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Why Do Americans Own So Many Guns?

David Langness | Jul 4, 2023

PART 4 IN SERIES Guns and Religion

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Jul 4, 2023

PART 4 IN SERIES Guns and Religion

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

Americans own far more guns than the citizens of any other nation on Earth – shockingly, American civilians have more handguns and long guns than all of the world’s armed forces combined. Why?

To search for an answer to that question, let’s start with understanding the actual statistics, by looking at the most recent breakdown of global gun ownership from a trusted international source – an independent, non-partisan research project called the Small Arms Survey, or SAS, located at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

RELATED: The Worship of Guns and the Decline of Religion

Gun Ownership Around the World

In 2018, the most recent survey year, the SAS reported that over one billion small arms existed globally – and that 857 million of those weapons (about 85 per cent) were in civilian hands. 

U.S. civilians alone, the survey reported, accounted for 393 million (about 46 per cent – almost half) of the worldwide total of civilian-held firearms in 2018. This amounts, they calculated, to “120.5 firearms for every 100 residents.” 

All of the military forces in the world, the SAS reports, control approximately 133 million small arms. (The term “small arms” doesn’t refer to the size of the gun – instead, it refers to handheld weapons, including handguns and long guns.)

This means that the American population of approximately 334 million people – which makes up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population – owns three times as many small arms as all of the world’s militaries. That basic fact, above all others, helps explain why the gun-related death toll in the United States is exponentially higher than any other developed nation.

America: Armed to the Teeth

We Americans, for whatever reasons, have armed ourselves to the teeth. Let’s see if we can figure out why.

Variously, analysts from all corners of the political spectrum have attributed the reasons for the extremely high levels of American gun ownership to our nation’s violent past history, to the Constitution’s Second Amendment, to hyper-masculinity, to crime rates producing the perceived need for personal protection, to the erosion of white male hegemony, to the needs of rural hunters, or even to recreation purposes like target shooting. Pundits have gone to great lengths to try to understand and explain this very singular social phenomena of gun culture in the United States, offering multiple reasons and rationales, but there is little agreement about its causes among dozens of differing interpretations.

Beyond all of these contributing factors, American gun ownership, in a larger context, can be seen as a symptom of our lack of a sense of community. If we felt safe rather than threatened, unified rather than terrified, would we still need so many weapons?

RELATED: “That’s a Deadly Weapon You’re Holding,” Dad Said

Building a Better Sense of Community

Some Americans tend to see themselves as loners in a hostile world. The cowboy myth of rugged individualism, so fundamental to our nation’s psychology, feeds this view, as does our economic system, based on an every-man-for-himself, survival-of-the-fittest capitalism that sometimes seems to constantly pit one person against all other people. 

The Baha’i teachings view this dog-eat-dog Darwinian ethic as “the origin of all difficulties,” as Abdu’l-Baha wrote in The Asiatic Quarterly:

In the world of nature the greatest dominant note is the struggle for existence – the result of which is the survival of the fittest. The law of the survival of the fittest is the origin of all difficulties. It is the cause of war and strife, hatred and animosity between human beings. …

Therefore so long as the requirements of the natural world play paramount part among the children of men, success and prosperity are impossible; for the success and prosperity of the human world depend upon the qualities and virtues with which the reality of humanity is adorned while the exigencies of the natural world work against the realization of this object. –

He repeated this same theme in a talk he gave in Washington, DC in 1912:

In the world of nature we behold the living organisms in a ceaseless struggle for existence. Everywhere we are confronted by evidences of the physical survival of the fittest. This is the very source of error and misapprehension in the opinions and theories of men …

These messages assail the effects of the philosophy of pure Darwinism on humanity. Abdu’l-Baha went on to decry the strife and ignorance that arise from such a strictly materialistic self-conception – that we humans are only mere mammals whose struggle for existence inevitably pits us against one another. 

RELATED: Preventing Mass Shootings: Does Religion Have a Role?

Instead, Abdu’l-Baha wrote in his Tablet to the Hague, we human beings all have an eternal spiritual destiny, a God-given freedom from the dictates of nature that allows us to consciously decide to rise above the demands of our lower selves and animal instincts. In that seminal document, he even labeled the struggle for existence “the fountainhead of all calamities:”

… among the teachings of His Holiness Baha’u’llah is man’s freedom, that through the ideal power he should be free and emancipated from the captivity of the world of nature; for as long as man is captive to nature he is a ferocious animal, as the struggle for existence is one of the exigencies of the world of nature. This matter of the struggle for existence is the fountain-head of all calamities and is the supreme affliction.

When we begin thinking and acting as spiritual beings, rather than captives of the world of nature and its law of survival of the fittest, we can reach that “free and emancipated” state Abdu’l-Baha describes.

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