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The NRA Vision of the American Future: Guatemala

[ 58 ] January 8, 2013 |

The NRA argues that if only the good guys all had guns, they would shoot the bad guys and magically we wouldn’t have any gun violence. Or something strange like that. Never mind that time last year when the New York cops shot and wounded nine bystanders taking down an armed gunman at the Empire State Building. Or any other amount of evidence. Luckily, we can see in other countries what happens when everyone is armed. And it’s not good:

THOUGH many of these countries have restrictions on gun ownership, enforcement is lax. According to research by Flacso, the Guatemalan Social Science Academy, illegal guns far outnumber legal weapons in Central America.

All that has spawned a thriving security industry — the good guys with guns that grace every street corner — though experts say it is often unclear if their presence is making crime better or worse. In many countries, the armed guards have only six weeks of training.

Guatemala, with approximately 20,000 police officers, has 41,000 registered private security guards and an estimated 80,000 who are working without authorization. “To put people with guns who are not accountable or trained in places where there are lots of innocent people is just dangerous,” Ms. Peters said, noting that lethal force is used to deter minor crimes like shoplifting.

Indeed, even as some Americans propose expanding our gun culture into elementary schools, some Latin American cities are trying to rein in theirs. Bogotá’s new mayor, Gustavo Petro, has forbidden residents to carry weapons on streets, in cars or in any public space since last February, and the murder rate has dropped 50 percent to a 27-year low. He said, “Guns are not a defense, they are a risk.”

William Godnick, coordinator of the Public Security Program at the United Nations Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, said that United Nations studies in Central America showed that people who used a gun to defend against an armed assault were far more likely to be injured or killed than if they had no weapon.

I’ve traveled throughout Central America. Everyone is armed. And I’ll tell you, it scared me. An armed society is an unsafe society. The “good guys” aren’t always so good and they most certainly aren’t always good shots. Arming everyone is a response to not investing in a social safety net and giving people hope for a better life. It’s not a good idea and as the evidence shows, it doesn’t make people safe.

Now I’m sure the NRA would be outraged by the comparison to Guatemala. The real reason for that of course is that those are Guatemalans and we are Americans. So somehow we’re better. Such a racialized response would hardly be surprising from an organization that took on its modern form as a result of the white backlash of the 1970s. The “good guys” the NRA wants armed are usually white in the American vision, the “bad guys” black and brown.

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  1. DrDick says:

    I have said for quite a while that conservatives want to thurn the US into a banana republic and here we have a perfect example (from one of the original banana republics).

  2. somethingblue says:

    The U.S.-as-Guatemala is the goal, not just of the NRA, but of the entire Republican party, and more than a few Democrats.

  3. Murc says:

    I’ve traveled throughout Central America. Everyone is armed. And I’ll tell you, it scared me. An armed society is an unsafe society.

    Which is why, historically, the first thing that people who want to maintain any sort of peace and order do is disarm the populace.

    It is true that this has often been for less than laudable reasons; a disarmed society will in fact have a lot of trouble rising up in rebellion. But it’s also true that the reason people get disarmed is because if they don’t, they fucking murder each other all the goddamn time.

    The idea that we can have a non-anarchic society in which everyone is also habitually armed all the time is a modern idea born out of profound ignorance. Some of the harshest arms control laws of all time came out of the Middle Ages, as the rulers of burgeoning cities tried desperately to keep the populace from stabbing each other. The Romans had damn strict laws on who could be armed, where, and in what capacity.

    And in the post-Civil War American West, contrary to popular depiction, most people weren’t armed. Many of those who were armed owned a rifle that they used as a tool on their farms and left at home otherwise, because it was an expensive and valued implement and you just didn’t bring it into town, where it could be damaged or stolen, on a whim. Walking around obviously strapped with a six-shooter all the time (as opposed to being some transient who was obviously passing through) was a great way to get local law enforcement to politely ask you to stop, and if you continued you would be thought of as weird and potentially violent. Many of the first US ordinances against being openly armed during daylight hours within city limits came from the ‘lawless’ west.

    Being armed all the time is a sign of anarchy and state failure, and it actually perpetuates those states. The idea that an armed society is a polite society, that for some reason us dumb monkeys stop being ruled by our passions if we’re all strapped, is insane.

    • Vance Maverick says:

      Did the postwar doctrines of nuclear deterrence influence this idea? Wikipedia blames the famous phrase on Robert Heinlein, which sounds about right, but perhaps there’s something more like evidence too.

      • Murc says:

        Nuclear deterrence is kind of a different kettle of fish, I think, because interplay between nation-states, while analogous in many ways to the way individuals interact with each other, are also different in many ways.

        It’s essentially behavior between institutions, rather than people, and even though institutions are run by people it’s still kind of different.

      • Mike Schilling says:

        That’s unfair to Heinlein. A character says it in one of his books, but there’s no reason to think he speaks for the author, any more than Shakespeare really wanted to kill all the lawyers. (In fact, it’s not true in the book, where a group of thugs insult a man in order to provoke a challenge so they can kill him.)

    • tt says:

      This seems a bit of an overstatement. There are places in the US where large proportions of the populations are armed which are not in anarchy. Guns are bad because they increase rates of murder, suicide, and accidental death, not because it leads to anarchy and state failure.

      • Vance Maverick says:

        Do you have numbers for the comparison of the US to Central America in this regard? How many people at the crosswalk in Houston are carrying?

        • tt says:

          I can’t find any reliable data on percent of population which own guns (probably none exists), but number of guns per capita gives us an upper limit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_guns_per_capita_by_country). The US has about 5x as many guns per capita as Guatemala. According to surveys Wyoming has the highest rate of gun ownership in the US, at 60%, which is higher than possible for Guatemala given the number of guns. Wyoming is not in anarchy and is not a failed state, though its murder rate, low for the US, is still a lot higher than Europe.

      • Murc says:

        There are places in the US where large proportions of the populations are armed which are not in anarchy.

        Well, let’s define terms here. What do you mean by armed?

        Downthread you list Wyoming as leading the US in gun ownership, at 60%. I would be shocked if as many as 5% of the population of Wyoming were actually ARMED at any given moment, tho.

        When I say armed, I don’t just mean owning a gun. I mean walking around strapped as a matter of course, belting on a weapon when you leave the house the same way you remember to bring your keys and phone.

        You know, the kind of society the NRA says is desirable.

        The US doesn’t really have a lot of armed people walking around, because, as has been said, part of the reason for having a civilization is so you don’t have to do that.

        And I stand by my position that if you did have lots of people walking around armed, it would be a sign of anarchy or that you’re living in a failed state. Despite the heat of this debate, it is to be remembered that most people don’t carry weapons around because they do, in fact, think that’s stupid and dangerous, whatever their feelings on gun control in general are.

    • rea says:

      The idea that an armed society is a polite society essentially assumes that it’s okay to shoot people for rudeness . . .

    • ajay says:

      And in the post-Civil War American West, contrary to popular depiction, most people weren’t armed…Many of the first US ordinances against being openly armed during daylight hours within city limits came from the ‘lawless’ west

      Indeed. The Gunfight at the OK Corral happened because the local authorities (Wyatt Earp et al) were trying to enforce local gun control law, which said “no weapons to be carried within city limits”. The Clanton boys were carrying guns, and that was illegal.

  4. The Tragically Flip says:

    Even if everyone having guns somehow worked, who wants to live that way? Isn’t the point of civilization that we don’t have to be on constant guard for our very survival? I think feeling like you need to always remember to be at arm’s reach to a loaded weapon in your daily life defeats the fucking purpose.

    I mean, I get tired of having to keep track of my work blackberry after work in case I’m paged for a damn emergency, at least if I leave my blackberry where a kid could get it, they’re not going to accidentally kill someone with it.

    It just seems like a shitty way to live. No wonder they’re so fucking angry, paranoia must be mentally exhausting.

  5. LeeEsq says:

    I blame a lot of this on the toxic tendency of American society and a lot of other societies to praise toughness, machismo, and jerkiness in men. Its the entire cult of the badass. Current society teaches that men should want to be the meanest, strongest bastard who can take down everybody.

    • cpinva says:

      i blame it on gun manufacturers, who want to sell as many as they can, to whoever wants them, and make as much profit as possible, for as long as they can.

      I blame a lot of this on the toxic tendency of American society and a lot of other societies to praise toughness, machismo, and jerkiness in men.

      their lobbying arm is the NRA, which they bought out during the clinton administration, and placed their own people in the top policy making positions. the membership had no say in the matter.

  6. Bitter Scribe says:

    Why can’t the gun nuts die out like the gay-haters seem to be doing?

  7. Kurzleg says:

    I’ve taken a few trips to El Salvador, exclusively for pleasure and away from San Salvador or any other places anywhere near as large. It is odd to enter markets and stores where employees have shotguns and such. I have no idea if it’s an effective deterrent to have store employees armed or not. My take is that in poor countries like El Salvador institutions like law enforcement just aren’t well-funded enough to deal with crime problems. So most largish businesses arm their employees to fill the law-enforcement void. And, of course, the poverty that prevents sufficient funding of police is the same thing that makes crime attractive. Having said all that, I never saw or heard about any serious crime while there.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Crime in El Salvador is really, really bad. Is through most of Central America, but especially Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

      • DrDick says:

        MS-13 and the Zetas have a lot to do with that.

        • witless chum says:

          In other words, it’s in a huge part the fault of a certain nation and its populace who love to do illegal cocaine, but also choose to make it illegal, providing those nice gentlemen with lots and lots of money.

          Drug warriors are some immoral fucks for what they’re doing to every country south of the U.S. border.

      • Kurzleg says:

        A co-worker of mine from Peru has told me about ES crime as well. It certainly explains the shotgun-wielding guys at the supermarket and some hotels. ES is a big surfing destination, and at least at the beach-front hotel we’ve stayed in there weren’t any armed guards. Maybe the business owners pay off the mob? In Suchitoto and other places they have “tourist police” whose job it is to look out for tourists and make sure they’re safe. So while I didn’t see any actual crime, I saw lots of indirect evidence that it exists.

      • LeeEsq says:

        When I was in Costa Rica, I never felt particularly in danger. That might be because Costa Rica decided abolish its military. Costa Rica was really a beautiful country and very pleseat. Even San Jose had a sort of attractive tropical noir look to it.

    • Murc says:

      Having said all that, I never saw or heard about any serious crime while there.

      Reporting accurately on crime in Central America is a real good way to end up dead.

  8. jon says:

    I thought the model was going to be the Terrordome. Then you can make some real money off of people killing each other.

    • LeeEsq says:

      Like the Roman Gladiators? I’d imagine that swords, tridents, and nets make for a more impressive show than guns. The fights will last longer. (Yes, this is sarcasm).

  9. jon says:

    What seems to be overlooked in so many things, is that the greatest majority of what people do everyday is done openly, with trust, and without the express or implied threat of violence. The apparatus or law and law enforcement is there for those relatively few times when civil behavior has been violated.

    Imagine what society and daily life would be like, if you could not trust anyone, at any time, for anything at all – including employees, family members and friends. What if you had to protect yourself at all times from any number of substantial, conceivable attacks, from theft of your money and property, to personal safety, to your personal and business dealings.

    Our current civil society saves each of us enormous amounts of time, money and effort, because we do not have to live in fear and distrust at every moment. We need to be building a society where more trust is justified, and less law and enforcement is required, because it is easier, more productive, more pleasant, and simply better.

    • witless chum says:

      Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a bunch about that aspect, that the gun nuts seem to be suggesting we all walk around armed, ready and watchful as defense against spree killings. Coates* says that sounds a lot like being a teenage boy in the ghetto growing, pretty much constantly on alert for violence (meaning fights in his example more so than guns). That sounds just exhausting and I can’t believe anybody would choose that.

      I remember feeling tension in high school (my high school was compartively violent, but not to level Coates described) of knowing that someone was planning to try and fight me and just waiting for it. It sucked, even though, rationally, I was gonna win if it actually happened and it didn’t happen.

      I remember being at a club this fall with my sister-in-law and her husband. He remarked that he really couldn’t stand to be in the crush of a packed dance floor like that anymore because it was constantly pinging his threat meter, which he developed with a tour in each of our current war zones, to be in a crush like that and not be able to really see who and what were around him.

      Again, sounds like what the armed society types are advocating which is that people walk around half-keyed up and ready for shit to happen. I’m forced to believe that they either don’t mean a word of it, because that would suck, or they really walk around like that now, which worries me. Or maybe it’s a measure of how isolated we are, it might be practical to remain armed and watchful at all times in public if you rarely spend any time in public. I live a pretty typical car-commuting shit life, but I also spend a fair amount of time just walking around for exercise, so I feel like being constantly on alert for attack would just be too much.

      *His dialog with Jeffery Goldberg is really maddening to read because it includes Jeffery Goldberg.

      • LeeEsq says:

        I thought that the Gun Symposium at the League of Ordinary Gentleman was maddening because most of the writers came from the pro-blood spilling, I mean gun, side.

        The gun nuts seemed to have won a definite cultural victory in how most Americans view the indivdual right to owe guns as being essential. Before we can have gun control, we need to change how Americans perceive guns. Guns need to be viewed as the dangerous objects that should be highly regulated rather than cool toys. I really care how culturally important they are to rural people or how hunting is a way of life. Screw that. We need less guns.

        I also think that Goldberg, whom I suspect I’m in a minority here because I like his blog, did have a good point in that any reasonable gun control must really reduce the sheer amount of fire arms in circulation.

        • BigHank53 says:

          I’ve pretty much given up on gun control as a political possibility. The NRA has spent the last twenty-five years sowing paranoia, and they can harvest a crop of ten million mindless shouters anytime they want.

          I do think there’s a possible route through controlling gun owners. We have tiered licensing systems for motor vehicles and aircraft: operators must pass a test and demonstrate competence. If someone can’t pick up an AR clone, field-strip it, re-assemble it, and put thirty rounds into an 18-inch target at 100 yards, you’ve got no business even being considered as part of a “well-regulated militia”. Did you forget to check for a chambered round? Sorry, son: come back in six months and try again. That’ll be $150.

          • LeeEsq says:

            Yes, the best way to possible regulate gun ownership and usage is a strict licensing regime run by the Federal Government. The gun owners will argue thats its unconstitutional but the well-regulated part of the Second Amendment can probably interpreted as giving the government the power to regulate members of the milita, i.e. gun owners.

  10. Linda says:

    In the recent world health report, they had a name for places like Guatemala and nearby places in central and South America. The “homicide belt.”

  11. Anonymous says:

    But but but, Switzerland!

    /brought to you from my Facebook feed

    • Murc says:

      I’d be a lot more blase about widespread gun ownership if everybody had to do a stint in the armed forces before being allowed to have one. You will never find someone more committed to gun safety than ex-military types, especially ones who have seen combat.

      And it was on this very blog I learned that the Swiss actually recently restricted ammunition availability precisely in order to cut down on gun violence.

  12. Bro says:

    Everything in this post is wrong from the get-go. The N.R.A. doesn’t even consider a possibility of only good guys having guns. There is no possibility of that. It’s absurd. The anti-gun crowd is who believes that. It also believes that anyone that takes orders from a government official is a good guy. Every anti-gun point written into the above post is easily refuted with evidence and reason. You’re missing some key points about the Bogota example–for example.
    I visit Central America as well and I’m far more inclined to use the services, ATMs for example, that have an armed guard present than those without. If armed people scare you then I suspect you’re an impolite asshole that has trouble minding his own business.

  13. GeoX says:

    …well, it’s certainly more inscrutable than the normal troll incarnation.

  14. Erik Loomis says:

    Yet equally tiresome. Which is why I’m eliminating them.

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