Newtown, Connecticut: The Suburbs Strike Again

The Ghetto It Ain't
The Ghetto It Ain’t

In the wake of yet another US mass shooting – and this time, featuring the murders of 20 small children, being particularly hard to understand – we see ourselves going through the same old rehearsed positions.

Step 1: Unite momentarily in expressing outrage.

Step 2: Select one of the following positions according to your stance:

Anti-gun: Blame it on the guns.

Pro-gun: Defend right to own guns as an important component of liberty, despite the obvious costs.

Gun-nut: Claim that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen if the teacher/janitor/children had been armed.

Step 3: Wait until the next inevitable shooting, and repeat.

It proves very difficult to conduct a discussion on why these events actually happen. You’ll be given a stock position: too many guns, or not enough guns, and any deviation from this agenda results in the debate being shut down.

Yet, take a step back from the heat and emotion of each immediate event and some statistical correlations can be easily made. To start with, the vast majority of these events happen in the United States, a country with less than 5% of the world’s population. That surely is significant. But dig deeper, and even stronger correlations are revealed.

The US actually appears to have two separate gun problems. The first accounts for most gun deaths: it is the carnage that takes place in the poor, mostly non-white inner-cities. This first problem seems easy to explain: poverty, lack of opportunity, disenfranchisement, and a highly profitable (and competitive) illegal drugs trade. The second consists of an epidemic of random mass shootings, as we saw in Connecticut last week. Look at these problems as a single issue, and the statistics are confusing; separate them, and perhaps things become clearer.

The inner-city shootings, accounting for the vast majority, cloud the statistics. Separate out Newtown-style events, and something else emerges. Here’s the weird thing: despite the fact that the vast majority of gun crime is carried out by poor non-whites in urban areas, these mass shootings are completely different. The perpetrators are almost entirely white, and middle-class.

Now let’s look at a couple of much bigger trends:

Trend 1: Urbanisation. for most of the 10,000 years of human civilisation, we have been increasingly inclined to urbanise; to move together into increasingly populous and compact cities. In 2007, for the first time, the majority of humans lived in cities.

Trend 2: Decline in Violence. It’s fashionable to believe that we live in dangerous times (often encouraged by authoritarians who profit from an increase in fear), yet violence has been on the decline for thousands of years. Indeed, there appears to be a direct correlation between urban living and the decline in violence. We tend to idealise ancient, rural lifestyles, but the realities are far more brutal than we imagine. Around 15% of deaths in primitive societies are violent, compared with 3% in states. And murder is estimated to have fallen between tenfold and 50-fold in Europe between the Middle Ages and the 20th century. These facts contrast heavily with the constant claims that mass murders are somehow a “product of modernity”.

And now here’s a third trend, over a shorter scale:

Trend 3: The Suburbanisation of America. The United States was following the same trend of urbanisation as Europe, although it was more rural than Europe. And then, along came the car. Although on paper, America continued to urbanise, in practise, its development skewed off the 10,000-year path of urbanisation. Cities are places where people are forced to live in close proximity to, and meet with, people unlike themselves. The suburbs allow people to cluster closer together than in rural communities, and yet never have to interact with each other. Big houses, bigger yards and – most importantly – cars, ensured that the civilising process of urbanisation almost ground to a halt. The peculiarly American behaviour of white flight accelerated this process. Civil rights frightened white Americans, and they took their families, and their cars, to the edges of the cities into the suburbs and – another American peculiarity – the Exurbs. Exurbs are rural communities under a new name.

The American suburbs are a paradox: modern on the surface, but able to maintain the ignorance and prejudices of rural communities that cities tend weaken and break down. America’s suburbs are bland, dull, soulless and allow ancient human fear, ignorance and prejudice to be preserved, under a civilised shell. They allow the frightened, the ignorant and the racist to ignore the places where human cultures are made: the big cities. Now you throw in gun ownership on a huge scale, and you get the same effect as if you flooded rural Africa with guns – that experiment too has been tried, with the inevitable, horrific results.

Here’s my prediction: the next school shooting will take place in a mostly white, middle-class suburb that looks just like 10,000 other places in America. The perpetrator will probably be white, but this isn’t a racial thing: as middle-class non-whites also head for the “safety” of the suburbs, the chance of a school shooting by a black, Asian or Latino person increases. The shooter won’t be a black or Latino gangster, nor will he be a gun-totin’ redneck.

I believe that restricting gun ownership will reduce these types of events, but certainly will not eliminate them. Thanks to the rise of the car, cheap oil, and suburbia, America lost its way almost a century ago. Only a return to high-density urban development, as the nation once achieved so spectacularly in Manhattan and Chicago, can complete the job of civilising its population.

12 thoughts on “Newtown, Connecticut: The Suburbs Strike Again”

  1. I am not sure I can go with your conclusion on this, although much of what you say before seems right. It seems obvious enough that crime levels in European cities are high, but probably not as high as those in US cities, simply because relative poverty levels in US cities is much higher, so people have less of a stake in society. It seems to me that one of the main “provocations” of crime is the disparity in wealth between nearby individuals (which you see much more clearly in US cities than in European ones). If you “cram” too many people into a small space, they will react, to try to give themselves space, and crime will increase. So I’m not convinced total urbanisation would work.

    Hand guns as such don’t cause crime, but they do “up the ante” on what happens as a result of that crime (ie more people get killed). You will no doubt recall the actions of Thomas Hamilton (I think) at Dunblane. This was followed by strong anti-gun legislation, and (happily) there has been no repeat in the UK since.

    In principle (at least in my view) there is nothing wrong with suburbs (I live in one). The problem is if those suburbs are created exclusively to cater for “white flight” (ie fear). In this context, the Indy reports that Adam Lanza’s mother was a “preppy survivalist” (someone who stockpiled guns, food, etc, in preparation for the breakdown of society). I imagine that this might have influenced a somewhat disturbed child (as Lanza appears to have been) badly.

    As ever, these are ideas for debate, so feel free.

    1. Thanks – some interesting points. I’m not sure that crime levels are that high in most European cities. I’ve always lived in London and never felt threatened. One change though is that, when I was a kid, the burbs were definitely safer than the inner city. The effect of gentrification has been to reverse that. Now the roughest parts of London are moving to the outskirts.

      1. I lived in London for many years and never felt threatened, and that paragraph should probably have read “crime levels in European cities are probably higher than in suburbs”, so fair comment. The only European city I can recall feeling threatened in is Naples. i tend to think that the biggest influence on crime levels (ie number of crimes) is income disparity, but access to guns hugely increases the seriousness of those crimes.

        I now live in Manchester, where the City has had a programme of building apartments (for the middle class) in the city centre. This has livened up the centre, but the “roughest elements” have moved into a “ring” area round it. To some extent this has been broken up by “pepperpotting” (where developers build a mixture of flats, some for sale and some for Housing Associations), and the “ring” is far from exact, but the policy of getting the centre “reinhabited” has worked pretty well.

        I think HermitLiberal’s comments may have been directed at me, so I will try and answer the (valid) points made. Firstly, I am happy to live in a country that has strict gun control laws, and hope the UK stays that way. I’ve only seen a gun pulled on one occasion, and that wasn’t loaded (it was a Hell’s Angel’s idea of a joke), and am very happy to keep it to that. I am certainly not arguing for more liberal UK gun laws.

        I suspect that most of the people who have shot someone would simply have committed a lesser crime (in the case of the police, probably beating up suspects in custody or similar).

        1. Yeah I’ve been to Naples. Rough place – though by far the worst risk is non-violent crime like pick pocketing (I caught someone with their hand in my pocket).

    2. I think your claim that handguns don’t cause crimes is a bit off. True, crimes such as robbery would be committed without the presence of handguns, but spontaneous crimes are more likely to occur with a gun in a home. In real world situations (ie not at a shooting range or at a hunt), a gun is more likely to be used in the commission of a crime or in an accidental shooting than in defense. Plus, recent studies suggest that people carrying guns are more likely to have an increased sense of confidence; confidence that is often misplaced, particularly in the face of the reality that anyone could be packing heat. Then we’ve got policemen, ‘responsible gun owners’ who are not only in a more trusted position than your average gun owner, but likely better trained in their proper use. With the slew of officer involved shootings against targets who, in all reality, should never have been fired upon by officers in the first place; we see that even our most responsible gun owners are highly prone to misuse of firearms. Of course, those police shootings are then often deemed necessary because the unarmed victim ‘might’ have had a gun. Every gun owned in America acts as a force multiplier in escalating the danger, and buying a gun does not increase your safety but put you at even greater at risk. Responsible gun owners; such a thing may exist in countries with civilized gun control laws, but in a firearm free for all country such as America, the very presence of a firearm on ones person denotes a lack of responsibility by failure to understand the all to real and documented statistics.

      1. I don’t think I claimed firearms don’t cause crimes. I just felt it useful to isolate this particular type of shooting from the others. I’m very happy to be living in a country with very few guns.

  2. Thanks, that’s a very interesting read, I am starting to think the downfall of our culture began with the automobile and continues to break us all apart.

    1. That’s not unexpected. The majority of violence everywhere is carried out by men. I wanted to look at what is unique about US school shootings, not what was standard.

  3. It seems to me that the singular characteristic of all these perpetrators of the mass shootings is that are marginalised individuals who have been humiliated by a system and a society that doesn’t really care for them. Further whereas perhaps up to the 1970’s there were places and roles for these dysfunctional males, these roles have disappeared. And there were a lot of very disturbed men about as a result of WW2, Korea and VietNam.
    In the English-speaking world it seems that from the late 1970’s manufacturing and craft skills that these men could find a role and function within at various levels, has not just simply disappeared but it has been denuded as a matter of policy. The Tories in the 1980’s believed that UK could survive on the service sector. (Now Cameron wants factories back! Whoops!)
    I suspect that we find these events so shocking because we don’t readily associate this type of incident with white middle-class males, and that reflects our general experience that they don’t usually pose a threat.
    Of course in the USA the accessibility of firearms is a major factor. But it is not simply a factor in these incidents. It is also a factor where women use firearms in domestic disputes.

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