What triggers the gun culture?

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The Independent Online
AMERICANS like shooting people. They also approve of killing people in cold blood by a wide variety of means.

I hasten to add that none of the Americans I actually know is like this. At the National Center for the Humanities, in the North Carolina woods, where I am writing this, homicidal tendencies find little or no expression. Yet there are 200 million guns in the United States and 4.2 million new guns are sold each year. And there are millions of Americans who would not hesitate to shoot an intruder dead without warning or inquiry, and who loudly support fellow citizens who face legal charges for having taken such action.

A case in Louisiana this week brought out the contrasts between American culture and a more peaceable one, that of modern Japan. A householder, having shot dead an innocent Japanese exchange student, was acquitted on a charge of manslaughter. The day of the killing happened to be Hallowe'en and the partying student, Yoshihiro Hattori, 16, had the terminal misfortune to press the wrong doorbell.

The bell he pressed belonged to a couple called Peairs. The woman who opened the door panicked when she saw an unknown Asian on her doorstep. She screamed for her husband to bring his gun. Rodney Peairs came out with a .44 magnum and called on Mr Hattori to 'freeze]'. Hattori, not belonging to an Anglophone gun culture, did not understand the meaning of that instruction. Also, being short-sighted, he failed to notice the weapon. So he came closer to the householder who, for that sole reason, shot him dead.

Peairs's acquittal became predictable after the defence lawyer used his peremptory challenges to ensure that everyone on the jury believed in the right to keep a gun in one's home.

Understandably, the case has caused great outrage in Japan and done considerable damage to American-Japanese relations. The applause in the Baton Rouge courtroom for the acquittal of the killer of an innocent person particularly shocked the Japanese. 'Citizens made V-signs for victory, just like in the Westerns,' the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun reported.

The statistics for gun-related deaths in the two nations are in startling contrast. In 1991, 74 people died from gunshot wounds in Japan. In the US, with double the population, 24,000 people are killed by firearms each year, according to the FBI. (This, incidentally, is eight times the number of people killed by political violence in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years.) So the American gun-death rate is 160 times that of Japan.

Some of the difference is accounted for by America's far higher levels of violent crime. But some of it is also accounted for by lethal violence among the law-abiding, under a legal system that is extremely indulgent in its interpretation of self-defence.

If a householder thinks a given person, in or near his home, may have aggressive or felonious intentions, that householder is entitled to shoot the person dead. This seems to be agreed doctrine among most Americans and it was applied by the jury in the Peairs case. But it is a doctrine that can have terrible consequences, even for Americans who believe themselves to be acting in self- defence.

There was a particularly tragic case in New York when we were living there in the Sixties. A householder, during the night, heard a noise in the kitchen of his apartment. He loaded his shotgun and went to investigate. By the light coming in from the street, he could just make out a shape standing by the refrigerator. He fired both barrels into the shape at point-blank range. When he put on the light he found that the person whose body he had blasted was his own teenage daughter, who had got up in the night to help herself from the fridge. Like Mr Hattori, that girl was a blood sacrifice to the gun culture, and these were only two among many.

High levels of approval for lethal self-defence are combined with high and increasing levels of approval for the death penalty. No person who opposed capital punishment could be elected president, or elected governor in most states.

As the rate of violent crime is the highest on record in the world, and continues to rise despite all the executions, the idea of the death penalty as a deterrent can hardly seem plausible. But it is the death penalty as retribution that seems to be attractive. These people deserve to die and if - as happens - they spend many years on death row awaiting executions, so much the better. They deserve that, too.

Why are so many Americans so bloody-minded? I have never read or heard any satisfactory answer to that question. One answer often offered is 'the spirit of the frontier'. That explanation seems to be wearing a bit thin 100 years after the frontier ceased to exist. There are those who think that the violence is 'caused by television'. But the Japanese probably watch as much television as the Americans, and often the same television, yet they are far less prone to lethal violence.

The constitutional right to bear arms does have something to do with it, since it legitimises the gun lobby, thus contributing to those fearsome statistics. But the mere existence of a constitutional right hardly explains the phenomenon of the exceptional level of bloody-mindedness, compared with the Europeans or Japanese of today.

I suspect that this unappealing characteristic may be rooted in the American character as a whole, and is the

dark side of the attributes which have made the country great: energy, enterprise, self- reliance, endurance, ingenuity, ambition. These are qualities that are often accompanied in practice by ruthlessness and even vindictiveness. People who drive themselves hard are likely to be hard on others.

Even this combination of characteristics cannot provide a complete explanation: the Japanese are not lacking in these qualities and are not nearly so inclined to kill people. More specifically relevant is the widespread American conviction that all problems have solutions, and that the solution ought to be reached quickly: this conviction can affect the trigger-finger.

Most telling of all, perhaps, is the fact that in modern America there is widespread frustration among people who feel they are the heirs to the qualities that have made the country great but have been denied the benefits that should follow. The blacks in the slums are angry and violent but so, too, in different ways, are the whites in the suburbs. Those trigger-happy householders are waiting for a chance to shoot someone in self-defence. They know that the law will acquit them, even if they kill the wrong person. But the acquittal is not much consolation if the person you find you have blasted to death happens to be your own daughter. Those who belong to the gun culture will surely end up supplying many of its victims.

(Photograph omitted)