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The recent tragedy in Connecticut in the United States that left twenty children and seven adults dead has numbed people worldwide at the senseless violence. Adam Lanza, the 20-year old gunman who unleashed this horror, first murdered his mother at their residence and then went to her school and killed 26 other people, mostly children below the age of seven.

Not surprisingly, familiar arguments in favour of and against gun control are being heard. Unfortunately, the anguish, anger, and frustration of the moment has left the debate with much noise and little sound. While some advocate a complete ban on guns, moderate voices in favour of gun control are pushing for stricter licensing. The other side is still relying on the liberty argument or clichés like, “guns don’t kill people – people do.” As gun control advocates point to statistics showing decreased gun violence in states with stricter gun control laws, gun advocates point to Switzerland and Israel as examples of countries with exemplary records on gun violence despite being saturated with automatic weapons.

Undeniably, both sides have merit, but both sides also miss the forest for the trees. The debate ought not be whether owning guns should be legal or not, but how well one’s society can reproduce the results of communities with few instances of gun violence, with or without guns – and the matter is not as simple as licensing or calibre. Furthermore, while the liberal principle is a good guideline in framing laws, ideology must also take into account socio-economic and political realities and not be hidebound to arcane musings. Blindly comparing the United States to other countries such as Switzerland, Israel, or Japan, or unthinkingly importing US laws to India (the Gurdeep Singh Chaddha, the two parantha shootouts, and the Gurgaon hospital incidents within the span of a month clearly indicates that this is not a US-only debate).

Gun data

Comparing gun data from five different countries reveals an interesting perspective. Switzerland, which gun advocates have long touted as an example of how guns do not necessarily result in violence, has a very low incidence of gun homicides, but so does Japan, where gun ownership is almost nil. Israel, often touted as a gun-toting paradise, has surprisingly low gun ownership for its reputation and a middling rate of gun violence than the low rate commonly advertised. The United States, on the other hand, with the highest gun ownership in the world, is outdone only by the states of the South and Central Americas, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. Although this comparison would undoubtedly be bolstered by a thorough comparison of all countries, it nevertheless yields some food for thought.

In India, while the official gun ownership rate is a fairly low 3.36 per 100, the rate of illicit gun ownership is estimated to be around 2.83. Not surprisingly, despite having far less gun crime per capita in comparison to the United States, India is shown in a poorer light when gun crime is weighted with gun ownership – 40 million guns in India kill 4,100 people while 270 million guns in the United States cause 9,500 fatalities.

Between the United States and India, and Switzerland and Japan, gun advocates would be happy to note that the ownership and licensing of guns does not seem to bear a strong correlation to gun crime. If guns and licensing are not a primary variable in gun crime, it leaves the other variable – people.

Well-beingComparing the same five countries, we notice that the states with the lowest Gini coefficient are also the ones with the lowest gun crime. However, before one rushes to embrace a Rawlsian world order, it would be prudent to note that the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Quality of Life Index shows that the overall quality of life remains high in the United States despite the high gun violence. India, on the other hand, has a better Gini coefficient than the US but a lower QLI score; yet as we noticed earlier, though India’s gun violence seems low per capita, it is higher per gun ownership.

This preliminary look at some data from five countries indicates that generic solutions based either on another country’s experience or on committed ideology will not work. A case-specific approach is required, for the evolution of one nation’s ethos towards guns, liberty, violence, death, and community vary from another – not all countries can be made to fit in the Swiss or Japanese mould.

One thing that we do find in common between Japan and Switzerland, however, is the presence of strong communitarian values. While Switzerland is organised into approximately 2,500 communes and has a very weak federal government, Japan is far more centralised but its citizens, nevertheless, place a high premium on community. This is certainly not to say that the state should dictate community values – in fact, Friedrich Hayek’s notion of spontaneous social order comes to mind. The famous economist from the Austrian School argued that spontaneous order emerges in the social as well as the economic realm out of self-interested individuals coming together and is preferable to an imposed hierarchical structure. People would bond around families, religious customs, interest clubs, professional guilds, and other formations. This builds relationships with other people in the neighbourhood, in schools, and in offices. These would be the people one plays frisbee with on the weekend, goes to veena class together, or observe Rosh Hashanah with.

A cursory glance reveals that communities with such bonds are more stable. In the name of freeing the individual from coercive clerical systems and the arbitrary justice of feudal lords, societies are embracing a more extreme and narcissistic individualism that is just as untenable. Whether one blames the internet or the X-Box for turning us into islands despite John Donne’s warning (Meditation XVII), it is difficult to deny that our communities are sick. What ails us is a matter of debate, and what to do about it could be a bigger debate. What has been presented above is merely to make people think more about the assumptions they make on an issue that will claim more lives if we get stuck in our ideological ruts.

While Switzerland and Japan may rely on their strong communitarianism to protect them from escalating gun violence, it must be noted that Indians too have a strong sense of community – the raucous celebration of various festivals should be proof of that. However, India has had its own troubles with gun violence. A shocking 45.7% of India’s guns are illegal, some of them even homemade. One reason could be the utter failure of state institutions to maintain law and order, and a judiciary not free from political influence. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index put India at 94 out of 176 countries in 2012 (the US is ranked 19, Israel 39, Japan 17, and Switzerland 6); at least 62% of Indians reported paying a bribe; conviction rates, though not an indicator in and of themselves, are fairly low, and 120 of India’s 523 parliamentarians have criminal records, and there is no need to repeat the corruption scandals that have been revealed in just this term of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA).

What remains consistent across the small sample is that communities in trouble are more prone to violence than stable ones. Whether the instability comes from a breakdown of the state apparatus or from the dissipation of social bonds between the individual and the community, it is bound to manifest itself in social disorders such as dishonesty, crime and suicide. Humans are social animals, and anomie, as Jean-Marie Guyau (or Émile Durkheim) would have called it, weakens the social fabric. This is not an argument for homogeneous little units, with few potential faultlines of race, religion, or some other socially constructed yardstick of difference – Sweden, for example, had 138 gun deaths in 2008, of which only 14 were homicides, one unintentional gun death, and 121 suicides. Gun ownership in Sweden is significantly higher than in Israel, at 31.6 per 100.

Gun violence does not seem to be about laws nearly as much as it is about relationships – with oneself and with the community. Understandably, responsibilities must accompany rights, and gun control may have a role in some societies but not in others. More fundamental, however, is how we view each other. Gun ownership is not the problem, and neither is gun control – as Pogo said, many moons ago, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

I’d like to thank Harini Calamur for her comments on the rough draft.

This post appeared on Tehelka Blogs on December 19, 2012.