Sudan vs. The United States: Cultures of Gun Violence

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(A Sudanese teenager's answer to what his desires were, after the 2005 peace agreement was signed. Coincidentally, the image of an open right hand became the electoral symbol for secession in Southern Sudan's referendum on independence last week.)

For the past week and a half, there's been an odd turnabout of focus, in the U.S. and Sudan. In Sudan, a country that's been marked for the better part of the past 30 years as a place of violence, an estimated 83 percent of the southern Sudanese population turned out for a referendum vote on the country's future. By all accounts, the vote was a surprisingly good example of successful and civilized democracy in action -- orderly and relatively violence-free, with enthusiastic participation.

In the U.S., by contrast -- a country that likes to think of itself as the leading example of civilized democracy in action -- the focus this week has been on a violent assassination attempt of an elected official, the murder of six others surrounding her, and the role violence still plays in our supposedly civilized society. 

Normally, I wouldn't be inclined to hold Sudan next to the U.S. for comparison's sake, but that juxtaposition of events led me to look at something the two countries actually have in common, despite all their economic, cultural and political differences: the challenge of overcoming a history laced with violence and a culture in which guns play an integral role. 

One of the big questions remaining, post-referendum vote in Sudan, given that most observers expect the South to vote for secession, is whether the two sides can actually resolve the remaining disagreements over oil rights and disputed land in Abyei without resorting back to violence. Another is whether the southern Sudanese, once secession is granted, can restrain tribal in-fighting enough to keep the new country from destroying itself from within. 

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They're both valid questions. In 2009, I wrote a post on this site about my two experiences flying relief supplies into Sudan: The first in 2001, while its 20-plus-year civil war was still raging, and the second in 2007, when the country was supposedly at peace. In 2007, there were hopeful signs of recovery in the country. But there were also disturbing scents of violence as a fall-back plan lying close beneath the surface. 

Two years after peace had officially been declared, almost every male I spoke to, from 14-year-olds to 70-year-olds, and from the capital city of Juba to the smallest outlying village, declared that if they didn't get what they wanted (secession), or the north so much as flinched at keeping their side of the agreement, they would pick up their guns again to solve the dispute the only way most of them had ever seen a dispute settled: with armed force. And in an bitterly ironic turn of events, I found myself returning once again to a southern Sudanese village airstrip I'd been to during the war -- and once again, having to employ high-security protective measures in our arrival, time on the ground, and departure procedures. In 2001, the measures were necessary because our relief supply plane was susceptible to attack by Northern forces. In 2007, the reason was that armed men had stormed a hospital and taken hostages over a workplace dispute tinged with tribal tension, and we'd been called in to evacuate the hostages. 

I left Sudan with the sad realization that an absence of war does not equate to peace, and that violence is a very difficult habit to break. Most Southern Sudanese men have little other model for conflict resolution, after more than 20 years of sustained civil war and a national history of repeated violent rebellions and conflicts since the one in the mid-1950s that led to Sudan's independence. But partly as a result of that, there also are few strong role models for men in Sudan other than that of a proud, armed warrior. Guns have become an integral part of their self-image and culture. Even the late John Garang, who was perhaps the one person who might have unified the country as a leader and politician, was an armed commander first, and a political leader second. 

The U.S. is one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and Sudan is one of the poorest. By almost any measure, the two countries are worlds apart. And yet, the U.S. also has a culture in which guns and the image of an armed warrior are an integral part of both our national identity and many men's sense of self. Blessed may be the peacemakers, but far more American men model themselves after the image of John Wayne (or other real-life warrior heroes) than Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King. And our gun ownership rates reflect that. 

The exact numbers may vary somewhat depending on study, but nobody would argue that Americans own more guns than any other industrialized nation. The number of registered guns per 100 people is more than twice as high in the U.S. as Switzerland, the next highest country on the list (which allows civilians to arm for the common defense), and almost three times as many as any other country on the list. In 2007, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey found that even Iraq had a far lower rate of firearms per 100 citizens (39) than the U.S. (90). That doesn't mean that 90 percent of Americans own guns. But it does mean that U.S. citizens own some 270 million of the worldwide 650 million civilian-owned guns, and that's a lot. 

Why is the U.S. so much more attached to civilian ownership of guns than other countries? Part of the answer may be that, as opposed to Europe, our "civilized" era is a relatively recent phenomenon. The shoot-out at the OK Corral with Wyatt Earp took place less than 130 years ago, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid only came to their end in 1908. Parts of the "Wild West" lingered on even after that. So the idea of individual ownership of guns being linked to safety had clear validity, at least in parts of the country, as recently as three generations ago. And being skilled in marksmanship would have been an admirable and important trait in that biggest-gun-wins frontier culture.

Much has changed in the past 100 years. We have quick-response teams, 911, and a society that is far more organized, connected, and "civilized" than the one our forebearers knew. But old habits, cultural values, and beliefs die hard. We still tend to see ourselves as fiercely independent and self-reliant pioneers, and a good number of people still see gun ownership as an important part of that image, as well as an important factor in their personal safety -- even if that last part isn't true anymore. 

It takes some work to sort through the conflicting claims by different advocacy groups of the role guns play in personal safety and injury in the U.S. But a resource report issued by the University of Pennsylvania (updated in 2009), which seems fairly even-handed and unbiased in its reporting (and I think is worth looking at), notes some disturbing statistics. Among them: that compared to other industrialized nations, the rate of firearm death in the U.S. is more than twice that of the next-highest country, and eight times the average rate of our economic counterparts. (Compared to developed Asian countries like Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, our rate is 70 times higher.) 

The resource paper also reports that across industrialized countries, homicides are more prevalent in countries with more firearms, and that in the U.S., states with a higher availability of firearms have higher rates of firearm suicide, homicide, and unintentional deaths among children ages 5-14 than in states with less availability of firearms. 

The authors note that "A debate is ongoing about the consequences of owning firearms: Is access to a gun protective or an increased risk factor for the firearm owner to be killed?" However, they conclude that "while some studies suggest that firearms can serve a protective function, the bulk of evidence suggests that gun availability increases the likelihood for individuals to be killed, or to kill another person." 

And yet, the reluctance to separate from our guns endures. Following mass public shooting events, Australia and Germany both passed far more restrictive gun laws. Following the shooting in Tucson, congressional insiders doubt there is even enough support for a proposal being put forth by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (whose husband was killed in a 1993 shooting) to ban the high-capacity ammunition clips used by the Tucson gunman. 

Enough of us identify with our pioneer ancestors still, and enough of us still believe in the need to defend ourselves with arms, and the effectiveness of that armed defense, that even the discussion of whether or not those things make sense anymore becomes a cultural and political flash point. That puts us in stark contrast with our European neighbors. Dr. Aaron Karp, a consultant to the Small Arms Survey, noted after a 2009 shooting in Winnenden Germany that left 16 people dead, that "no one in Europe dares pretend they own a gun for their own defense."

Europe, of course, has a very different history than we do. Its "frontier" days of marauding bandits wreaking havoc on individual homeowners died out many hundreds of years ago. Its citizens have also endured the consequences of far more organized, faction- and government-sponsored bloodshed than we have. Perhaps if we'd suffered through the 30 Years' War (in which some areas of Germany lost half or even three-quarters of their population), the Hundred Years' War, and suffered the destruction of two World Wars across our land, we, too, would be tired of guns; happy to agree to Bobbies with nightsticks. 

As it is, we seem oddly closer, in at least parts of our heritage and our attitudes about guns, to Sudan, a country formed by revolt, battered by civil war, and where a frontier mentality and culture still prevails, with guns as a central element in both men's identities and their approach to problem-solving and safety. 

In the weeks, months, and years to come, overcoming that culture of arms and violence will prove one of the biggest challenges that a newly independent Southern Sudan will face. If the history of the U.S. -- a society that's had many more inherent advantages of industrialization, education, and a high standard of living -- is any guide, changing that culture will be a very long and difficult process, indeed.