Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why do we care about Americans and their guns?

Another day, another mass shooting by a disaffected young man with access to an awful lot of firepower. They seem to happen with depressing regularity in America these days. Naturally, South Africans on Twitter had plenty to say about events in Newtown, and I was no exception (sensing that words become meaningless after a while, I also sketched several responses to the event; they’re the images you see in this post).

I’m just as interested in the way people respond to events as the events themselves — sometimes more so, and I was fascinated by how much discussion revolved around this, and how heated it all got.

Here’s my question: why do we care so much about Americans and their guns?

We don’t live there. We are not directly affected by US gun laws; we aren’t even indirectly affected. And our own gun violence figures are much worse, though we specialise in bog standard criminality rather than spectacular mass killings. Yet we spend considerable time and energy arguing over it on Twitter and Facebook, among ourselves and in the comments facilities of news websites.


Having tried to make sense of why I care, and watched the debates around me, these are some of the factors I think motivate us:

1. Not controlling civilian access to assault rifles is demonstrably stupid. The Second Amendment at the heart of this debate dates from 1791, when reloading a musket was tedious and difficult. Fast forward to 2012, when it’s possible to fire several rounds a second and causing maximum damage without having to try very hard at all. Can there be any legitimate reason for a civilian living in a $700 000 house in the suburbs to own a semi-automatic rifle, body armour and extended magazines? As one Newtown hunter observed in the wake of the shooting, “We live in a town, not a war.”

2. The gun lobby are racist, sexist, homophobic hicks. OK, maybe not all of them. But it’s pretty obvious that a love of high-calibre weapons is linked to a suite of other issues associated with social conservatism and creepy misogynist Republicans. (Google any gun control debate to see the quality of discussion. It makes news24 comments look civil.) A lot of South Africans I follow were very vocal in our support for Obama during the US elections, so in a sense, this is a continuation of that.

(As an aside, the company that produces the Bushmaster semiautomatic assault rifle is called Freedom Group. Vomit.)

3. We live in a culture saturated with US news and views. Twitter in particular has made the world an even smaller place. As a result, America’s issues feel very familiar to us

It’s an easy issue to mouth off on.

It’s not our problem. Getting angry about something that happens in America is so much easier than having to deal with our own problems. The gun situation is totally different in South Africa, for one thing: as Andrew Trench tweeted the other day, South Africans own 12.7 guns per 100 people as opposed to an astonishing 88 — but 17.03 firearm-related homicides per 100 000 as opposed to just 2.97. This means (as we all know) that most deaths are from illegal firearms and related to crime, a very different proposition from the kind of manifestly unhinged act that reverberated around the world on Friday.

I spent much of my married life sleeping with a gun safe containing six weapons (four hunting rifles, two handguns) in the bedroom. I hated it, but recognised it as a hangover from my ex’s childhood growing up on a farm. And if I lived on a farm in South Africa now, the first thing I’d do is learn how to use a gun. I wouldn’t hesitate to use it either, if I had to.

But that’s not something that Americans in nice suburbs should have to think about, and it’s just astonishing to the rest of us that they do.

Ultimately, the gun control debate speaks to the kind of society I and most of the people I interact with online wish to live in: kind, fair, socially liberal. It’s not one a lot of South Africans actually do get to experience on a day to day basis, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dream about it.

And that, I think, is why we care so very much about Americans and their guns.

Tags: , ,

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    • Lennon

      The 2nd Amendment is not just about protecting yourself from armed burglars. It’s about protecting the citizenry from a tyrannical government.

      While some might ask why it would be necessary citizens to have military-grade guns, it should be noted that the American colonists would not have won their independence war without them.

    • Rob Mousley

      Yep, nice one Sarah, that covers a lot of what I feel too.

    • Neil

      Interesting read. To add to you comment about being saturated by American news views, it’s interesting to note that there has been very little coverage about the idiot in China who let rip on 23 school kids with a knife on Fri.

    • Mike

      Nice piece, I would add though that two other issues captivated me. 1) The absolute horror of the story regardless of which country. Being a parent, I was struck deeply by a sense of “I could not imagine what these poor children went through and how the parents are going to deal with it”.

      2) Watching a president weep and getting the sense, from what the news bulletins had to say, that he would be powerless to change the laws?

    • Wayne

      I found it interesting how the media emphasizes things differently and what they consider important. Maybe it boils down to the fact that and American life is more valuable than citizens of other countries hence the lack of coverage of the Chinese knifeman. On one of the pages about the Connecticut slayings where it was stated that over 100 rounds were fired was another small article where 13 police officers fired 137 rounds through the front windscreen of the car of a man and a women who had refused to stop. They were unarmed. The woman was shot 24 times. At the end of a 25 minute chase the police suspected that driver was going to run them down and kill them. The mother of the young woman is just as devastated as the parents of the kids and regards her tragedy as just as important.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Lennon, what is missing from this discussion is the facts that many people in the US and most countries are suffering from untreated mental illness. When the constitution was written in 1791 the knowledge of mental illness was not advancing like today, so, allowing all of those head cases to own guns is a threat to this country. This young man that killed all of those people was straight A student and a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. I would also like to point out the mass killing has happened all over the world and this includes Russia.

    • The Praetor

      I dont have an issue with people having firearms to protect themselves. Personally I own two, which are basicly rusting away in my safe. I however have issue with:

      1) How young people can so very easily get access to these firearms. Do they just lay around for anyone to abuse? And then also the ease of aquisition, as the Colombine shooters, who were high school students but simply aquired their automatic weapons by ordering it online and paying with their parents’s credit cards.

      2) Further, how the media turns these mass killers into celebrities overnitght, and is probably the motivation for these obscure people,who never get noticed, to commit these acts. Their names and faces get plastered on the news night and day for months and years, yet their victims remain anonymous.

      There is something just wrong with this

      The Praetor

    • Mario

      2nd Amendment was created in 12/15/1791 when there was war! This is 2012 maybe it is time to wake up! Americans make comments that the muslim culture has not moved on (which in my eyes it has not either) but they dont see that they have not moved on some issues as well. The whole I own a gun because it is my 2nd Amendment it is a completely ridiculous argument. Maybe I will see what others old laws (active or not) I can use these days and say it is my X Amendment created 100BC… Grow up Americans you dont need guns to protect yourself. The media alone is a powerful gun to kill any government or MONEY !!!

    • PM

      Mass killings are indeed a global feature–look no farther than Sweden.

      But the US is clearly an outlier when it comes to guns and violence–as is South Africa (although not in completely the same way). The US is an outlier because of its wealth AND violence–a very unusual combination. The fact that this particular type of violence (mass killings) seems to be increasing even as crime in the US is decreasing is also odd.

      And Sarah’s point about the Republican party and guns is also apt:

      As an aside, it does not seem as if violent video games have much to do with this:

    • PM

      and, of course, some of the reactions in the US are rather breath taking…..

    • Free us from the ANC

      @ Wayne and Neil – the Chinese knife attacker didn’t kill anyone and therefore wasn’t deemed as important a news story as the US one I guess. There’s also that issue about Western lives being more important which is prevelant in media sadly…..shouldn’t be, but seems to be.

      However it does demonstrate the difference between a crazed attacker armed with a semi-auto assault rifle, and one armed with a knife. The latter easily overpowered without loss of life in the end, and the former unable to be overpowered until he himself decided to end it.

    • Free us from the ANC

      Regarding ‘the right to bear arms':

      This was concreted into the bill of rights so that armed militia’s could help maintain a balance of power and potentially overthrow a rotton government if required. The idea was to allow the people the means to get rid of a dictator if it happened.

      Fast forward to 2012, and even if all the gun crazed maniacs in America did try and overthrow the government, they would fail. America has an arsenal at it’s disposal which would easily contain an armed rebellion. The need for armed militia’s to remain is negated by their ineffective nature compared to themilitary might of the government.

      If they really did want to safe guard this right, they could allow for registration of armed militia’s and have their weopons stored in a secure site with controlled access – for use in such times as required to be used for their intended purpose.

      Civilians in suburbs do not need high powered assault rifles in 2012.

    • Mario Fernandez

      There’s a very simple answer to the question. John Donne wrote it in the 17th century:

      ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

      No more needs to be said.

    • Brent

      Read the following article, it will jolt you out of comfortable perceptions and fixed ideas, ‘cry for the USA': Hopefully it will make you think for yourself not what the media and their elite masters want you to think..


    • Tim

      @Lennon – I agree with your observation that the 2nd amendment is also about “protecting the citizenry from a tyrannical government”, but let’s be honest and realistic about this – while citizens armed with muskets in 1790 might have posed some sort of check to a government, what exactly is a redneck with an AR-15 going to do against a government armed with tanks, planes, armoured vehicles, 50mm cannons etc etc? It’s just not a valid point anymore.

    • Stuff

      Good article Sarah.

      1) I also found this very good analysis, well worth reading: “Opinion: Guns and Culture in America – by Gwynne Dyer”

      2) This is somewhat counter to what Gwynne Dyer argues, but in my opinion very significant “Researcher: U.S. could learn from Aussie gun buyback”

      3) I also think we always think, speak and care about Americans because they are such a powerful country, their country is a world leader whether we admire them or not. Somehow people look up to powerful figures, deep down in our psyche lingers ‘might is right’.

    • Kevin

      Strange that the press don’t report on the number of shootings which were stopped or cut short by armed citizens. And there are quite a few. As they say, when seconds count, the police are five minutes away.

    • Perry Curling-Hope

      Why do we care….because media hype/hysteria and lobby groups make it so.

      Statistically, an American kid is far more likely to be killed by lightening strike than by a bullet, and are far safer at school than at home.
      Far more kids are killed at home by their parents, and then are not typically shot.
      There is no mass shooting epidemic sweeping the country, outside media hype.

      The illusion that gun ownership is related to firearm homicide was indicated by Andrew Trench.
      The notion that one can get people in a society to behave better by enacting controls and prohibitions is utterly misguided, yet lobby groups keep punting this drivel because it appears superficially reasonable.

      Why pick on rifles?
      For times as many were killed by knife, and twice as many by bludgeon in the US in 2002.

      We care because lobby groups and ‘their’ media want us to.

      The Second Amendment is about civil liberty, not about a technological device.
      Societies with a penchant for violence are not constrained by access to technology or by statutory prohibitions, which merely infringe upon the liberty of all.

      We have problems, and it ain’t ‘too many guns’

    • Belle

      I have to agree with the Praetor. The publicity these killers get is probably motivation for other people to become killers. Although why anyone would want to become well known for killing people and ruining people’s lives is beyond me.

      Although society is at fault with regard to access to guns and faulty gun laws etc, it should really be obvious to everyone that no matter what the circumstances, violence is never the right answer and you do not shoot at little children.

    • Stuff


      In the US 5740 Children and Teens were killed by guns in 2008 and 2009.

    • Hugh Robinson

      II feel the reason for so much comment from SA is the need to point fingers as say I told you so or see SA is not so bad.

      The point missed by all is glaringly obvious when looking at SA’s wanton violence. The mistakes made by sociologists and the like advocating, so called human rights and promoting mind control.

      None wish to admit that the wanton violence of now is a direct result of the pussy footing around kids, lack of homely affection, distrust of another, and my favourite the working family where parental control is but lost.

      There has been a steady decline in morality and discipline within each generation since the fifties producing a new generation a standard lower than the last. Much like SA education the standards dropped that bit each year, to where we have illiterates with Matric.

      Simple observations are, not opening a door or giving up a seat for a woman or the elderly. Talking back, demands, children misbehaving, hollering in a supermarket of restaurant. Young adults drinking alcohol to the point of vomiting in the street. The latter has bragging right in place of shame. The list is long but interesting.

      All it takes is for some to sit up, take note and stop making excuses. As for Gun control, take the time to read up on UK gun crime and Gun laws, and then ask yourself do gun laws protect the criminal while leaving the innocent open to attack.

    • Hans

      One could compare free access to guns like selling liquor at the tuck shop at school. Amazing that the US have stricter rules for selling liquor than buying guns – just doesn’t make sense.

    • Jim Stockley


      ” … The study, which just appeared in Volume 30, Number 2 of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy (pp. 649-694), set out to answer the question in its title: “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide? A Review of International and Some Domestic Evidence.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, and the sniffs of our more sophisticated and generally anti-gun counterparts across the pond, the answer is “no.” And not just no, as in there is no correlation between gun ownership and violent crime, but an emphatic no, showing a negative correlation: as gun ownership increases, murder and suicide decreases. ..”…roductive.html

    • Jim Stockley

      Sorry, the link to the article on the Harvard study is at

      The full Harvard document is available here:…useronline.pdf

    • Jim Stockley
    • Stuff


      There is plenty of independent research that contradicts that Harvard study you quote.

      Published: Duggan, Mark. “More Guns, More Crime,” Journal of Political Economy, 2001, v109(5,Oct), 1086-1114. “Recent reductions in the fraction of households owning a gun can explain at least one-third of the differential decline in gun homicides relative to non-gun homicides since 1993. I also use this data to examine the impact of Carrying Concealed Weapons legislation on crime, and reject the hypothesis that these laws led to increases in gun ownership or reductions in criminal activity. ”

      The Australian situation is very convincing, don’t know if you saw this: “Researcher: U.S. could learn from Aussie gun buyback”

    • Momma Cyndi

      The Scandinavian countries have a large number of guns per capita as does Canada. The prevalence of gun crime is relatively low in those countries. Why?

      “If America sneezes, the world catches a cold”. I can’t remember who came up with that gem but it is true. Just look at Hurricane Sandy. She completely annihilated Cuba but we only heard about the parts of America that were hit. America has more news services

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      We had a school shooting in SA recently did we not?

      A boy took his mother’s police handgun and shot ONE of the 3 boys who were bullying him, which bullying the teachers had ignored. What would he have done with an automatic weapon?

    • Lennon

      @ Tim: The year and the tech might be different, but history is prone to repetition. The American independence war was no different to Spartacus’ slave revolt; the English Civil War or the Anglo-Boer War. All took place at different points in history and used different weapons. However, none would have been possible without an armed and vigilant citizenry (gladiators in the case of Spartacus).

      With all due respect, your assumption that it would only be a few poorly armed rednecks is flawed for two reasons:
      1) Having the best tech does not guarantee success. The Battle of Isandlwana is a shining example of this. Also, tech requires that certain tactics be employed – tactics which won’t necessarily be adhered to by anti-government forces (see the Anglo-Boer War).

      2) A revolt in the US would not just be on by a few citizens, but could very well include seasoned veterans of the Iraq and Afghan invasions as well as members of the National Guard and the Police. Why? Because not everyone within these ranks has blind loyalty to the government and if they find that the government is tyrannical, then they will rebel too. Another factor to consider here is that many will not gun their own friends and families down just to protect the government and it is well within possibility that they will employ whatever government tech they possess in a fight.

      The 2nd Amendment is still very much valid.

    • Dave Harris

      We care about Americans and their guns because just like the world cared about what would happen if racism was taken to its logical extreme aka apartheid in SA, we all care about what happens when violence is taken to its logical extreme in American society,

      We care about Americans and their guns because it gives us a glimpse into our future if we adopt similar laws. Thankfully we haven’t!!!

      We care about Americans and their guns because each atrocity involving guns gets sicker and sicker, and we humans have an inherent fascination with the macabre!

    • BillyC

      I’m suprised no one has brought up that uber self opinionated lefty, Michael Moore, who points out that there have been at least THIRTY-ONE school shootings since Columbine.

      One of the most stunning stats from that movie, was that there are way more guns in Canada than in the US, but a nano fraction of the abuse of weapons. Maybe it was the mental scars of Vietnam?. But then we should have crazed Recce comandos running around SA streets randomly shooting people. Instead we have maybe only APLA, ZANU and MK vets using their weapons and skills to carry out strictly criminal cash in transit and ATM bombings. Hardly the psychotic homcides so common in the US?

    • PM
    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, most of the mass killers in the US were influenced by the writer Stephen KIng and the book most quoted was the “Dead Zone”. This book was made into a movie and was a big hit in the US. This book is about terror in a small town by a serial killer.

    • Stuff


      Some countries have a culture that can handle guns responsibly. Other countries don’t have a responsible gun culture.

      If a country does not have a responsible gun culture, gun control works, there is sufficient research showing that if you wade through the propaganda put out by the gun lobby.

    • Stuff

      @Lennon – “The 2nd Amendment is still very much valid.”

      Ed Schultz —-“Hiding behind the Second Amendment can no longer be the shield for access. The people who wrote that document owned slaves, oppressed women, and were short on tolerance,………………………………..

      ……………..Schultz, however, forgot to mention that the same men who wrote the Second Amendment also wrote the rest of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights — the first ten amendments that secure the right to free speech, due process and freedom of religion. Using his “logic,” the entire Constitution would be considered null and void.

      He [Schultz] said that the country has changed, and that politicians need to stop listening to the gun lobby. But has America changed to the point that it is willing to give up freedoms enshrined in the Constitution? If the Second Amendment is done away with, the First Amendment can also be removed.


    • Enough Said

      @Billy C

      I love Michael Moore. He certainly irritates right wing gun toting nutters though. I visit his web site almost every day at

      Here is a note from Michael Moore titled “A Note From Michael Moore on the Newtown School Massacre” available at:

      If you visit his web site right now you can up-date on all the free screenings for “Bowling for Columbine”

    • The Creator

      One reason for being worried about Americans and their guns is that most of them are pointed right at us, via the USAF, USMC and CIA.

      And, looking at American foreign policy, it seems that the school-shooters are pretty much in charge of it.

    • Lionel

      I don’t – not a bit – It’s the media who make mountains where pimples exist.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Please notice the importance of the AMENDMENTS to the Constitution in the USA – The FIRST Amendment? The SECOND Amendment?

    • francois williams

      What is happening in USA is what is happening all over the so called western world.
      It is called Karma.
      For 500 years now, the Western people plundered, tortured, enslaved and massacred untold millions all around the world…at the same time enriching themselves with blood money from their unfortuanate victims…the last vestige of the west still standing is the USA, who still plunder and murder in the classical model, BUT you cannot roar and murder round the world without that rubbing off on your own people…and that is what is happening, in tandem with he collapse in the EU…much worse is still to come, the bubbles are popping one by one…kick back and enjoy it…

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Enough Said, you should read the book by Stephen King “Dead Zone”. Many mass murders in the US have been quoted as being influenced by the works of Stephen King.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Enough Said, don’t forget to go see” Django Unchained”.

    • Momma Cyndi


      It has been much talked about in our house recently. Could the paranoia that they are fed on a daily basis be the cause?

      If you look at who the crazy folk in SA are, it is usually those who are paranoid and afraid. Most of us just don’t even consider the idea of blowing up Mangaung or starting wars. It seems to be the ones who harp on about ‘genocides’ or ‘bringing back apartheid’

    • Lennon

      @ Stuff: I don’t believe that any country is ready and / or safe enough for its citizens to not be armed.

      As Malcolm McDowell said in Wing Commander 4: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

      @ Lyndall: Well it makes sense to have them in that order. If the government won’t listen, then shoot the bastards. 😉

    • PM

      @ Lyndall:

      is that sort of like the relative importance of the 10 Commandments? Not killing is less important than honoring the Sabbath or your parents? And not taking the Lords name in vain (probably the most violated one) is more important than either?

    • zoo keeper

      If you analyze the gun control argument, you will notice a sleight of hand by the gun control activists that is not present in the gun lobby.

      Gun control focuses on gun homicides which will include things like suicide etc. The gun control argument is therefore very selective in the stats they analyze in order to reach a pre-determined outcome.

      The gun lobby focuses on the widest issue, which is violent crime as a whole. When strict controls are placed on gun ownership, homicides using guns mostly decrease, but violent crime increases as citizens become more vulnerable.

      Joyce Lee Malcolm’s study of the English laws (which SA is trying to copy) makes for stunning reading (Guns and Violence: The English Experience).

      What you have to understand is that gun control necessarily requires the reduction of citizen rights across a wide sphere, especially the rights to self defence. The English experience is now so abhorrent that to fight back against an attacker or even threaten to do so can land you in jail longer than your attacker!

      The gun control argument simply does not wash at all. There are crazy people out there who will use whatever they can to do their evil. After the Oklahoma City bombing, should access to fertilizer and diesel be strictly controlled too? Its not a glib question, but a real one.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The Americans watch too many doomsday and fantasy movies, which combined with their Puritan/Catholic Priests and drugs only behaviourist psychiatrists creates a sick society. Their psychiatrists have no left brain thinking, and their movie makers and fantasy creators no right brain thinking.

    • zoo keeper


      Good post.

      What believers in gun control have forgotten, is that every single freedom we enjoy today was bought and paid for in lakes of human blood.

      The concept of an armed populace is at the very core of a free society, and in is the only thing that effectively stands between a society and enslavement. Its been the same since human society emerged from the Ice Age. Just because its the 21st century, does not mean the fundamentals have changed.

      See the UK for example. The knock-on effects of gun control has reached the stage where perpetrators have more rights than victims, and even “offensive” speech can result in a jail term.

      We like the US gun control issue because the Yanks are showing the world what freedom really is about.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, you are right but, there is too much stress on the people to be number one and go to the best schools. You must remember that this young man that killed all of those people was an A student. Why did his mother buy all of those guns when she knew her son was sick?

      Speaking of fantasy movies, why is Stephen King’s books are so popular? In Stephen King’s books most of his leading characters go mad and commits violent crimes.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      The Mother was ill and filled with phobias and fears, which is why she had 5 guns, and she taught her fears and phobias to her son.