NYT’s Timothy Egan and the two Americas

New York Times columnist Timothy Egan has written an article titled, “Guns and the Two Americas,” offering his take on gun violence in the United States.  I’m sorry to say that I found nothing surprising in what he wrote—with regard to his use of statistics and to his attitude toward regions and people in this country who are not like him.

The typical assertions are on display:  The south has the most guns; states that restrict gun ownership are safer; ownership is declining anyway, and it’s those Republicans who are doing it to us.

As I’ve discussed before, gun ownership is not exclusively something for white men in the right wing, but that stereotype persists.  While lots of people own guns in the south, as Egan claims, the same statement is true about the northern Rocky Mountain states and Alaska.  It’s also true about Hawaii, something I admit I didn’t expect.  These numbers come from the journal, Injury Prevention, and look good, though I’m always concerned about potential underreporting in surveys of gun ownership.

But take them as given.  Are we safer in states with fewer guns and more gun restrictions?  Egan says yes, and his source for his belief is The Atlantic article, “The Geography of Gun Deaths,” by Richard Florida.  As is often the case, homicides, suicides, accidents, and justified shootings are lumped together, despite the differences in causation for those categories.  Still, there is an apparent link between the rates of gun ownership and gun deaths.  Of course, my readers will spot that phrase, gun deaths.  Homicides—when all methods are considered—don’t fall in line with guns per capita, but there is a connection in total suicide numbers.  The rate of suicide has hovered between ten and twelve per hundred thousand over the last three decades, while our violent crime numbers peaked in the late 80s and early 90s and have been on the decline ever since.

That last sentence is important, since over the same period, gun laws have generally loosened on the federal level and in the states.  Legal carrying of handguns is on the rise.  I point these trends out not to imply causation, but to note that the numbers are headed in the opposite direction from what gun control advocates claim should be happening.  If more people carrying and fewer laws regulating guns doesn’t mean a rise in violence, what is the purpose of enacting more controls?

Egan wanders around the question of whether a good guy could stop a mass shooter and speculates on what could be a true gun-free zone.  I’ll address those in future articles.  For the present, I want to get to the conclusion he draws from the data he cited.  He seems to feel that there are two Americas:  a safe zone, represented by the Mall of America in Minnesota, and the South, a region that allows, in his words, “More guns, easily obtained by the mentally ill, religious fanatics and anti-government extremists [permitting] more gun deaths.”

Egan supports his belief in our bifurcation by citing assault death statistics compiled by Kiernan Healy, associate professor of sociology at Duke University—part of North Carolina’s excellent system of higher education, if I may cheer on my home state located in the very South that Egan looks down on.  Healy’s numbers aren’t divided up by method of killing, so again, we have an example of how gun control advocates bounce around from “gun deaths” to total deaths at will.

Unfortunately, Egan must not have read the entirety of his source.  Perhaps that’s because the last set of data deals with race.  And thus we begin a march into dangerous territory for the rest of this essay.  The rate of assault deaths among blacks is at least five times the rate among whites, and the region with the highest percentage of African-Americans is in the southeastern states and the District of Columbia.  What is the cause?  The usual explanations are institutional racism, the breakdown of the family, disparate rates of incarceration, failing schools, and high unemployment—whether these answer fully, I don’t know, but guns are at most an effect and not a cause.  As I’ve said before, solving the problem of violence involves making schools better, the courts fairer, and the law more reasonable instead of lashing out at the rights of law-abiding citizens.

But Egan only wants to show how much he isn’t like the other America he sneers at.  As a son of the South, this feels aimed at me—at least at people like me.

There is a well-known passage from chapter nine of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust about how every Southern boy of fourteen can put himself at the moment right before Pickett’s charge began.  Faulkner also compares that sense to the point of no return in Columbus’s first voyage—that moment when everything is gambled on one throw of the dice.

If Egan cares to understand this other America, he should read that passage.  As someone from around here, as the saying goes, I know that slavery was evil.  I know the South had to lose the Civil War.  At the same time, I also know that the spirit of the South is about more than just racism.

Linguists and semioticians tell us that words and signs change in meaning over time, take on new interpretations while dragging the old ones along like the chains clasped to Marley’s ghost.  Perhaps the historical taint some symbols carry means we must let them go.  We can give up the violation of our fellow human beings; we even can put the Confederate battle flag in a museum where it belongs.  But what we mustn’t do is settle into the comfortable consumerism that his Mall of America example represents—everything ready-made, wrapped in plastic, tailored to the bland, average participant of focus groups.

Life is not safe.  We take steps to mitigate some risk, but removing all risk leads to a stagnant existence.  If a gun is itself a symbol, it stands for the independent adventurism of the pioneer, the explorer, the hunter.  And yes, for the fighter who will stand up when necessary. It is not a simple icon, pure without any hint of darkness.  A gun is a tool that like any tool can be used for good or for ill.  But the essence of freedom is the ability to choose either of those.  And humans are the quintessential tool-using animal.  This is the nature of the other America that Egan fails to understand.

If the gun is unpalatable as a symbol, I offer him the coiled rattlesnake instead.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.