Veronique Pozner (left), mother of Sandy Hook Elementary
school shooting victim Noah Pozner, walks with an
unidentified woman to his grave site for his burial at
B'nai Israel Cemetery in Monroe, Connecticut, on
Monday. Photo by Reuters.
Here's an interesting statistic: the second-highest rate
of gun ownership in the world is in Yemen, a largely tribal,
extremely poor country. The highest is in the United States,
where there are almost as many guns as people: around 300
million guns for 311 million people.
But here's another interesting statistic: in the past 25
years, the proportion of Americans who own guns has fallen
from about one in three to only one in five. However, the
United States, unlike Yemen, is a rich country, and the
average American gun-owner has four or five firearms.
Moreover, he or she is utterly determined to keep them, no
matter what happens.
What has just happened in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, is the
seventh massacre this year in which four or more people were
killed by a lone gunman. The fact that this time 10 of the
victims were girls and boys 6 or 7 years old has caused a
wave of revulsion in the United States, but it is not likely
to lead to new laws on gun controls. It's not even clear that
new laws would help.
Half the firearms in the world are in the United States. The
rate of murders by gunfire in the United States is almost 20
times higher than the average rate in 22 other populous,
high-income countries where the frequency of other crimes is
about the same. There is clearly a connection between these
two facts, but it is not necessarily simple cause-and-effect.
Here's one reason to suspect that it's not that simple: the
American rate for murders of all kinds - shooting,
strangling, stabbing, poisoning, pushing people under buses,
and so on - is seven times higher than it is in those other
22 rich countries. It can't just be guns.
And here's another clue: the rate of firearms homicides in
Canada, another mainly English-speaking country in North
America with a similar political heritage, is about half the
American rate and in England itself it is only one-thirtieth
as much. What else is in play here?
Steven Pinker, whose book The Better Angels of Our
Nature is about the long-term decline in violence of
every kind in the world, is well aware that murder rates have
not fallen in the United States in the past century. (Most
people don't believe that violence is in decline anywhere,
let alone almost everywhere. That's why he wrote the book.)
And Prof Pinker suggests an explanation for the American
In medieval Europe, where everybody from warlords to peasants
was on his own when it came to defending his property, his
rights and his ''honour'', the murder rates were
astronomically high: 110 people per 100,000 in 14th-century
Oxford, for example. It was at least as high in colonial New
England in the early 17th century.
By the mid-20th century, the murder rate in England had
fallen more than a hundredfold: in London, it was less than
one person per 100,000 per year. In most Western European
countries it was about the same. Whereas the US murder rate
is still up around seven people per 100,000 per year. Why?
Prof Pinker quotes historian Pieter Spierenburg's provocative
suggestion that ''democracy came too early'' to America. In
European countries, the population was gradually disarmed by
the centralised state as it put an end to feudal anarchy.
Only much later, after people had already learned to trust
the law to defend their property and protect them from
violence, did democracy come to these countries.
This is also what has happened in most other parts of the
world, although in many cases it was the colonial power that
disarmed the people and instituted the rule of law. But in
the United States, where the democratic revolution came more
than two centuries ago, the people took over the state before
they had been disarmed and kept their weapons. They also kept
their old attitudes.
Indeed, large parts of the United States, particularly in the
southeast and southwest, still have an ''honour'' culture in
which it is accepted that a private individual may choose to
defend his rights and his interests by violence rather than
seeking justice through the law. The homicide rate in New
England is less than three people per 100,000 per year; in
Louisiana it is more than 14.
None of this explains the specific phenomenon of gun
massacres by deranged individuals, who are presumably present
at the same rate in every country. It's just that in the
United States, it's easier for individuals like that to get
access to rapid-fire weapons. And, of course, the intense
media coverage of every massacre gives many other crazies an
incentive to do the same, only more of it.
But only one in 300 murders in the United States happens in
that kind of massacre. Most are simply due to quarrels
between individuals, often members of the same family.
Private acts of violence to obtain ''justice'', with or
without guns, are deeply entrenched in American culture, and
the murder rate would stay extraordinarily high even if there
were no guns.
Since there are guns everywhere, of course, the murder rate
is even higher. But since the popular attitudes to violence
have not changed, that is not going to change, either.
• Gwynne Dyer is an independent London