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.