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How much do the laws and social norms surrounding guns — in other words, "gun culture" — influence how violent a society is?
During a press conference Friday, the National Rifle Association blamed the violent Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. on violent video games, mental illness and a lack of armed guards at the school.
Since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which took 26 lives, the nation has been focused on how to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
GlobalPost spoke to Nicholas Marsh, a research fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) in Norway, about what influences a country's "gun culture," and whether that increases the likelihood of violent shootings like the one in Newtown.
Marsh recently edited Small Arms, Crime and Conflict: Global Governance and the Threat of Armed Violence.
Q: How would you define the term 'gun culture'?
I have some problems with the term. It is sometimes used to mean that guns are the most significant element of a national culture – for example if someone says that ‘The USA has a gun culture.’ But that is surely overstating the case. If we were to pick one piece of technology to sum up culture in the USA it might be the automobile, or cell phones, or Facebook or something similar.
Guns are important, but their significance even in US culture is limited. For many gun owners it’s just a piece of sports equipment, something that might just be used for the occasional hunting trip.
In other circumstances people using the term ‘gun culture’ are concerned with those aspects of culture that relate to guns. My problem there is that culture is a vast and vaguely defined concept. So the term gun culture ends up having lots of different meanings as people look at the issue from a variety of standpoints.
What I think is more useful to look at is the complex set of social norms and legal regulations which govern who has access to firearms, and what they can do with them. These rules are clearly part of the overall culture, but at least we are being a bit more specific.
The laws and regulations are easiest to describe. They define who can possess firearms, under what circumstances, and what they can do with them.
What are as important are the social norms. These also define ownership and use. For example, the law doesn’t care about the gender of a firearm owner, but there might be social norms which make ownership much more natural for a man compared to a woman.
The legal regulations and norms have a powerful effect upon access to firearms and what people can do with them. The important areas are:
1) What are the legitimate reasons for private ownership of a firearm – e.g., hunting, target shooting, self defense, private security
2) Who can own a firearm – e.g., are children forbidden, and at what age is it legal, and what categories of adults are forbidden, such as the mentally ill
3) Where can they be displayed – e.g., can people carry them in public, can they be displayed in houses, or must they be locked up when not being used?
The social norms and laws influence each other. In a democracy, people vote for parties which reflect their values. Those parties then draft the laws. Conversely, social norms are themselves influenced by what the government deems to be legal or illegal.
The most effective form of control over firearms occurs when the social norms are broadly in alignment with the laws and regulations. If there is a large difference then regulations will be ineffective. For example, let’s say that in a country where carrying firearms in public is prohibited someone walks into a bar carrying a gun. If he is greeted with indifference or even respect then the law won’t be enforced. If he is told that he is an idiot and he should leave immediately, then the social norms have reinforced the regulations.
The key norms and regulations concern whether people can carry and display guns in public, and whether it is permitted to possess one for self-defense or in personal conflicts (such as for revenge).
Q: What kind of gun culture exists in Norway, if any?
There is a high rate of civilian gun ownership in Norway. According to the Small Arms Survey about 31.3 firearms per 100 people. There are, however, strong legal and social controls over use of firearms.
People who want to have a gun license have to state a reason for doing so, and usually the reasons are hunting or sport (such as target shooting). It’s very rare for a license to be granted for self-defense. People can’t carry firearms in public in urban areas, and they have to be locked up at home.
As a consequence, the majority of guns in civilian possession are rifles and shotguns. It’s possible to acquire a pistol if someone is an active member of a gun club. But most of the guns in civilian possession are long guns designed for hunting.
These regulations are backed up by strong social norms. Speaking from personal experience, except for in sports shops and occasionally in the hands of police (who don’t usually carry guns), I’ve never seen a gun in Norway. They aren’t carried and aren’t on display in people’s homes. The only time you could expect to see a firearm would be in a gun club.
Leaving aside the mass shooting committed by Anders Breivik, guns are very rarely used in acts of violence.
These norms are reflected in culture. There are lots of people with guns on TV, but they are on programs imported from the US. Aside from histories of the Second World War, I can’t think of a gun toting Norwegian hero in popular culture.
Q: Is gun ownership tied to freedom in Norway, like it is in the United States, or to something else?
Not at all. Norway has a long history as a democracy that has a high level of respect for human rights. Guns are for the great majority of people a piece of sports equipment. It certainly isn’t widely believed that firearm ownership is an expression of freedom or necessary to fight off a tyrannical government.
Q: Does having a gun culture contribute to gun-related violence or rein it in?
If we look at the social norms which govern ownership and use, then they can do both. The Norwegian example is of a society in which there are a lot of guns but their use is governed by social norms as well as regulations. The social norms concerning firearms are part of wider set of strong norms which discourage violence in general. Except for Breivik, overall Norway is, relatively speaking, remarkably free of violence.
In other circumstances those norms can have the opposite effect. In a society in which young men are expected to carry firearms, and threaten to use them in order to defend themselves, then we could see social attitudes leading to more violence.