Contemporary US society is often considered to be a violent one. Politicians are always looking for ways to solve this problem of violence. In recent years, the introduction of stricter gun laws has been suggested as an appropriate response to this problem. How effective is this response to violent crime though? This dissertation seeks to answer this question, through a literature-based methodology. Newspaper articles, official statistics and academic literature will be used to come to a conclusion on the effectiveness of gun control on reducing violent offending. In the process of this, the major issue with gun control will be discussed, this being that it fails to take into consideration the theoretical reasons behind why violent crimes occur. This will lead to an analysis of why the United States truly is a society deeply rooted in violence, and why this means that gun control is unlikely to reduce violent offending. Suggestions for alternatives to gun control are hinted at, though the main purpose of this study is to critique the way things are at the moment in the US. It is up to the policy makers and politicians to use this to pave the way for future policies.
Author: Jesse Downes, May 2019
BA (Hons) Criminology with Forensic Science
Table of Contents
- Chapter One: A Violent Society?
- Chapter Two: A Response to Violence
- Chapter Three: A Limitation of Gun Control
- Chapter Four: A Violent Society
There are two groups of people I would like to thank for their help in the completion of this dissertation. Firstly, I would like to thank my Dissertation Supervisor Dr Margarita Zernova, for her excellent help developing my ideas for this dissertation, as well as for providing useful feedback on chapter drafts. I would also like to thank my Mum and Dad, Antony and Susan Downes, as well as my friend Cameron Ridgway, for their valuable feedback on a final draft of this dissertation. I also believe that it is important to thank my friends and family as a whole, though there are too many of them to name individually. This is for their continued love and support throughout the process of putting together this piece of work.
In January 2016, Barack Obama marked the beginning of his final year in office with an emotional plea for measures to be introduced to stem the high levels of gun violence. While becoming tearful, he exclaimed that it was now urgent to introduce such measures ’because people are dying’ (Roberts et al, 2016). One of the prominent measures called for by the president was the closing of loopholes associated with gun background checks, as well as other actions aiming to keep guns out of the hands of those deemed most ‘risky’ in society. At the start of 2016, it was clear that reducing violence was a key aim of Barack Obama’s final year as president. However, fast forward to the start of 2017, and to a newspaper article looking back on the legacy left by the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency. The newspaper article, from The Guardian, explains how the US dropped over 26,171 bombs over the course of 2016. This is equivalent to ‘nearly three bombs an hour, 24 hours a day’ (Benjamin, 2017). It appears this excessive use of violence is nothing new in the Obama presidency with Benjamin (2017) estimating that ‘civilians killed by Obama’s bombs could be in the thousands’ (Benjamin, 2017). This action seems deeply at odds with the values displayed by Obama at the start of the year, emotionally calling for measures aiming to reduce the violence in his home country. It appears the impact of the international actions of the president on the level of violence back in the US is often overlooked in the criminological literature. I will seek to address this in this dissertation, while critiquing the measures Obama expressed his support for at the beginning of 2016.
A substantial amount of this dissertation will be spent examining the violence the state inflicts on people, as in the situation above. However, this will only be used as a vessel to critique the main focus of this piece, gun control. The main question I will attempt to answer is: How useful are stricter gun laws in dealing with the issue of violent crime in the US? My hypothesis is that, undoubtably, the implementation of stricter gun laws would be beneficial in dealing with the issue. However, there are several other important steps that need to be taken in order to fully solve the problem. This is a crucial piece of work to undertake because, as can be seen in more detail in chapter one, violent crime is a particularly big problem in the US. For this reason, it is vitally important to look at, and critique the responses of the US government to this massive issue. These criticisms could help enable politicians to rethink the way they act in response to violence in order to more effectively reduce the extent of this problem in the future.
This will be achieved using a variety of different sources of information. These will include: Official statistics and newspaper articles, as well as academic books and articles. Although it would have been both interesting and insightful to travel to the US and undertake some primary research for several areas of this dissertation, this is obviously logistically and economically difficult to achieve at undergraduate level. Luckily, there is sufficient literature on all the areas discussed and hence secondary sources are equally as useful.
The way I intend to go about answering the research question is as follows: Chapter One will be dedicated to understanding the problem the US currently has with violent crime. Official statistics will play a big part in this, helping to understand the level of violent crime, common types of violent crime, as well as trends in violence in the US over time. Chapter Two will focus on a particular response suggested by politicians for dealing with this problem, namely gun control. The reasons for this becoming an important part of the US crime control policy debate will also be discussed. Chapter Three will look at criticisms of this response to crime, focussing on academic literature suggesting possible causes for violent offences occurring. Chapter Four will look at a more radical angle for the causes of violent crime in a bid to criticise both the introduction of stricter gun laws, as well as some of the orthodox theories mentioned in Chapter Three. The overarching purpose of this piece is to look critically at the way politicians and policy makers respond to violence, and crime in general.
Chapter One: A Violent Society?
Violent crime is often considered a major problem in contemporary US society, by politicians, the media, and the public alike. One area of violent crime that causes particular concern, specifically in the United States, is gun violence. The media often use words such as ‘epidemic’ to describe the extent of this problem (Benjamin, 2015). How accurate is this account of contemporary United States society? This chapter aims to provide a statistical representation of violent crime in the US, including trends in both gun crime and violent crime in general, as well as the types of violent crimes that are occurring. These statistics will then be used to evaluate if violence really is a problem in the US. The final section of this chapter will be dedicated to explaining the Second Amendment, as this is often seen as being a contributing factor to the high levels of violence in the United States.
One thing to note, before the statistics are presented, is that I have modified several of the figures to be offered for analysis. This is to make the statistics easier to compare to one another. For example, statistics on violent crime as a whole are often found in the form of ‘x’ offences per 1,000 of the population. On the other hand, violent offences with a firearm are often presented in the form of ‘x’ offences per 100,000 of the population. This is because crimes committed with the use of a firearm are much less likely to occur than acts that are defined simply as being violent crimes. To solve this problem, all statistics will be provided in the form ‘x’ offences per 100,000, with numbers found in the form ‘x’ offences per 1,000 being multiplied by 100.
For statistics on general violent crimes committed in the US, the Bureau of Justice (2018) will be used. They present a combination of both official reported crime statistics, as well as victimisation survey results to build a complete picture of offending in the United States. There are several different criminal acts that are defined as being violent crime by the Bureau of Justice, from rape and sexual assault to robbery, and assault to domestic violence. Contrary to public opinion, the level of violent crime in the US has fallen over the last 25 years. The rate of victimisation fell from being 7,980 per 100,000 of the population in 1993, to 2,060 in 2017, from when the latest figures were released (Bureau of Justice, 2018). However, despite this decrease in the level of victimisation over the last 25 years, it increased in the three years up to 2017. The rate of this increase was 17% from 2015 to 2017 (Bureau of Justice, 2018). The degree of this increase was much higher in the larger urban cities around the US, as opposed to in more rural areas, although these areas also saw a rise in violent offending in the three years leading up to 2017 (James, 2018).
Types of Violence
As well as simply looking at violent crime in general, it is also important to look at the rate of victimisation for specific violent offences. The most common type of violent crime to be a victim of in 2017 was assault, more specifically simple assault, which 1,690 per 100,000 of the population was a victim (Bureau of Justice, 2018). Simple assault is an attempted assault, or a threat to assault, that doesn’t result in physical harm (though may result in mental harm for the victim) (The Law Dictionary, n.d.). Other commonly occurring forms of violence include violence inflicted by a stranger with a victimisation rate of 750 per 100,000 of the population, and domestic violence, with a victimisation rate of 450 per 100,000. All three of these forms of violent offences have increased over the last few years (Bureau of Justice, 2017). However, one of the more serious cases of violent crime, that can often cause the most panic for the media, politicians and citizens of the US is homicide. The statistics suggest that this form of violence is substantially less likely to occur than any other form of violent offence. In 2016, the victimisation rate for homicide was 5.3 victims per 100,000 of the population (James, 2018). Like other forms of violence, the rate at which offences such as these have occurred has decreased over the last 20 years, however it has increased since 2014, rising by 20% from 4.4 offences per 100,000 in 2014 to 5.3 offences per 100,000 in 2016 (James, 2018). These statistics show that although there are often great levels of concern about homicide levels in the US, it is actually an offence very unlikely to occur, when compared to other violent offences. As well as this, the number of homicides, like most other violent offences, has decreased overall for the last 25 years. This again, suggests that the panic and fear about serious forms of violence often displayed publicly are maybe not a good indicator of the extent of the issue. However, in order to get a better understanding of this problem, it is important for us to turn our attention to other countries and see how their rates of homicide compare to the rates seen in the US.
Comparative Homicide Rates
As we have already established, the homicide rate in the United States was 5.3 offences per 100,000 of the population in 2016, but how does this compare to other countries around the world? Although it is possible to compare the homicide rate in the US to every other country in the world, for this analysis it will simply be compared to other nations with similar cultures, and political systems, often referred to as countries in the western world. Though it is important to note that many countries outside of the western world have dramatically higher rates of homicide, with the highest in 2016 being El Salvador with a homicide rate of 80.97 offences per 100,000 of the population (USAC, 2018). This is over 15 times higher than in the United States. However, when comparing the statistics for the US with other western countries, a very different picture emerges. In neighbouring Canada, the rate was 1.68 per 100,000 of the population, meaning the homicide rate in the US was three times higher than that of their neighbour’s (UNODC, n.d.). Furthermore, the same can be seen when comparing the US to other countries: In the UK, the homicide rate was 1.2 per 100,000, in Germany it was 1.18 per 100,000, and in Australia it was 0.94 per 100,000 (UNODC, n.d.). Although, the homicide rate in the United States was not as high as in Russia, which had a rate of 10.82 offences per 100,000 in 2016 (UNODC, n.d.). These figures show that although the rate at which homicides in the United States are committed are not as high as some countries, when compared to other western nations they do appear to be alarmingly high. This does suggest that there may be some validity in the concern shown by the media, politicians and general public when it comes to serious crimes of violence in the US. Despite this, I still believe their reaction is out of proportion with the extent of the problem, as will be illustrated in a later chapter. For now, we will look at a specific type of homicide that causes particular concern for the US population, homicide involving a firearm.
On the 1st October 2017, a 65-year-old man opened fire at a country music festival, killing 59 people, including himself. As well as this large loss of life, a further 527 people were injured, while they were simply trying to enjoy a music festival (Lartey & Weaver, 2017). This is an example of one of the most extreme cases of gun violence, a mass shooting, with a mass shooting being defined as ‘a single shooting incident which kills or injures four or more people, including the assailant’ (BBC, 2016). This tragic atrocity was the worst mass shooting in US modern history (Lartey & Weaver, 2017). It is also the case that the five worst mass shootings in US modern history have occurred within the last 15 years. Despite this, the level of gun violence in the US, like other forms of violence, has actually decreased over the past 25 years, with the number of gun homicides falling from 18,253 in 1993 to 11,101 in 2011 (Bureau of Justice, 2013). Over this period, a rapid decline in gun homicides took place between 1993 and 1998, with the rate levelling off between 1999 and 2011 and remaining fairly stable. The number of gun homicides in 1999 was 10,828 and the number in 2011 was only a slight increase up to 11,101 (Bureau of Justice, 2013). However, the number of gun related homicides has increased from 2011, up to 14,730 in 2018 (Gun Violence Archive, 2018). This is an increase of almost 33%. As well as the increase in homicides with firearms, there has also been an increase in the number of deaths that have occurred as a result of mass shootings in the US over the past five years. In 2014 the number of deaths as a result of mass shootings was 216, and in 2018 this had increased to 340, an increase of 57% (Gun Violence Archive, 2018). At the time of writing, at the end of March 2019, there have been 68 mass shootings in the US this year. This has resulted in the deaths of 95 people, and a further 234 people have been injured (Gun Violence Archive, 2019). If we use this data to make an estimate (times the number of deaths by four, as the end of March is a quarter of the way through the year), it can be estimated that if the current rate of deaths as a result of mass shootings continues, the death toll by the end of 2019 would be 380. If this were to be the case, then this would be a further 12% increase on the number of people killed by mass shootings in 2018. Overall, these statistics illustrate that despite the numbers of deaths as a result of gun violence decreasing over the past 25 years, they have increased in the last few years. This, combined with the fact that the number of mass shooting deaths has increased, as well as the severity of mass shootings, illustrates that gun violence is indeed a concern in contemporary US society.
The Second Amendment
One of the more commonly talked about aspects of US law, when talking about violence, is the Second Amendment. As a result of this, it is important to briefly outline what is meant by the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and what this means for contemporary US society. The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights was passed by congress in 1789 and was finally ratified in 1791 (Lund & Winkler, n.d.). Essentially this amendment enables US citizens the right to ‘bear arms’ and own a firearm. It was originally introduced so as to enable citizens to protect themselves from the possibility of tyranny from the state’s military. However, it is commonly accepted in contemporary society, that personal firearms would be ineffective in such an event and as a result of this the right to ‘bare arms’ is seen as being in place for citizens ‘to defend against common criminals’ (Lund & Winkler, n.d.).
To conclude, after considering the statistics relating to violent crime in the US, it becomes apparent that there clearly is a cause for concern relating to the levels of violence. This is due to the increasing levels of violent crime in recent years, including violent crime using a firearm, and the increase in casualties as a result of mass shootings. As well as this, the level of homicide present in the United States compared to other western nations is a cause for concern. However, although I admit there should rightfully be concern over the levels of violence in the United States, this does not justify the often over the top panic and fear expressed by politicians, citizens and most importantly the media. Now that we have established that there is a problem of a high level of violence in the US, we must turn our attention to how the state responds to such violence.
Chapter Two – A Response to Violence
One of the major responses to the issue of gun violence in particular is to call for, in essence, an amendment to the Second Amendment and introduce stricter gun laws, making it more difficult for certain individuals to get hold of certain types of guns. This chapter will mostly be focused on showing evidence of a shift in the United States from being predominantly opposed to the introduction of such laws, to a sizeable proportion of politicians being for them. Following on from this, several academic pieces of literature will be used to make sense of why such a change has occurred.
A Move Towards Control
Although the idea of controlling guns in America is not a new idea, it has in the last decade gained momentum as a force for reducing the amount of violent crime in the US. This is particularly the case with the Democratic Party who have come together in recent years to make stricter gun laws a party priority (Bernstein, 2019). This was particularly evident when Barack Obama came into office for his second term in 2012, himself being a big advocate of gun law reform. As was mentioned previously, in 2016 he made a passionate plea for background check loopholes to be closed (Roberts et al, 2016), hence making it more difficult for certain ‘dangerous’ individuals to possess a firearm. Although this was not a speech calling for a new law to limit who can own a gun, it certainly provided a platform on which the Democratic Party could use to push on further for stricter gun laws. Fast forward three years and we are greeted by a headline from The Guardian stating that the ‘House passes first major gun control legislation in nearly quarter of a century’ (Smith, 2019). This is in relation to the United States’ House of Representatives passing legislation that would mean mandatory background checks for people purchasing firearms. Again, a measure that aims to keep guns out of the hands of those people in society deemed most ‘risky’. The journalist reporting on this new legislation describes it as ‘addressing a national epidemic of gun violence’ (Smith, 2019). The future of the Democratic party seems just as focused on using gun control as the predominant form of tackling gun crime, with anti-gun activist Mark Kelly running for Senate in 2020, highlighting that stricter gun laws are his top priority (Bernstein, 2019).
A Global Response
Although the main focus of this piece is America, the same trend in support for gun control as a primary way of dealing with violence can be seen across the globe. At the time of writing, a most awful atrocity has taken place involving a gunman at a mosque in New Zealand, killing 49 and injuring a further 48 people (BBC, 2019). Within three days of this horrific attack occurring, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jarcinda Ardern, announced that she and her cabinet had already decided to introduce stricter gun laws to stop such an atrocity happening again (Telegraph, 2019). This ended up being a ban on semi-automatic weapons (Telegraph, 2019). This response is hardly surprising, as the United States is very often the country followed when it comes to penal decisions. This was illustrated most prominently with the ‘war on drugs’, which started in America but was soon adopted around the world (Christie, 2000). Overall, it seems as though the ‘common sense’ approach in dealing with violent crime is to enforce stricter gun regulations.
Despite this recent increase in the popularity of gun control as a primary form of managing violent crime with politicians, it is not a new idea. Gun control has been a form of control for as long as firearms themselves, originating in 15th century Europe. Guns have always been associated with power, and originally gun control was strictly enforced against the lower classes in order to prevent them from staging a rebellion against the state/monarch. This was achieved by not allowing citizens below a certain level of income from owning a firearm (DeConde, 2001). However, the recent rise in support for these measures is most likely the result of several other different factors. These factors will be extensively discussed in the section that follows.
One of the major influencers of contemporary political policy is public opinion, and this is also true as far as firearm control measures are concerned too (Kleck, 1990). Although the level of public support for gun control has decreased over the past fifty years, it has often spiked in the immediate aftermath of atrocities involving firearms (Kleck, 1990; Wozniak, 2017). In recent times, this level of support has been extremely impassioned, as was especially true in the March for our Lives protests that occurred around the world in March 2018. These protests took place in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting and there were protest sites in hundreds of locations in America, including a march containing half a million people in Washington, as well as around 700 further marches worldwide (Beckett & Laughland, 2018). This illustrates the true extent to which people passionately support the need for greater gun control, which in turn puts massive amounts of pressure on politicians to make these changes. The effect of public opinion can also be seen in the actions of politicians with the most supported aspect of gun control being universal background checks (Wozinak, 2017), and this is the aspect that politicians often aim to achieve. It is also important to question why public support for stricter gun laws peaks after mass shootings, and then gradually declines as the memories of such atrocities fade.
In order to explain why public opinion on gun control often heightens in the aftermath of an atrocity, we need to look at a large influencer in contemporary society, the media. Stanley Cohen (2002) discusses the role the media play in the aftermath of criminal events in his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. He explains how, often the media amplify the problem of the crime that has occurred, and as a result of this, panic is spread through society because society’s values are perceived to have been threatened. After this panic has occurred, it is not uncommon for the politicians and policy makers to introduce measures to reinforce the societal values and reduce the chances of such events occurring again (Cohen, 2002). Cohen (2002) used an example of a fairly minor criminal event when explaining the effects of a moral panic, however this same principle can also be used in the case of more serious offences, such as violence with guns. It is undeniable how serious offences like this are, but despite the large levels of panic such events cause, they are still incredibly rare, as demonstrated in the previous chapter. This is also illustrated by Kleck (1990) when he states that in 1985 there were 31,600 deaths as a result of gun violence. However, he then goes on to state that in the year previous it was estimated that there were 93,329 deaths caused as a result of medical negligence (Kleck, 1990). It is clear that this doesn’t cause quite the same level of panic as gun violence, despite killing three times as many people, and this is due to the way the media amplify the issue of gun violence when reporting such incidents. Burns & Crawford (1999) explain how a moral panic followed several school shootings in the late 1990s. They explain that, as a result of the media, parents’ fear of sending their children to school spread through the communities, despite schools remaining the safest place for children to be. In the aftermath of this moral panic, legislation was passed to punish violent criminals more severely (Burns & Crawford, 1999), although in more recent cases legislation for the stricter control of firearms has been passed. Moreover, it is arguably much more likely that a moral panic occurs in modern society, because news is spread so quickly, with the invention of social media. This means that the fear and panic can spread through society, to encompass the majority of society, extremely quickly. This further increases the chance of politicians legislating in the aftermath of a moral panic.
However, why is the response of the politicians in the form of gun control, and not the introduction of other penal measures? Maybe this can be related to a much wider change that has occurred in the American Criminal Justice System. This change has been coined by Feeley and Simon (1994) as a move from ‘the old penology’ to ‘the new penology’. They state that ‘the old penology’ was concerned with why individual offenders had committed certain crimes, and individually punishing said offenders in a bid to reduce future offending, often by using techniques such as rehabilitation. However, they argue that the Criminal Justice System has moved away from this model of dealing with crime and has instead shifted to a more actuarial and managerial method of dealing with criminal offences. This ‘new penology’ is much more concerned with categorizing offenders as being a certain level of ‘dangerousness’ and then seeking to manage these offenders. Hence, making it more difficult for them to commit offences, as opposed to solving the problems that led to the individuals committing the crimes in the first place. This method of dealing with crime is much more focused on protecting the public, rather than eliminating crime altogether (Feeley & Simon, 1994). There are definitely some parallels that can be drawn between this shift in the Criminal Justice System as a whole and the rise in using gun control as a method of trying to manage the problem of violent crime. Managing guns in general, as well as which ‘risky’ individuals shouldn’t be able to own a gun, is in much the same vein as ‘the new penology’ with its focus on making it harder for individuals to commit crimes, and managing the risk of crimes being committed, as opposed to looking at the reasons why the violent crime has occurred.
David Garland (2001) added to this in his book The Culture of Control, by looking at a fundamental shift in the way we think about criminality. He writes that ‘the criminological ideas that shaped policy during the post-war period were an eclectic mix of abnormal psychology and sociological theories such as anomie, relative deprivation, subcultural theory and labelling’. Whereas, ‘the theories that now shape official thinking and action are control theories of various kinds that deem crime and delinquency to be problems not of deprivation but of inadequate controls’ (Garland, 2001: 15). Essentially, we have moved from thinking of criminals as committing crimes as a result of sociological or psychological reasons, to thinking of criminals as committing crimes because they consciously choose to participate in criminal activities. This theoretical shift towards neo-classicism can also be seen in other areas of dealing with crime. For example, sentencing has shifted from focusing on individual offenders, to the act that has been committed. This is evident with the introduction of sentencing tables, where judges are given less discretion to sentence based on the situation of individual offenders, and more based on simply the severity of the crime committed (Christie, 2000). As a result of this, the response to crime has shifted from being an expert based correctional approach, to an approach based on the tightening of control and focus on acts as opposed to individual offenders (Garland, 2001). Garland (2001) explains that this shift happened for two main reasons. Firstly, high crime rates came to be realised as a normal part of social life. As well as this, the state acknowledged that it had a limited ability to be able to deal with the problem of crime. As a result of both of these factors, ‘crime has come to be regarded as an everyday risk that must be routinely assessed and managed in much the same way that we have come to deal with road traffic’ (Garland, 2001: 106). This again can explain why the political preference has shifted towards tightening the control on guns, as opposed to targeting the real issues driving the large levels of violent crime in the US.
Overall, various leading Democrat politicians in the US believe that the way to deal with the problem of violent crime and particularly violence with guns, is to restrict the ability of certain members of society from purchasing firearms. Although this is often considered to be the ‘common sense’ approach for dealing with this issue, it is not above criticism. The next chapter will focus on looking at why the idea of gun control may not be quite as useful as it first appears.
Chapter Three: A Limitation of Gun Control
There have been many critiques of gun control, although the majority have been politically based. I intend to provide a critique which is based more in criminology. In this chapter, the critique I will be proposing will be outlined, and to complement this, theoretical ideas present in the criminological literature outlining the causes of violent offending will be expressed.
The Problem with Gun Control
Although it is often seen as being an effective way of limiting the amount of violent crime in the US, there is one key element of the offending that the policy doesn’t take into account. Like many of the principles present in ‘the new penology’, the countless theories for why violent crime occurs are not taken into account. Therefore, this method of crime control doesn’t seek to identify and address the root causes of the offending, and only focusses on managing the criminal act. This means that it is unlikely to be effective in reducing the level of offending, because the root problem causing this violent crime has not been solved. If this root cause has not been solved, then it is likely that this violent offending will still take place, even if with another form of weapon as opposed to a firearm. There are a wide variety of theories for why violent offending takes place, and several of these will be outlined in the section that follows. Theories of offending can be split into three main paradigms: sociological, psychological and biological. Theories from each of these categories will be explored and then alternative approaches to dealing with violent crime, other than gun control, will be put forward.
Sociological Theories of Violence
The first sociological theory of violent criminality that will be outlined is strain theory. This was formulated by Robert Merton (1938) and essentially suggests that delinquency is the result of the inability of certain groups of society being able to achieve certain cultural goals. Rather than being based on the individual committing the criminal acts, strain theory ‘insists that the impulse to commit crime is normal and socially induced’ (Young, 1981: 277). Young (1981) goes on to say that ‘deviance, then, is seen to be the result of a disjunction between the culturally induced aspirations of individuals and the structurally determined opportunities’ (Young, 1981: 280). When the theory was originally formulated, the aspiration discussed was usually a financial one, although subsequent uses of strain theory have added other areas of unattainable aspiration. For example, Albert Cohen (1971) expresses how groups of working-class youths, who are unable to attain the middle-class aspirations that society forces upon them, may come together to form subcultures to rebel against these middle-class methods of gaining status (Cohen, 1971). This may result in groups of youths forming and offending together in ways which enhance their social status. One of the ways in which this higher social status may be achieved is through actions of violence. Hence, this shows how sociological factors may lead to violent offending taking place.
Furthermore, a more recent strand of strain theory was developed by Robert Agnew (1985). He explains how the blockage of pain-avoidance behaviour, as well as the blockage of goals, can lead to delinquency. He uses this to explain why the majority of violent offending, and offending in general, is committed by younger people, often in their teens. He explains how ‘adolescents are often placed in aversive situations from which they legally cannot escape. This blockage of pain-avoidance behaviour frustrates the adolescent and may lead to illegal escape attempts or anger-based delinquency’ (Agnew, 1985: 154). For example, teenagers may be subject to verbal abuse from a teacher at school, or physical abuse from a parent at home. However, because of their age, it is legally difficult for them to escape these situations and therefore avoid the pain they cause. As a result of this blockage of pain-avoidance behaviour, an individual may become frustrated and angry, and commit violent offences, including an offence against the person causing the blockage (Agnew, 1985).
Finally, another sociological theory of violence has been provided by many of the feminist criminological writers. They argue that the reason why the majority of violent offenders are men is because of the patriarchal society we live in. They would also argue that violence committed by men towards women is as a result of men asserting their dominance over women (Levi & Maguire, 2002).
Biological Theories of Violence
As well as the sociological theories expressed above, there are also several more individualistic theories based on the individual offender committing the act. One area of this positivistic approach is based in biology. Biological theories of criminality were first introduced by Lombroso in the mid-19th century, with them originally focussing on physical features of offenders. It started out with the idea of the ‘born criminal’, as opposed to crime being committed as a result of either individual choice or social structure. Some of the earliest theories focused on the size of offender’s skulls, when compared to non-offenders, as well as suggestions that criminals could be less evolved than people who didn’t commit crimes (Williams, 2008). However, there are several more recent biological theories of criminality, including violent offending, which will be set out in this section.
Firstly, the science of genetics has been related to criminality. This is the theory that people are more likely to become criminals if members of their family are criminals, because criminality is in their genes. There have been several studies conducted to try and prove the link between genetics and crime and one of the most well-known ones was by Christiansen (1974). He studied sets of twins, both identical (monozygotic) and non-identical (dizygotic). The reasoning behind this was that monozygotic twins are genetically identical, whereas dizygotic twins are not. He found that if one twin was a criminal offender, then the other twin was more likely to be an offender if they were identical twins, as opposed to non-identical twins (Christiansen, 1974). There have been various other studies to prove such a link, including adoption studies, designed to remove the environmental factors at play, leaving the biological ones, to prove that criminality is genetic (Williams, 2008).
Furthermore, more specifically to violent offending, the levels of certain hormones in an individual’s body has been linked to their likelihood of committing a violent crime. One example of this is the study of testosterone levels and violent criminality. Archer (1994) studied a group of violent prisoners and compared their testosterone levels to individuals who hadn’t been convicted of a violent offence. He found that the level of testosterone in the bodies of the violent offenders was higher than that of the non-violent individuals (Archer, 1994). The theory of violent offenders being violent as a result of high levels of testosterone is also regularly used to explain why the majority of violent crime is committed by men (because men have higher levels of testosterone than women), and why it is committed by younger individuals (because the level of testosterone in one’s body decreases with age) (Williams, 2008).
One final biological theory as to why violent offenders offend is to do with the metabolization of glucose. A study by Raine et al (1994) illustrated that violent offending is related to the ability of an individual’s prefrontal cortex to metabolise glucose. This was conducted by taking a group of convicted murders, as well as a control group, and giving them an intake of glucose. The findings were that the convicted murderers had a lower rate of glucose metabolism than the control group (Raine et al, 1994). It is therefore suggested that the likelihood of an offender committing a violent offence is related to an individual’s ability to metabolise glucose.
Psychological Theories of Violence
In addition to biological theories of criminality, and violent criminality, another positivistic paradigm is the psychological one. This focuses much more on the mind of an offender and uses this to explain why an offender behaves the way they do.
Firstly, one such theory is the theory that certain personality traits make certain individuals more likely to commit crimes. This theory was developed by Eysenck (2003), and he explained how there were three main dimensions of personality: Extraversion, psychoticism and neuroticism. He states that the level of cortical arousal of an individual is different depending on which personality trait an individual relates most to, with high levels of extroversion and psychoticism having a low level of cortical arousal. As opposed to focussing on why offenders commit crimes, Eysenck (2003) chooses to focus on why the majority of individuals do not commit criminal offences. He states that when young, an individual is conditioned into developing a conscience through being rewarded for good behaviour and punished for bad behaviour. However, he states that individuals with a lower level of cortical arousal are less likely to be efficiently conditioned when younger and may therefore be more likely to go on and commit crimes when older. He therefore suggests that individuals who have a high level of the personality traits of extraversion and psychoticism are more likely to commit crimes than those who have low levels of these personality traits (Eysenck, 2003).
Another psychological theory of criminality is that certain violent offenders have mental illnesses, specifically personality disorders. This is often a theory used for the most serious violent offenders. Stone (2003) looked through 293 homicide cases and ranked them in order of the severity of the homicide. He found that for the most serious of offences (including sexual homicide and torture), 93% of offenders were described as having a sadistic personality disorder (Stone, 2003). He also goes on to explain how the majority of the most serious offenders suffered from schizoid personality disorder and that ‘many of the most brutal murders or crimes of torture were carried out by offenders who were totally bereft of human feeling’ (Stone, 2003: 349). This demonstrates the theory that a lot of the more serious violent offences are committed because the offender suffers from a severe psychological illness.
It is impossible to express all the theories and factors that are often cited as being related to violent crime, and the purpose of this chapter is to give a flavour of the wide range of causes that have been expressed for violent behaviour occurring. The purpose of doing this is to express that despite there being a considerable amount of literature expressing reasoning for why violent offending occurs, none of this is taken into account when looking to reduce violent offending through the implementation of stricter gun laws. My point is that politicians should be looking at the root causes of violent offending, whether these be sociological, psychological or biological, and solving these problems, as opposed to simply trying to make it more difficult for individuals to commit violent offences. This means that maybe certain violent offenders should be rehabilitated in order to reduce future offending, if their offending has been seen to have been influenced by psychological or biological factors. Or changes to the structuring of society may be seen as being necessary if the offence has been committed as a result of sociological factors. Now that several theories of violent offending have been looked at, we shall turn our attention to a theory that is often overlooked in much of the criminological literature.
Chapter Four: A Violent Society
Various theories for the existence of violent offending have been explained in the last chapter. However, how accurate are these theories in explaining why violent offenders commit the crimes they commit? Of course, the theories may explain why people become aggressive as a result of biological or sociological triggers, but do they really explain why the output of this aggression is the harming of fellow human beings? I believe the reason for this output of aggression is due to a much deeper issue than the ideas expressed above. I believe it is due to the violent nature of the US society.
This chapter will be dedicated to explaining the reasons why I believe the US society to be a violent one. This will be done by looking at how the US government deals with individuals they see as being problematic, both nationally and internationally. After this has been achieved, I will turn my attention to explaining how this may lead to the high levels of violent crime, and indeed gun violence, that is present in US society. Therefore, this chapter is an attempt to both criticise the introduction of stricter gun laws, as well as criticising some of the mainstream theories explaining violent offending, as laid out in the previous chapter.
The Language of Violence
One of the first things to note, when considering the deeply rooted violence in US society, is the language used. Specifically, the language used by politicians, as well as the media and general population, when talking about tackling crime. The language used when referring to methods of dealing with criminality is often violent. An example of this is the powerful speech that Richard Nixon gave when he declared the ‘war on drugs’ in June 1971 (A Brief History of the Drug War, 2019). Using the word ‘war’ implies that the response to the drug issue in the US is going to be a violent one. Furthermore, the use of this kind of language when talking about crime is not just from those at the top of society, as whenever one is reading or watching the news, there is always the talk of ‘fighting’ crime, again another violent word when talking about the response to crimes. This word is so common place in both the US and UK societies when talking about criminal activity that I originally talked of the ‘fight against violent crime’ in my research question and had to change this to more appropriate language for this piece of work. Overall, the language used by those in the US society implies that the response to crime will be a violent one, and as we shall see, this indeed turns out to be the case.
The most obvious example of the violent response to crime in the US is capital punishment. Capital punishment is, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary: ‘Punishment by death, as ordered by a legal system’ (Cambridge Dictionary, n.d.). The US is one of the few countries in the western world to still use the death penalty as the most serious form of punishment. The number of people sentenced to death in the US, as well as the number of people executed and the method of execution, varies between US states. The most common method is the use of a lethal injection, however, in certain states other methods may be used such as death by firing squad or hanging (Bureau of Justice, 2018). Although the number of prisoners on death row has decreased over the last twenty years, in 2016 (when the last available figures are from) 2,814 prisoners found themselves waiting for death. 20 people were executed in the year 2016 (Bureau of Justice, 2018). Although 20 people may not seem a lot, this is 20 human beings who have had their life taken from them by the US state. As well as being willing to take fellow human’s lives, the US state doesn’t seem to particularly care how painful this event is for the recipient. While writing this chapter I came across the court case of a prisoner on death row, challenging the way he was to be executed. Russell Bucklew suffers from a rare disease, that means that death as a result of lethal injection would be very painful. Because of this, he asked to be executed by nitrogen gas instead, however the US state declined this request, and seem happy for his death to be a painful one (Foa, 2019). This demonstrates that not only do those at the top of US society react violently to crime by killing criminal offenders but are arguably more violent because of their lack of empathy in the pain felt by their prisoners. Although this is often considered the most violent response to crime, there is a more prevalent response to the issue of crime, that also causes great amounts of harm to offenders in the US.
The Harm of Imprisonment
This more common response to crime is imprisonment. Although imprisonment may not impose the same level of physical violence on an individual as capital punishment, it definitely inflicts pain on an individual. Christie (2007) describes imprisonment as being a form of ‘pain delivery’ and goes on to say that prisoners ‘are filled with sadness at the simple fact that life is passing by without their participation’ (Christie, 2007: 17). A further description of the pain that is inflicted through imprisonment is given by Gresham Sykes (1958) in his book The Society of Captives. He describes five deprivations as a result of imprisonment that cause the prisoners pain. These are the deprivation of: liberty, autonomy, heterosexual relationships, security, and goods and services (Sykes, 1958). Although this book was written a long time ago, several of these deprivations are still relevant today. Now we have established that the use of imprisonment is essentially the intentional infliction of pain on an individual, we shall turn our attention to the use of imprisonment in the United States.
The prison population in the US is astronomical. Between 1970 and 2001 it grew from around 300,000 to being over 2 million (Mauer, 2001). David Garland (2001) has labelled this phenomenon as being ‘mass incarceration’. Garland (2001) explains the use of this term is due to the development of a large prison population in the US, when compared to similar societies. For example, the prison population in the US is six to ten times larger than that of the European and Scandinavian countries. Garland (2001) also states that imprisonment has become normalised for certain sections of society, specifically young black men in the US. Because of this, going to prison, for these groups of people, is not a rare occurrence (Garland, 2001). Despite the prison population not increasing since 2001, it has not decreased either; in 2016 it was over 2.1 million in size, and prisons contained 655 people per 100,000 of the population (World Prison Brief, n.d.). This increase in the size of the prison population means that more individuals are having harm purposely inflicted upon them by the US state. As well as the number of individuals being subject to what Christie (2007) labels ‘pain delivery’ increasing, it can also be argued that the severity of the pain caused has increased. This is for two reasons. Firstly, new prisons have been designed in the US for the most serious offenders, called supermax prisons. These maximum-security prisons limit the amount of interaction between prisoners and prison guards, by using technology to open and close cell doors. As well as this, prisoners often spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells in this type of prison (Christie, 2000). Secondly, for more minor offenders, the problem is the opposite: a lack of privacy. This is due to the large levels of overcrowding that occur in many US prisons as a result of the dramatic rise in the prison population (Christie, 2000). Both of these features of contemporary imprisonment in the US clearly cause even more pain on the imprisoned than is already inflicted on them through imprisonment in the first place.
As has just been stated, the prison population, and therefore the level of harm inflicted by the state, increased dramatically between 1970 and 2001. But why was there such a dramatic change? Although the obvious explanation for such a change would be to point to an increase in the level of offending, this explanation does not stick. The level of crime actually decreased as the level of imprisonment increased (Christie, 2000). The real reason for this increase in the prison population is through a political choice to sentence more people to prison, and for longer. This was particularly true in the aforementioned ‘war on drugs’. People involved in the distribution of drugs were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. This was demonstrated in the most extreme case when a mandatory sentence was introduced meaning ‘the sale of 650 grams of heroin or cocaine, even for a first-time offender, be punished by a mandatory sentence of life without parole, the same penalty as for first degree murder’ (Mauer, 2001: 6). Mauer (2001) then goes on to explain that ‘the impact of these sentencing changes on prison populations has been dramatic, and far outweighs any change in crime rates as a contributing factor’ (Mauer, 2001: 6). This suggests that the level of imprisonment was increased as a result of choice, as opposed to any other factor. Therefore, the US state chose to inflict the pains of imprisonment on more individuals.
Overall, though not a physical form of violence like capital punishment, imprisonment does still inflict pain and harm on those imprisoned. In addition to this, the infliction of this pain has been more widespread, and arguably more severe in recent times in US society.
Therefore, the high levels of imprisonment in the US further show that the US state responds in a violent and harmful way to people it perceives as being problematic.
The above examples of violence and harm by the US state have been in response to national problems. But the response to international problems is no less violent. This international reaction is often in response to terrorism. One of the most talked about terror attacks of the last few decades is 9/11. In response to this terrorist attack, the immediate reaction of the US government was a violent one. This reaction was the decision to start ‘The War on Terrorism’ that involved military action in Iraq and Afghanistan (Jackson, 2019). This violent response to terrorism has continued, with military action continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Syria, Libya and Yemen. This more recent military action includes the 26,171 bombs that were dropped by the US government in 2016 (Benjamin, 2017), as was stated in the introduction of this piece. This therefore illustrates that the violent response to problems by the US state is not simply reserved for national matters, it is also the preferred response on the international stage.
Now it has been established that the response of the US state to problems such as crime is often a violent and harmful one, it is important to ask why this is the case. Clearly purposely inflicting pain on other human beings is a morally problematic thing to do, and yet it happens so regularly in US society. There are several justifications given for the use of punishment, ranging from retribution, to more utilitarian justifications such as rehabilitation and deterrence (Cavadino et al., 2013). However, it seems as though none of these justifications can truly justify this punishment, because of the harm it causes people. Maybe the reason the US society is so willing to act in a way so morally problematic is because of the way society is structured. In such a large social system, like that of the United States, the citizens of the country do not own their conflicts, such as those arising from crimes. These are delegated to the state for them to deal with (Christie, 1977). The state then decides the punishment to be administered for certain parties in a conflict, and increasingly so with the introduction of sentencing tables and mandatory sentencing. However, the state maintains its distance from the conflict by delegating the responsibility of administering the pain to other individuals, namely the judges, prison workers, and soldiers. Because the people deciding on the administration of pain are so distant from the actual delivery of pain, this means that it is easier for them to decide to administer greater levels of pain. As for the individuals inflicting the pain, they are simply following orders (Christie, 2007). This explains why, despite being morally problematic, a violent response to problems in society is often carried out.
Implications of Violence
So, what are the implications of the state dealing with their problems in violent ways? As well as being morally problematic, this violent response could be a cause of the high levels of violence throughout US society. If members of the US society see their leaders responding to national problems by harming individuals, then maybe they will seek to solve their own problems in much the same way. This is expressed by Howard Zehr (1990), when he explains that although the death penalty is often cited as being used to deter people from violence, the opposite is often true. It encourages individuals that violence is the correct way to deal with their problems, and that people who have wronged them deserve to be killed (Zehr, 1990). The ironic thing is, that the US state often tries to solve the problem of violence by the means expressed in this chapter. But in reality, maybe the response of the state makes the problem of violence worse. As Richard Quinney (1991) once said ‘without peace within us and in our actions, there can be no peace in our results. Peace is the way’ (Quinney, 1991: 12), and maybe this lack of a peace-making response to problems in the US is why there is no peace in their results.
The most obvious way to deal with this problem is for the state to change the way in which it deals with crime. Maybe ‘instead of making war, crime control and criminology should be making peace’ (Elias, 1991: 252). This clearly means reducing the amount of people subject to state inflicted pain, including reducing the prison population. The US should also challenge the way it reacts to the most serious atrocities. Rather than reacting with immediate hatred and division, it should react with love and unity, much in the same way as Norway reacted to the atrocity there in 2011 (Christie, 2013). Furthermore, instead of instantly reacting violently to a situation like 9/11, the state should initially try to start a dialogue with the perpetrators, in order to try and make peace as oppose to start war (Christie, 2004). However, as proposed by Christie (1977), maybe it is not my job as a criminologist to give specific examples of policies that could be introduced to improve the situation in the US. Perhaps my job is simply to demonstrate that there is a problem with the way things are at the moment, and this can then be acted on by the policy makers and politicians.
The Future of State Inflicted Pain
I am pessimistic about there being a decrease in the level of pain that is inflicted by the US government. The main reason for this is because of advances in technology. Technology increases the distance between the individuals inflicting the pain and those receiving it, as demonstrated earlier in this chapter with the introduction of supermax prisons. Further innovations in technology will mean that prison guards will have even less contact with prisoners, and as a result of this, ‘pain delivery’ will become easier. This is the same for warfare, with drones becoming a large part of contemporary military action. Because people are not directly involved in the killing of human beings when using drones, it makes such killings easier to carry out. However, maybe the future will not be so bleak. The 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made it a top priority of his to reduce the prison population by ending the ‘war on drugs’ (Sanders, 2019). This would certainly be a step in the right direction in trying to reduce the level of state inflicted violence in the US.
To conclude, the US society is naturally a violent one. This is because the way the state responds to problems such as crime, nationally and internationally, is with the infliction of harm upon both its citizens and the inhabitants of other countries. Because of this, citizens of the US may also react violently to problems in their own lives, and this may lead to the high levels of violent crime in the US. Because of this, maybe stricter laws concerning guns use are not what is needed in the US. Maybe a better response would be to challenge and alter the violent methods that are often deployed by the state in order to solve problems. Such a change would require a change of attitude from those at the top of the society, and after such a change has occurred, the mentality of those throughout society will change with it.
It is now time for us to return to the question I posed at the beginning of this dissertation: ‘How useful are stricter gun laws in dealing with the issue of violent crime in the US?’ My hypothesis stated that while the implementation of gun laws would be useful, it would not be the only step required in order to solve the problem of violence.
Now that the literature-based research has been set out, it appears as though this hypothesis was reasonably accurate. I cannot deny that gun control would have an effect on violent offending. Making it harder for certain individuals to obtain certain types of weapons, especially guns with a high rate of fire, may mean that the severity of mass-violent events decreases. However, overall, I do not believe that the introduction of stricter gun laws will have a significant effect on the levels of violent crime in the US. This is because the introduction of such laws would not address the underlying problems that lead to violent offending occurring. We have seen that there are many different theories for why violent offending occurs, based in the psychological, sociological and biological paradigms. However, from the research presented, it appears as though the problem of violence is a much deeper problem than this in US society. Violence, as a way of solving one’s problems, is deeply rooted in US society, as a result of the actions of those at the top of society. The US state reacts violently to problems on both the national and international stages, causing great amounts of harm on individuals and groups of people. This violence is both physical, with the existence of capital punishment and high levels of military action, but also psychological, through the large rates of imprisonment in the US. As a result of this, individuals throughout society believe the appropriate response to their problems is through actions of violence, hence the high levels of violent crime in the US. The introduction of gun control does not seek to address these factors that lead to the US being a violent society, and as a result of this, violent acts will continue to be carried out, even if carried out with weapons other than guns. Cultural change, as opposed to the introduction of stricter gun laws, is necessary in order to truly solve the problem of violence in the United States.
I feel as though this study critiquing gun control has been a success, however, there are areas in which it could be improved. Firstly, more research could be conducted into the differences in the uses of violence by the state between countries. Although this area has been touched upon in this dissertation, a more detailed account would be useful. Furthermore, another of these improvements is an area of interest that could be researched in the future to further support the points I have made. In this dissertation I have only focussed on the way in which the US state uses violence against human subjects. However, maybe there are other non-human subjects who are also treated in a violent nature by the government of the United States. This includes the large levels of harm and violence that are inflicted upon animals, as well as our planet. This would require researching into an area of criminology labelled ‘green criminology’. Such research would both be interesting and insightful, possibly providing further evidence to suggest that the US is a violent society. Overall though, I believe this dissertation has successfully demonstrated the limitations of gun control through determining that the US is culturally a violent society.
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