly easy to get in the United States, and there are strong, cultural currents that encourage gun ownership. When there are more guns, the probability that an interpersonal conflict will end with a gunshot increases.

Guns also give us the license to make decisions we otherwise might not make. This goes along with the saying, “if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Without a gun, how we conduct ourselves with regard to interpersonal conflicts, with regard to social frustrations, is shaped by other priorities. A gun, however, encourages gun use. With a gun in hand, we may have a false sense of security that encourages riskier behavior, behavior we would not participate in without the weaponry.

And, as every gun owner is aware, you cannot unpull a trigger.

But I think there is more. In an earlier post, I expressed interest in a notable trend. Why was it that gun ownership rates were so different all over the country, even between states that had relatively similar loose gun laws?

Why such discrepancies in Gun Ownership? Why so many more gun owners in Louisiana than in Vermont despite similar gun laws?

How is it that Vermont, which has similar gun laws as, say, Louisiana, has significantly lower gun ownership rates?¹ Why such variation in gun ownership? This led me to ask, why do people buy guns, to begin with?

Reasons for gun ownership

According to Pew Research, Americans buy guns for protection. But protection from whom, or what. When our Founding Fathers added the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, they had legitimate concerns from their point of view. They had just gained liberty from the most powerful nation on Earth, a nation with an active and populous colony and access to the continent from the north in Canada. Native Americans, knowing full well that the Proclamation Line of 1763 was relegated to the political trash heap, were preparing themselves for an inevitable conflict with the white colonists. There was great uncertainty as to the viability of this new government, or if the leadership would trade their republican rhetoric for more authoritarian ends. Most importantly, most especially in the South, the erstwhile English colonists were holding millions of people in bondage, many of whom were promised freedom from British officers during the Revolution. Under these circumstances, the innate paranoia was understandable.

It was understandable, but no longer relevant in the 21st century. The legitimate fears on which our nation was founded are far behind us. As a sociologist and a historian, I know that social constructs do not die easily. It’s a condition that I refer to as social schizophrenia, the anomie that exists when the accepted constructs are no longer relevant to the existing reality. The conditions noted above were an integral part of the American experience for at least seventy-five years. To what extent is this sense of fear embedded in our historical structures?

Guns and freedom

Pew also noted that many Americans associate gun ownership with freedom. Of course, this is ridiculous. There is no correlation between nations that are free and nations that are armed. And, no, Hitler didn’t take everyone’s guns away. In fact, he made it easier for most Germans to get guns. To put this in perspective, there was a report put out shortly after the war in Afghanistan revealing that, in that country, an AK-47 was cheaper than a chicken. Afghanistan was certainly not an example of a free nation. Neither is Yemen, the third most heavily armed country in the world after the United States and Serbia.

We don’t need world comparisons to debunk the association between guns and freedom, however. Just look around at all the metal detectors and violations of privacy Americans have to endure to walk into public buildings, or concerts, or any public gathering place. Look at the proposed solutions to school shootings from the right: increased police presence, armed guards, armed teachers, metal detectors, random searches, zero tolerance policies. Guns are clearly associated with less freedom, not more.

Freedom, however, is a useful rhetorical device for the third element of this social schizophrenia. Namely, the perpetuation of the “gun rights” mythology serves elite interests. As mentioned earlier, the civilian gun market is worth over $15 billion dollars a year. Furthermore, whenever there’s a mass shooting, gun sales soar. Although, now that the Obama Boogeyman has taken up the Presidential Rocking Chair, this may no longer be the case.  Turns out, having the political arm of the NRA in total control of federal policy may be bad for business.  That being said, there are millions of dollars invested in gun lobbying. Not to worry, there are those pesky states that might want to pass sensible gun regulations that everyone wants. So buy now!

gun lobbying
The gun industry is pretty one-sided when it comes to investing in its economic future.

The political influence and interests of the gun lobby and their lapdog GOP conspire to perpetuation this sense of social schizophrenia when it comes to gun ownership. Economist Paul Krugman stepped into political sociology when he linked the right-wing position on gun rights with larger social and policy forces conspiring to break down the social contract and the sense of community that is requisite for a democratic society.

About a year and a half ago I wrote a post in which I highlighted four trends that I noticed with regard to mass shootings and, to a certain extent, shootings in general. I noticed that mass shootings tended to involve the following: Transcendent values, especially motivating for what we refer to as terrorism, anomie and isolation, troubled masculinity and access to guns. Above, I noted that shootings tend to be localized in areas that are high poverty, high segregation, and low education. I also mentioned a “cult of guns” manifest in our American cultural mythology and reinforced through entertainment media. Further, I elaborated a concept of social schizophrenia when it comes to guns and gun rights.

I’m no different from anyone else in trying to make sense of the apparently insensible. I’m just trying to apply the skills that I have at my disposal. I’m not sure how these factors are related and how they contribute to our uniquely American gun crisis. I’m certain, however, that they matter. Somewhere along the line, our society is falling short on its most basic task, Namely, society is inconsistent in socializing its members with a healthy and fulfilling sense of identity. We are all falling short. So many of us, especially so many men, are deprived of those visceral and, dare I say, spiritual, elements that give our lives meaning and purpose and a sense of connection to our fellow human beings.

It could very well be that gun violence is just one more symptom indicating a society in free fall. Instead of meaning, fulfillment, and community, we are, as a people, turning to self-destructive impulses such as drug use, consumerism, and disconnection. We don’t trust our socializing institutions and we don’t trust each other. We are locking our doors and arming ourselves from our neighbors. We are turning inward and are increasingly afraid of the other. The American gun crisis, I’m convinced, does not exist in isolation. It is part of a larger social pathology that needs to be addressed and reversed.

Focusing on mental health will certainly help, but it is not the answer. The problem is structural and interpersonal, not psychological.

Sensible gun restrictions is a good idea, but will not fill the gaping hole in our collective consciousness. Gun violence is symptomatic of a larger, societal disease.

  1. Turns out the variance in gun ownership breaks down when you look at households that possess guns rather than individual owners of guns. But there are still discrepancies.


  1. This contentions in this article don’t reflect its title, “The Great American Gun Addiction.” The real problem with mass shootings in indeed addiction to guns. Addiction is a form of mental disorder, arising from what the addict becomes addicted to. Alcohol and drugs are most common, but people also become addicted to guns. Gun addicts overdose on gun addiction by going on a shooting spree.

    Some of the symptoms of gun addition: possession of gun(s) in violation of existing laws; possession of assault weapons; possession of enough guns and ammunition to perform mass shootings; frequently firing guns for pleasure or practice by people who aren’t hunters or in target shooting events; and expressing love for guns more often and more emphatically than love for people. Experts should identify gun addiction and publicize the signs of it so that people can report potential gun addicts to law enforcement. Red flag laws should allow investigating people reasonably suspected of being gun addicts – before they approach their targets armed with large amounts of ammunition.

    It’s also vital that gun addicts, potential or actual, be informed of the phenomenon of gun addiction. They, like all other addicted people, deserve the opportunity to overcome their addiction. Overcoming it will reduce the possibility of deadly overdosing.

    And we should stop wasting time determining the motives for mass shootings. Mass murderers have animosities similar to those of millions of people who would never think of going on a shooting spree.

    Background checks will help, but aren’t going to solve the problem, any more than making drugs illegal has solved the drug abuse problem. Our nation is swamped with guns. Gun addicts will find a way to get them, legally or not.


    1. An interesting hypothesis. Certainly worth looking into. Now, since this is a sociology blog, what are some of the larger social forces that contribute, or increase the probability of gun addiction?


  2. You ask, “. . . what are some of the larger social forces that contribute, or increase the probability of gun addiction?” The answer is similar to what we can say about other addictions. Availability of the dangerous or harmful addicting things, such as drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and guns/ammunition. Acceptance of possession and use of addicting things. The tendency of people growing up to mimic what they see others doing.

    Our nation’s founders declared in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Our courts, in deference to the gun industry, have caused the language about a well regulated militia to fall by the wayside. The absence of regulation of civilian possession of guns contrasts with the regulations employed by our military, police forces, national guards, and other well-regulated organizations that have arsenals for their members, or who arm them individually. Those well-regulated organizations effectively preclude their members from committing mass murder of innocent individuals.


    1. Certainly. I believe I acknowledge that in the post. The data on this seems pretty clear. I also agree with the interpretation of the second amendment that you presented. As I recall, the NRA headquarters actually has the second clause of the second amendment on their building as one walks in. They exclude the “Well regulated militia” part. Funny how professed second amendment advocate omit half of the amendment.

      But I see something more going on. What raises my eyebrows is the fact that, say, Louisiana and Vermont have very similar gun laws, but very different patterns of gun ownership. In Vermont, people have just as much access to guns, but choose to own fewer of them than do those in Louisiana. Why? What’s going on?


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