The contradictory gun culture of the United States

Eric Garland Greatest Hits 20 Comments

Like all Americans, my thoughts have been with the victims of the senseless, grisly tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. For the last few days, I have not felt like writing anything on the Internet until the initial wave of predictable nonsense gave way to some mental space. I simply haven’t been in the mood to add to the reflexive cacophony of long-held opinions and election year blather. This moment is too sad for that, too predictable, too much of a goddamn waste. I have little to add to help appreciate the tragedy. Perhaps I can provide an atypical perspective from a little-known part of America.

As my friends and regular readers know, I hail originally from the state of Vermont, just like seven previous generations of my family. The Green Mountain State has come to be known for a great many things that are quaint and tourist friendly – Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, skiing, the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, Green Mountain Coffee, and “Larry, Darryl and Darryl,” so long as you were watching television in the 1980s. One facet of Vermont life is neither famous nor quaint: Vermonters are armed to the teeth. Guns are absolutely everywhere. Rifles. Pistols. Shotguns. Muzzle-loaders. Semi-automatics. 50 caliber tripod-mount “semi” automatics that could take out aircraft. Every firearm you can possibly imagine. Vermont could be the most armed part of the world per capita, as rife with firearms as Afghanistan, but with trees and cheddar cheese.

Why have you never heard of this crazy, paranoid armed madhouse? Because Vermont routinely has the lowest violent crime in the United States, with only Maine competing for the title of safest place – and it’s armed to the teeth as well. Are you thinking, “well, maybe Vermont has a lot of guns, but surely they have safe and sane gun control laws.” Sorry – we have basically no limitations. Behold the most lax group of regulations you can imagine. There are no concealed carry laws – you can walk around with a trench coat loaded with shotguns, if that floats your boat. There are no open carry laws – feel free to shop for groceries looking like Dirty Harry with a .45 hand cannon strapped to your belt. There are no limits to the number of weapons you can own – if you have the cash, feel free to arm a militia with 3,000 handguns and hunting rifles. The list of gun rules are comically loose, even by American standards: it’s a $200 fine for wearing a gun on the way to kill someone (?), a $50 fine for pointing a loaded weapon at someone other than for self-defense, and the only thing we’re really straightforward on is not arming school children or bringing guns to court with you. The rules allow all kinds of guns, everywhere, and Vermonters thus purchase and own and bear all kinds of guns, everywhere.

And you never hear of massacres in Vermont. The state feels about as safe and wholesome as any place in the world, with thousands of tourists streaming in during winter skiing, summer camping and fall leaf-peeping with nary an idea that they are surrounded by the most armed populus in the United States. This is for two reasons, one obvious, and one a bit more complex and contradictory.

Guns don’t kill people; economic inequality and suburbs do

The main reason that Vermont gets away with tons of firearms and no violence is that there is low population density and a low Gini coefficient. There aren’t many people per square mile, and there’s no huge rich poor gap. It’s more like a poor-kinda poor-not-that-poor-gap, and it creates relatively little social tension. There is enough open space and secluded land for most Vermonters to live on their own private property with little friction with neighbors – excepting, of course, Town Meeting Day in March, which may result in hot debate of snow plow budgets, but which is rarely enough to cause much animosity. Compare this with parts of America where the rich, middle-class and terribly poor are constantly glaring at each other, part of the same tax base but not the same culture. I’m thinking specifically of my last two residences, Washington DC and Saint Louis – places where people are shooting each other in the hind end all of the time. Vermont has none of that tension, even though it has far more firearms.

The next reason that I give as to the relative lack of violent crime in Vermont will sound shockingly similar to NRA talking points, and will likely discomfit people thinking about the need for new gun laws in the wake of yet one more massacre abetted by easy access to firearms.In Vermont, you assume that everybody is armed and will shoot you if you mess with them.I don’t mean that people shoot each other over Red Sox games or over simple neighborly disputes. But if you plan on approaching anybody at night or on their property with anything other than friendly intent, you risk being shot. The ubiquity of firearms – and people who damn well know how to use them – means that culturally, you have a lot of respect for property and privacy.

I learned my first lesson about this in high school. One of my high school classmates, James Ashcroft, was with several members of our basketball team as they went to steal liquor from the garage of Robert Bizon, a local bar owner at around 2:30 am. They did not know that he had been robbed so many times that he had placed an alarm inside his garage and announced to the community – including a variety of passers-by at my father’s farm store – that he was going to kill the next person to rip him off. When he came upon a gang of people on his property late at night, he shot Ashcroft and refused to call the paramedics for several minutes. He died at Rutland Hospital up the road a couple hours later.

Bizon was charged with involuntary manslaughter – and acquitted. I remember the community response. It’s not that people weren’t outraged and disgusted at the senseless death, the overreaction of somebody who seemed relish the opportunity to shoot whoever violated his property next – that was clearly ugly. But as a matter of culture many Vermonters in the area said, “Well, don’t go on people’s land at 2:30 in the morning, up to no good.” There was no push for a “James’ Law,” no attempt to blame guns.  It was too bad. Then again, Vermont culture dictates that in the middle of the night, when five unidentified guys are lurking, you may not have the benefit of time to decide.

America needs more than one set of gun laws

I compare this culture with recent events. Let me just say that having lived in major cities, I do not believe that America should just have one set of gun laws. What works for Vermont – producing the lowest crime in the country – would be insane in Washington DC, which has the highest crime, around 1,400 rapes, murders or robberies per year per 100,000 residents – ten times the Vermont average. Do I want the residents of Northeast DC to have 50 caliber tripod rifles and armor piercing bullets? Does Saint Louis require yet more handguns, restricting firearms only at courthouses and schools? No, that’s insanity.

The violence in America does not spring up around places of high firearm ownership, or Maine would look like Chechenya. Violence, and the most disturbing cases of deranged mass murder in recent years, having been springing up in locales with the poor and rich living side by side. The most perverse plans to murder people tend toward the suburbs, a state of living which lacks the realness and interdependence of either dense urban centers or diffuse agrarian regions. You are living too close to people about whom you couldn’t care less. That, or in the case of places like West Baltimore and East St Louis, you are living in a place that is packed with people, but people do not work together toward a common goal, to stricken by the diseased lifestyle of poverty. This afflicted lifestyle occurs in a country where guns are easy to acquire, by legal or illegal means. Sick minds meet available ammunition. The mix is lethal.

Does America need new gun laws in the aftermath of the Aurora tragedy? I would say the answer is complex and contradictory. In one sense, no – because Vermont does not require new gun restriction, nor Maine, nor Wyoming. But do the suburbs and cities require a dramatic restriction of firearms to reduce the number of people living in pathogenic suburban automobile slums or decayed urban wastelands from going crazy and taking out their fever dream on a crowded theater? My sense is yes. As a lifelong Vermont separatist, I think it is up to the local cities and states to make that decision.

Then again, maybe the problem isn’t guns, but of a culture of consumerism, suburbanism, myth, delusion, disappointment, isolation and resentment. That is a much more difficult issue to legislate.

Comments 20

  1. Excellent article. I live in Vermont and what you say is precisely what I feel the National problem is. Where there is economic disparity there is a culture of animosity and distrust. A lack of respect leads to many social issues.

    1. Thanks for reading Bob. If you want a weird, scary indicator, look up Trulia or Zillow on the number of houses in Vermont that are for sale between $2,000,000 and $10,000,000. The Flatlanders are trying to bring plutocracy into the hills, but I’m not sure it’s working. Let us hope they never succeed.

      1. Ahem. As a blow-in myself (and the epitome of a flatlander, being originally from New Orleans), I would remind all those proud Vermonters that Ethan Allen was a blow-in flatlander, too. A Nutmegger.

        1. A NUTMEGGER!!! You win the Internet! I LOL’d for reals on this one.

          For writing this, I hereby declare you a native Vermonter. By the way, Flatlanders are really epithets for people from New Jersey and Boston. Cajuns are just long lost cousins of our Acadian neighbors. Mr. Wilson, you simply took the long way home. So welcome back.

          1. I’m a Michigander-Flatlander, self-exiled in Vermont for the past 17 years in Rutland, VT. I grew up in nearby northern suburb of Detroit (car capital, murder capital and also one of America’s music capitals). I remember reading an article in Detroit Free Press at around age 9-10 with headline blaring, “Detroit is Murder Capital”. I decided right then and there, when I was old enough, I was outta there! I learned to ski on 200 vertical feet at Pink Knob, north of Detroit. Living near Rutland and Pico Mt., Killington (no pun intended) and Okemo Mt. is wonderful!

            I agree with your premise about large cities, suburbs and wider economic disparities (for the time being). I’m glad I moved to Vermont, but I still think of myself as a Midwesterner.

            Have you been to Rutland lately? There is more and more drug abuse and drug related crime (robberies). So Vermont is not quite as safe as you once remembered it to be. But compared to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit or DC, you are correct (for now). I have to say that right now, Rutland City is comparable to nearby suburbs of Detroit circa 1980-1990s in terms of crime. Watch WCAX news from Burlington and it is almost half-hour of bad news / crime (whereas you could get 90 minutes from Detroit TV news). I would not get too “cocky” on Vermont’s relative safety, if I were you. If the economy in Vermont does not get better, I fear that Rutland could turn into Detroit Jr.

      2. I know what you mean about property values. But I have spent the last two months fighting against the wave of liberal Democrats that have been trying to undermine the Constitution of Vermont with their unlawful Gun Control agenda. Since the Sandy Hook incident, the Democrats have stopped all pretenses of job growth and switched to a total war on the Second Amendment. I have written numerous letters to senators and representatives, rallied on the steps of the Statehouse, made phone calls and participate in discussions on Facebook and internet forums. I am disgusted with the dishonesty being used against lawful gun owners. The politicians that are leading the charge are implants from other states and do NOT have the best unrest of Vermont at heart. They want to change Vermont into another New York or California. We could use your voice back here!

        1. I’m temporarily caught up in Missouri. My family has been in the Northeast Kingdom since 1700 something, so I’ll be back soon enough. These 108 degree summers can go to hell, that’s what.

          Anyhow, I lose touch with Vermont politics. I’m not surprised/dismayed that the legislature is spending time on legislation for gun control in Vermont. I understand it on a national level, but Vermont itself still has the lowest crime in America, so this is just foolish. It’s like the climate debate. Personally, I think we need to take it very seriously as a nation, but that Montpelier made it job one was kind of a waste of time. Vermont’s energy all comes from HydroQuebec and the occasional fossil fuel plant. Missouri, by contrast is 80% coal. Vermont has way better things to do before it “tackles” its carbon emissions – like figuring out how to keep its young people in the state, and how to take care of its aging population.

          I would be very annoyed by people worrying about Vermont’s gun laws. They have worked fine for the state for years, centuries even.

          1. I have never been active in politics until now. According to the Vermont Constitution, these representatives have already violated their Oath of Office by PROPOSING these bills! Where are the lawyers when you need them?

  2. I’d also point out that there’s very little in the way of urban areas in Vermont. Such large spaces lead to far fewer tensions than people who live in a population dense environment.

    1. Yup. As Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” We are a quiet people who do not get too involved in our neighbors’ affairs…until their house burns down, and we automatically clothe and feed them.

      You should have seen the behavior of Vermonters after Hurricane Irene. I couldn’t have been more proud – people were generous, strong and peaceful in the face of major disaster.

      Part of it is the lack of crazed American cities. There is space. Your fate is more dependent on God than man. It lets you think.

  3. What’s to come is just another big step for a global economy, Didn’t Obama just give control of the internet in america over to the NSA and foreign banks? Didn’t he also just submit a new list of all the guns required to be registered? Mostly assault weapons but isn’t THAT the first step before they take them? Between Morey Strong and his poster child Al Gore pushing his carbon emission global warming theory down everyone’s throat . All because Rothchild wanted to get the UN to call for a new global euro to replace the dollar. And of coarse to extort billions of dollars from the industrialists. I don’t know, seems like things are moving along pretty fast. We don’t really know what’s going on in the world now with our news reported the way it is. Without the internet or internet censorship Mission accomplished. Well Played Globalists!! Well played. And to the rest of us………Welcome to the aristocracy.


  5. I agree that economic inequality, discrimination and social difficulties contribute to crime.

    These are pretty much already known factors in crime and crime prevention. There’s nothing new in this argument from a sociological perspective.

    The great problem with a very interesting article is how does one travel from one place to another in the continental USA?

    Vermont is not an island and it is a very small place attached to a much larger place. It is easy to enter and easy to exit. There may well be a lower level of inequality in the State relative to other parts of the USA. I don’t know. It obviously generates few jobs (one can tell from it’s population) and so attracts few people who are looking for work, few people who are thinking of moving State/cities etc just for the heck of it and so on.

    Given people can wander from place to place, State to State and city to city, Vermont is merely a place you can be or not be. Thus you can’t really say much other than those who don’t want to commit crime in Vermont can do so elsewhere, very easily. There are few people in the place and from what I can gather little movement other than OUT of it.

    There is no way one can say it means anything to compare it to other States when it’s easily avoidable and very small.

    These issues are large scale and need to be addressed and seen as such.

    Australia has a very low rate of firearm related homicide. As of 2006 it was .27 per 100, 000 persons and still falling.

    I can easily pick areas of the country which have few firearms than Vermont and a similar population that have lower rates of gun related homicide. Tasmania (similar population) 0.20 per 100, 000 as of 2007/8.

    NSW (the biggest State with about 6 million people) experienced an average of 3 to 4 firearm related deaths between 2007 and 2011. The number of firearms in the State is very low.

    Is it fair to compare NSW to the rest of the country? It has large number of people moving into the State, inter-State and internationally, it has the largest economy in the country and the border areas between NSW and Victoria and NSW and Queensland experience large numbers of people moving across them to change suburbs, effectively changing States.

    In short, with a small numbers of guns, strong restrictions, a larger population and a large number of ‘new residents’, NSW has managed to keep gun related homicides to a very low number.

    However, people can travel from place to place and State to State, so one really should look at the surrounding areas and the rest of the country to see if laws restricting gun possession and ownership work.

    1. You clearly have never lived here. We have a steady flow in. The flow in is all the drug dealers from big cities. Quoting stats from Australia is mute. It is obvious they have less gun related violence but then have a look at the whole spectrum. Note that their overall “violent” crime went through the roof. The same applies for each and every place where firearms have been limited or entirely banned. It is against the law to sell a gun in Vermont to a person who can not lawfully own it. If it is unlawful for someone in some other city or state to own a particular firearm then it cannot be sold to them in Vermont. The dealers do follow the law to the T and it is actually left to the ATF to make the decision to let the person walk with a firearm or not.

  6. I want to say thank you for writing this article. It is so easy for people to go to extremes when it comes to firearms legislation. It is important for people to realize that different approaches are needed for different situations. As a gun owner in Washington State, I am concerned any time anyone misuses a firearms. Heh, sometimes I think about moving to Vermont, less crazy things go on there even than in Seattle.

  7. I think you’re missing the key component here: people. People in Vermont are, at their core, no different than people in DC, at least where guns are concerned. The reality is that evil people exist, and time and again anecdotal and direct evidence has shown that evil and even deranged people want one thing: to survive. In the event that someone wants to create mass carnage and then take themselves through suicide, they still want to control their survival — until THEY are ready to end their OWN life. They don’t want variables. That’s why they choose the gun-free zones where they will face little or no threat of opposition (read: guns).

    But to your point of crime rates in DC (and I would also include Chicago) you speak of these places as though they are the end of the line in regards to violent crime. In fact England (a country which has completely banned personal gun possession) has violent crime rates that would make DC look like Vermont, and make the rest of our cities look like a Sunday-night Disney special. So it begs the question: Why? The evidence is clear: the stricter the gun laws, the more you undermine the individual’s right to defend their own life, thereby forcing general society to depend on luck and the state for their well-being. All of this culminates in the worst possible nightmare for the honest citizen. The law-abiding are sitting ducks, and must live in fear that an attacker is hiding in the alleyway, in their car at night, at their home, or in the schools.

    What else do DC, Chicago, England, and Australia have in common? Criminals in these places STILL have guns, and therein lies the problem. The dangerous and destructive power a criminal can wield when she knows she has the advantage — and also knows that she faces no risk of losing her life — is unbounded. It’s easy to take advantage of society when two things exist: evil people who have no problem ignoring their conscience, and laws which constrain law-abiding citizens from sufficiently defending themselves against such evil. To think that any amount of legislation will change this is to ignore the facts of human nature that are plainly before us. In other words, you’re missing the forest for the trees.

  8. Thank you for this article. As a young girl with 2 sisters, my father taught us about guns. Not just how to shoot, reload bullets- but also respecting the gun and what it can do. When i was a teen, a car pulled up with no lights and started walking around our property. I was home alone. What did I do? I grabbed the phone and went to the closet where my dad kept his 45 mag. I held that in my hand until the police came. Perhaps a lost tourist, perhaps someone playing a joke. But I’m not joking. I will not be a coward or let someone come on my land or in my home. People pick on Vermonters and say we are hicks, or whatever, but we stick up for ourselves. We don’t play rambo, we just want to protect whats ours and go about our lives.

  9. You’re article was written after Aurora, but before Sandy Hook. I’m here now because I live in southern Vermont– where our entire supervisory union was put on lock down this morning due to a threat.

    I’ve been in VT 20 years now, and I’ve known more people killed by guns here (intentionally & accidentally) than I have in any other place I’ve lived in my 50 years (and I was an Army brat.) Most alarmingly, I know many whose lives were taken by their own gun; some who weren’t even old enough to vote.

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