The behavior of Americans is a subject of fascination to the rest of the world. Having American relatives, I must admit to being occasionally puzzled by their behavior. In the past, I have done my fair bit of pop anthropology in describing US culture as one based on commerce. However, when an old grad school roommate from Greece had too much to drink, he would tell me a more elaborate version of the American gothic which went something like this: "You know these Americans, Emmanuel. First they eat too much. So, they cannot fit in compact cars and have to buy hulking SUVs. To park these giant SUVs, they must in turn buy huge houses with huge garages. Having little savings, though, they need to borrow trillions from the Chinese."
Whatever you make of my old roommates' caricature, I'm thinking that if I gave him a ring in Athens, he'd add more to the story. Given the bursting of the housing bubble, many Americans have become unemployed, foreclosed, or any other number of undesirables in a highly financialized and commercialized society. Earlier, I posted in jest that Ozzy Osbourne may offer a way out for many overindebted Americans. It's no laughing matter that more seem to have followed this suggestion in a dark application of Americana. The Christian Science Monitor suggests there may be a link to unusually tough times:
Four Oakland, Calif., police officers shot down. An Alabama man strolling a small town with a rifle, looking for victims. Seven elderly people shot dead at a North Carolina nursing home. And on Sunday, six people, including four kids, died in an apparent murder-suicide in an upscale neighborhood in Santa Clara, Calif. The details in all these cases are still emerging. In most, the exact motive has yet to be determined – or may never be fully understood.Say what you will about American gun culture, but one thing you can count on is it not going away. Accordingly, the rather tasteless post title is not from me but a paraphrase of Reuters columnist Bernd Debusmann's latest missive on how Ruger and Smith & Wesson stocks are up bigtime early in 2009 while nearly all else is, ah, shot:
On a broader level, however, such incidents may be happening more often because an increasing number of Americans feel desperate pressure from job losses and other economic hardship, criminologists say. "Most of these mass killings are precipitated by some catastrophic loss, and when the economy goes south, there are simply more of these losses," says Jack Levin, a noted criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.
Direct correlation between economic cycles and homicides is difficult to prove, cautions Shawn Bushway, a criminologist at the University at Albany in New York. But an economic downturn of this breadth and depth hasn't been seen since data began to be collected after World War II, he also points out. "This is not the average situation," Mr. Bushway says.
Still, criminologists do say that certain kinds of violent crimes have risen during specific economic downturns. The recession in the early 1990s "saw a dramatic increase in workplace violence committed by vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss and their co-workers through the barrel of an AK-47," Mr. Levin says.
In the first two months of this year, around 2.5 million Americans bought guns, a 26 percent increase over the same period in 2008. It was great news for gun makers and a sign of a dark mood in the country. Gun sales shot up almost immediately after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential elections on November 4 and firearm enthusiasts rushed to stores, fearing he would tighten gun controls despite campaign pledges to the contrary.Isn't commerce grand? Just don't forget to, er, pack some heat. In all likelihood, this gun-buying spree is probably motivated by self-protection more than anything else, unfortunately feeding into a cycle of higher gun ownership and a higher probability of gun violence. For better or worse, guns are as American as mom, apple pie, bankruptcy and foreclosure. Obama striking down the Second Amendment is as likely as Americans stopping to borrow money. As my friend would probably add to his commentary: "The trouble started when the Americans could not pay the mortgages on their McMansions as home prices tanked. Rather than face economic reality, they went to the gun store and fed the family...with lead."
After the November spike, gun dealers say, a second motive has helped drive sales: fear of social unrest as the ailing economy pushes the newly destitute deeper into misery. Many of the newly poor come from the relentlessly rising ranks of the unemployed. In February alone, an average of 23,000 people a day lost their jobs.
Tent cities for the homeless have expanded outside a string of American cities, from Sacramento and Phoenix to Atlanta and Seattle, for people who are living the American dream in reverse. First they lose their jobs, then their health insurance, then their homes, then their hopes. The encampments are reminiscent of Third World refugee camps.
Often former members of the middle class, tent dwellers’ accounts of their plight to television cameras have a common theme: “I never thought this could happen to me.” Unlike the victims of Katrina, the 2005 hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans, many of the newly-poor are white.
The FBI says it carried out 1,213,885 criminal background checks on prospective firearms buyers in January and 1,259,078 in February, jumps of 28% and 23.3% respectively. Keen demand turned the stocks of publicly-trade firearms companies like Smith & Wesson (up 80% since November) and Sturm Ruger (up more than 100%) into shining stars on the New York Stock Exchange.
There is a real political economy aspect to the right to bear arms. Sometimes, it isn't particularly pretty.
4/6 UPDATE: The bloodbath continues as to become almost unexceptional -
A 22-year-man who shot and killed three Pittsburgh police officers over the weekend had been stockpiling guns and ammunition, buying and selling the weapons online "because he believed that as a result of the economic collapse, the police were no longer able to protect society," according to a court report.
The shootings came during a particularly violent three days across the U.S., with shootings that left 14 dead in Binghamton, N.Y., and six dead in Washington state, where a father shot five of his children, ages 7 to 16, using a rifle, and later, himself. It also follows just two weeks after four police officers were fatally shot in Oakland, Calif., in the deadliest day for U.S. law enforcement since Sept. 11, 2001. Last month, a North Carolina man shot and killed eight people before police shot him and ended the rampage, and a 28-year-old man killed 10 people, including his mother and four other relatives, across two rural Alabama counties before killing himself.