Why America isn't the only country that wants guns for self-defense

The appeal of guns for personal protection is hardly unique to America. Consider gun ownership in South Africa, Britain, India, and Mexico. All these societies are dealing with inequality exacerbated by economic austerity and eroding public services, which breeds fear about insecurity.

Ed Andrieski/AP
Protesters gather in front of the Capitol in Denver, Colo., where state senators debated seven gun-control bills on March 8, and gave provisional approval to several of them. Op-ed contributor Jennifer Carlson writes: 'To address guns, we must also address why people – in America and elsewhere – are turning to them in the first place.'

Tony Martin, a British farm owner, shot and killed Fred Barras, a home intruder, in 1999. Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman, of Sanford, Fla., shot to death 17-year-old Trayvon Martin a year ago. And last month, South Africa’s “Blade Runner,” Oscar Pistorius, shot and killed his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, whom he claims to have mistaken for a home intruder. All three faced – or currently face – criminal charges in connection with the shootings. All have claimed self-defense.

These sensationalized cases from across the globe suggest that the American penchant for firearms is less exceptional than many in the United States may think. The appeal of guns is global. Civilians in Mexico have started “self-policing” in the wake of increased fears of crime and inadequate public law enforcement. In India, after the New Delhi gang rape in December 2012, women’s demands for gun permits have escalated precipitously. Even Britain is seeing small but meaningful increases in gun permits amid concerns about increasing crime and police efficacy, according to The Guardian newspaper.

If Americans want to move forward in our national conversation about gun control, we need to understand gun culture less as an example of American pathology or a source of US pride (depending on what side of the debate you take), and more as a social practice embedded in inequality, violence, and fear that are aggravated in the US, but not unique to it.

Americans like to think of themselves and their society as unique. In our national gun debate, this means emphasizing the Second Amendment, a hunting heritage, and the general ethos of rugged individualism that set Americans apart. For gun-rights advocates, these are virtues to celebrate; for gun control advocates, these are often seen more as roadblocks in the path toward sensible gun control already adopted by our European counterparts.

There is no doubt that America’s gun ownership stands out globally: With an estimated 300 million-plus guns in the hands of civilians, Americans own more guns than any other nation in the world. And without America’s particular legal foundations and history, it is hard to imagine that the country would be as much of a hotbed for gun rights as it is today.

But the appeal of guns for self-defense and personal protection purposes is hardly a simple case of American exceptionalism. Consider South Africa, Britain, India, and beyond.

India does not have a constitutional equivalent of the Second Amendment, but amid fears of crime, gun proponents are organizing in groups like the National Association for Gun Rights in India. And South Africa’s “private defence” law allows citizens to defend themselves and others not unlike America’s controversial “stand your ground” laws. Like Mr. Pistorius, millions of South Africans sleep next to a firearm.

Guns in America, India, South Africa, Britain, Mexico: What do these societies have in common?

All are dealing with the unfinished business of racial and gender inequality that have been exacerbated by economic austerity measures, a renewed focus on crime and criminal justice, and public services in crisis. These are societies that breed rampant fears and concerns about insecurity (if at times disproportionate to the actual rates of crime) and the sense that the police cannot, or will not, provide protection to the average citizen.

As one armed, Indian woman said to a reporter for The Guardian, "I don't have faith in the police to protect me. There are so many attacks on women these days. It's everybody's right to defend themselves. I think all women who are vulnerable should be carrying guns."

Guns may be as “American as apple pie,” but they are not exclusively American because the problems that drive people to guns are not exclusive to the US.

Taking a global look at guns reveals the folly in gun debates that focus merely on regulating and restricting guns themselves. To address guns, we must also address why people – in America and elsewhere – are turning to them in the first place.

Jennifer Carlson is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. She will become an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto this summer. Ms. Carlson is working on a book manuscript entitled, “Clinging to their Guns? The New Politics of Gun Carry in Everyday Life.”

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