Back when I was writing more or less exclusively about Yemen, the same conversation would always come up: “I’ve heard that there are so many guns in Yemen, and like, people just carry them around.” And that’s true! Yemen is a country completely awash in guns, and it was not uncommon to see people carrying rifles in the streets of San’a. Old rifles, generally, and rarely loaded, but yes. It’s something you got used to. The point of the question was generally not curiosity, but a way to explain how violent and dangerous and maybe even primitive a land it was, one ruled by savage bloodlust.
You clearly see where this is going. The person who asked was nearly always American, and my followup would be “yeah, by a lot of estimations Yemen has the second most guns per capita in the world!”, the first, of course, being America. But that’s where there was always a disconnect. Regardless of how the person I was talking to felt about gun control, there was never an idea that it was a similar thing. They had too many guns and that’s why it was so violent. We just have a lot of guns, is all.
A few notes on this graph from CFR. The last Small Arms Survey was in 2007. Some more recent estimates have US guns per capita at an incredible 112.6 guns per person, though the actual amount of gun owners has decreased. Just more people with an absurd amount of guns. Yemen has a wide variance, with some estimates putting it at 2nd (54.8 guns per capita) and others considerably lower.
I feel that people may be realizing just how insane this is getting, which the last terrible week may have shown. When Philando Castille was shot by a police officer, he was (reportedly) carrying a weapon he was legally allowed to. The officer, by way of exoneration, said through his lawyer that he was reacting to the “gun, not to race.” You can quibble about the role race played in how that gun was reacted to (spoiler: probably a lot!), but the key is the gun.
“Reacting to the presence of that gun” could be our national motto. We saw it again in Dallas, where protestors, enacting their legal right to armed carry, added to the confusion of an active shooter situation. This makes the incredibly difficult job of a police officer even tougher. How are you supposed to determine, in the moment, whether a person is a “good guy with a gun”?
For that matter, how are we? A couple of years ago, a man in Georgia went to a park with a Little League game, waving around a gun and bragging about how it was legal, and there was nothing anyone could do.
“Anyone who was just walking by – you had parents and children coming in for the game – and he’s just standing here, walking around [saying] ‘You want to see my gun? Look, I got a gun and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ He knew he was frightening people. He knew exactly what he was doing,” said parent Karen Rabb.
Rabb said that the man’s intimidating behavior panicked parents causing them to hustle children who were there to play baseball to safety after the man refused to leave.
After deputies arrived, they questioned the man who produced a permit for the handgun. According to authorities, since the man made no verbal threats or gestures, they couldn’t arrest him or ask him to leave.
(Again, if the man was black, he’d be dead, but move on). This is insane. Unless and until he started shooting, there was nothing anyone could do except hope this man wasn’t a murderer. That’s where we all live now. We are all on the front lines. We’re all at the mercy of chance, hoping we don’t get shot. We’re all just reacting to the presence of a gun.
But what does it all mean? We’ve talked a lot about how our devotion to guns is a reflection of a violent national character — we’re a country whose national symbol of freedom, for many, isn’t the founding documents or the broken chains of even the Statue of Liberty, but a tool designed by man to kill other men. More than that, I think, the mere presence of so many guns has a distorting and fearful impact on who we are. It’s hard to go out to dinner without thinking, in the back of your head, that this is a great spot for a mass shooter, whether they are pledging allegiance to the Caliphate or just the voices in their head. I think it makes us more savage.
It makes us less safe, and makes us feel less safe. There are people who carry, and feel a little more secure, but really: if you actually felt secure you wouldn’t need to. And yes, in an era of global terrorism, nowhere is safe, but getting shot is far more likely to happen here, for no reason, not even a sick and twisted justification. Just because someone falls asleep angry every day and wakes up exhausted and has access to guns.
This refusal to look at the impact being flooded with guns has on our national character is the dangerous side of American exceptionalism. It’s easy to look at Yemen and assign a national characteristic based on loosely-understood ideas about gun culture. I think taking any one thing and making it as synecdoche is foolhardy, but there is something there. It is there a little in Yemen (tribal culture is inherently more a negotiating one than a violent one, but revenge always has to be in the toolbelt). And it is here in the US.
We aren’t immune from history. It shows in our borders (having migration issues a mere 100+ years after mass annexation is not unusual!), and it shows in the way we react to the physical presence of guns. But we refuse to have an actual national examination. It’s easy to say “Yemen has guns and so it is violent”; but we have a lot of trouble doing it here, a country that is way more gun-heavy and death-ridden. It’s the same mentality that says torture is OK if the US does it, because our inherent goodness alchemizes war crimes into justice. It’s this inability to look nward, this blithe shattering of every national mirror, that I think more than anything is responsible for our decline.