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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Nicholas Kristof, "Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?": Is It the Guns or a Society Run Amuck?

Several days ago I received a comment from a US reader expressing his or her desire, replete with multiple grammatical and spelling mistakes, that I die, together with all of my right wing generation, as soon as possible. Right wing? I suppose it's all relative. Indeed, those who read this blog know that I am no fan of Obama. On the other hand, I am pro-choice, favor gay marriage, believe that the sale of assault rifles should be banned, and have long opposed the US ground involvement in Afghanistan. Some of these positions place me to the left of Obama. But what does any of this matter? If my opinions do not accord with those of those of the commentator, I should disappear from the face of this earth without a trace. You see, the space for civilized discourse is fast shrinking, and we live in a society ever more prone to violence.

Responding to the horrific massacre on Friday in Connecticut, Nicholas Kristof writes in his latest New York Times op-ed entitled "Do We Have the Courage to Stop This?" (

"The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals — all countries have them — but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns."

Kristof's recommendations to curb this abomination? Simple:

"A starting point would be to limit gun purchases to one a month, to curb gun traffickers. Likewise, we should restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines so that a shooter can’t kill as many people without reloading.

We should impose a universal background check for gun buyers, even with private sales. Let’s make serial numbers more difficult to erase, and back California in its effort to require that new handguns imprint a microstamp on each shell so that it can be traced back to a particular gun."

I favor all of these recommendations, but will they make a difference, significant or otherwise, in gun homicide rates?

Let there be no mistake: By far and away the US leads the world in gun ownership with an average of 88.8 firearms per 100 people (see: As further observed by this Guardian article, the firearm murder rate in the US is 2.97 per 100,000 people, which is the 28th highest in the world.

But now let's look at Finland, which has an average of 45.3 firearms per 100 people, but a firearm murder rate of only 0.45 per 100,000 people.

And let's also have a look at Switzerland, which has an average of 45.7 firearms per 100 people, but a firearm murder rate of 0.77 per 100,000 people.

Although gun ownership in Finland and Switzerland is half that of the US, the firearm murder rate of Finland is some 15 percent of that in the US, and the firearm murder rate of Switzerland is some 26 percent of that in the US.

Israel? As reported by the Guardian, Israel has an average of 7.3 firearms per 100 people, and a firearm murder rate of a mere 0.09 per 100,000 people. But these figures fail to take into consideration the tens of thousands of automatic rifles which are brought home on weekends by soldiers. Now you might think that this plethora of automatic rifles would lead to disaster, but this is not borne out by the facts.

So is it the number of firearms in the US and the availability of large magazines that have led to the horrifying slaughter of innocents, or is there something else that is fundamentally amuck?

Don't get me wrong: I support all of Kristof's recommendations in the hope that they can curb, even minimally, the murder rate in the US, but I don't know if their enactment will prove efficacious in an increasingly intolerant society that has lost its ability to engage in civil discourse.


  1. Well, Jeff, you just didn't notice tiny details, such as the fact that all countries with low rate happen to be ... Social Democratic with protection of workers (still), long vacation, affordable child care, health care and education.
    It isn't surprising that people working three jobs (or not working and not having ANY safety net) and are homeless or on the verge of being homeless snap, that their neglected children snap, etc.
    Yes, this society descends into barbarity, predictably so.
    Your criteria of judging who/what is right/left are recent and confusing invention. Notice that you didn't mention WORKPLACE (so central to any definition of right/left) at all.
    I don't know who your "wellwisher" is, but I would like to remind you that the U.S. is a country of immigrants and that English isn't the only language in the world.
    I also write with an "accent," but English is my 7th language which I acquired together with several graduate degrees (only some in English)

  2. You're probably right: economic downturns and unemployment could well be tied to higher rates of firearm homicide. On the other hand, there are countries such as Japan whose rates of firearm homicide are consistently lower than those of Scandinavia, and these lower rates could be indicative of cultural differences.

    Incidentally, I also don't have a clue who my "well wisher" is. Do I have one?

  3. It isn't only unemployment - it's exploitation, it's insecurity, it's lack of health care, it's lack of dignity (and even concept of dignity) it's wrong values, etc.
    I was referring to the person who expressed the desire that you die.

  4. Regarding the tragedy in Connecticut, the shooter, although from a broken home, was not apparently raised in an impoverished household.

    1. The Aurora shooting also had nothing to do with poverty, unemployment or lack of health care. Rather, it had everything to do with allowing an insane person access to firearms.

    2. Well, but can have a lot with stress.
      Did you notice how often scientists snap. Did you check what American academia does? Doesn't it prepare students to be corporate zombies? OK, it's a rhetorical question. It does.
      A decade ago or so (just when Brooks wrote his The Corporation Man,) I watched Columbia's graduate students. I started to have nightmares. One of such nightmares was productive. I woke up to jot down a poem (my first, my last, my masterpiece):
      Marching zombies, marching zombies, marching zombies march
      Marching zombies, marching zombies, marching zombies march

      They don't dream, they don't think
      They march, they march, they march

      Marching zombies, marching zombies, marching zombies march.
      OK, check how many hours young scientists spend in their labs.
      Check also their employment prospects - not so long ago I met an unemployed biomedical Ph.D. from Cornell.
      I am interested now in nutrition and health. Stress is mention as a contribution or triggering factor in most diseases, but if you saw some official statement "Stress kills" from wonderful American institutions such as AMA, show it to me.
      Wonderful American prostitutes babble about stress management, blaming the victims - it's OK to work 12 hours a day in total horror and terror, but remember to ...have two 5 minute breaks to ... meditate.
      In civilized societies, at least some people have conscience.
      If I understand it correctly, you say that's wonderful and healthy for a society to have a workplace where most individuals work 70 hours a week for some $7 an hour without any benefits and being in constant fear of losing even this job.
      Can I suggest you do some calculations? Imagine it's you... You do think that humans are humans and that basic human needs are the same, don't you?

    3. What Americans don't understand is that slavery and extreme poverty affect the entire society negatively. Our moralizing and preaching Brooks and the like never raise this issue which was so much in discussion in the 19th century for example. When there is extreme poverty, it affects next to the poorest who are pressured to do EVERYTHING to not end up in the street, then it affects next to them, etc. There is of course huge literature on how demoralizing is slavery/extreme poverty for everyone, including the upper reaches of society. But who cares about ethics/health in the 21st century when there are billions to be made.

  5. Nothing Kristof is proposing would have prevented Friday's tragedy. The truth is, all of the weapons Adam Lanza used in Friday's carnage were obtained legally by his mother, Nancy.

    Anyone who has recently visited a US bank, embassy or consulate has passed through the kind of security system described here:

    Just as we can't stop mentally unstable persons from getting on a flight, we can, and do prevent them (along with everyone else) from carrying dangerous weapons and materials on board.

    It's time the federal government take a similar approach when it comes to school safety. The 2nd amendment does not give anyone the right to carry a weapon in a public school.

    After the Columbine massacre, had the government made it mandatory for all public schools and universities to install building entrance control systems, many, if not all of these senseless murders could have been prevented.

    It's not too late. But as long as we place a higher priority on the protection of our money and government buildings over the safety of our children, we'll continue to suffer the consequences.


    Interesting research regarding gun ownership in Israel and Switzerland.

    "Israel rejects 40 percent of its applications for a gun, the highest rate of rejection of any country in the world."

    Well, I guess that put some misconceptions to rest. But, it's still safe to shop in Israel!