“Better Angels” and Thoughts upon Violence

I recently watched a video lecture by Stephen Pinker on his book Better Angels of our Nature, explaining that violence has actually declined over time, and especially since World War II. This was a surprising claim. Not only did I grow up in a conservative christian sect that was big on eschatology, but every day in the news you hear about murders here, suicide bombers there, and civil wars somewhere else. Thus I have long been under the impression that the world is getting worse and more violent. It appears I was wrong.

I won’t go through all the statistics that Pinker used in his video, and that are part of his 800 page book, as that is not the point of this post. The point is that seeing this different point of view, and what appears to be solid statistics backing it up, got me thinking about the whole topic of Violence, or perhaps, specifically, the nature of violence. We often hear that violent media–television, video games, movies–make people more violent (or, at least, desensitizes us and thus makes it easier for us to commit violent acts) and that we see, according to someEnglish: Steven Pinker at the Göttinger Litera...statistics, 16,000 murders on TV by age 18; that doesn’t even touch how many monsters, aliens, zombies, enemy soldiers, or even just plain people we’ve killed in video games by that age. But we’re living in the most peaceful time in history? How can that be?


I admit the idea of living in “the most peaceful period of our species’ history” is a bit counter-intuitive–there is a strong truthiness in the idea that the world is a more violent and evil place than ever before. There is a fairly long and persuasively written article over at HubPages about how technology, specifically firearms technology, has enabled easier, more deadly warfare and casual murders, and enabled killing that would not happen if we were still required to stab and slash each other with melee weapons. Guns make it too sanitary, too easy; if killing required courage, if it meant getting disturbingly dirty, how many people would be unable to do it?

No discourse on violence, and especially on the possibility of a decrease in violence, can be held without talking about firearms, particularly in the Untied States. Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Newtown, among others, are seared into our national conscience and the debate, hyperbole, and ad hominems are flying as fast and as thick as rifle and artillery fire, with the emotion flowing as freely as, well, you know…

Twenty children die at Newtown and we collectively blow our tops; one side claims that one more gun–in the hands of a good guy–would have stopped it, while the other side claims that one less gun would have stopped it. Meanwhile, a total of six “Newtowns” happened in 2011–119 children under 12yrs old died from guns, and yet we don’t notice. Total gun deaths in 2011 were slightly over 32,000. That is 87 a day. In the meantime, only a little over 6,500 (of our guys) have died in nearly 10yrs of Iraq/Afghanistan, and only about 58,000 died in Vietnam.

Gun Culture

After Newtown, the weapon used, an AR 15, very quickly became the fastest selling, most popular weapon in the US. I was overseas when it all happened and I heard on the local news in the Netherlands a gun shop owner in the US saying he had sold more AR 15 ammo in the last month than he had in the last 10yrs. Why? Because after an atrocity like what happened, half the people were threatening to outlaw the weapon in question, while the other half (speaking in hyperbole) were afraid they would succeed and wanted to stock up.

The freedom American’s have to “bear arms” is (as is often mentioned) “enshrined in the Bill of Rights”, as is our right to maintain a militia. It is all based on a fundamental distrust of Government, which, considering the circumstances that led to the establishment of the United States of America, is understandable. Not only were Governments, with their standing armies, distrusted, but the country itself was largely “untamed”. With threats coming from wild animals and Natives, not to mention the necessity of hunting for food, a man without a gun was worse off than a man without a horse (unless he lived in Philadelphia or Boston–somewhere civilized with bakeries…).

Winchester Mod 73, Mod 92 Take Down, Mod 86 Ex...

Winchester Mod 73, Mod 92 Take Down, Mod 86 Extra Light Take Down .45-70 cal, Mod 05 Semi Auto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The American “spirit of Independence”, Manifest Destiny, etc., all contributed to our never-ceasing Westward expansion. The further we went, the further we were from “civilization”–from law and order, from the local sheriff. And, as we were encroaching on inhabited ground, violence naturally erupted. Thus, unless you had a gun, you were dead or you stayed in the civilized East. The Winchester ’73 was the “gun that won the west”.

In short, America developed as a nation that love their guns and hate, or at least distrust, their government. Pro-gun and Anti-government is nowhere so readily seen as in Conservative Christians who inhabit “real America” (as defined by Stephen Colbert’s Wikiality). This is actually rather ironic considering that the New Testament has some prominent Pacifistic, Pro-Government teachings: Matt. 5:39 is not just about “turn the other cheek”, but “resist not evil”; Jesus said in Matt. 26:52 “all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword”; Romans 13:1-5 says that “the powers that be are ordained of God”.

Of course, the majority of gun violence is done by Gangs (according to the FBI, 48%-90% of violent crimes in some jurisdictions), but as gang members are not usually politically involved or powerful, their voices are not the ones yelling about “the gov’ment can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers!” It is true that we are only to obey the laws of the land insofar as they do not breach the laws of God, but I’m pretty sure there is nothing in the bible about “thou shalt arm thyself, yea, even unto the teeth”.


Many on the pro-gun side cite the example of Switzerland. Apparently nearly every household is required to own a gun as part of national security. At the same time, crime, especially gun crime, is very low. Of course, the pro gun-control side also cites Switzerland as a prime example of their ideas because there is actually a lot of regulation on guns there–background checks, registration, etc. I have long been in the pro-gun camp, and still am, though I am thinking more and more that there needs to be regulations, like background checks (esp. if there is a history of mental health issues, as at Newtown and lately at the Navy Yard), and mandatory training–if you have to demonstrate that you can safely operate a motor vehicle, which is a transport device that just happens to kill 32,000 a year (same as guns…interesting), then how is it you are not required to show you can handle a firearm safely, when their only purpose is to kill.

Français : Biathlètes femmes aux Mosses pour l...

Français : Biathlètes femmes aux Mosses pour la Coupe suisse de Biathlon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyhow, I digress…

I, too, think Switzerland illustrates a point. In a country with nearly half of its 8million inhabitants armed (according to estimates, 4.5million), the number of people killed with a gun is one-tenth that of the US. Again, both Pro-Gun and Pro Gun-Control advocates claim a victory here. However, the Swiss themselves, see the issue a little differently. For them, the Gun Culture is very different from that in the US. In the States, we are very independent and our guns are to protect us, our families, livestock, and our property; “In Switzerland to be a citizen and to have a weapon [are] very, very linked with community, or with the nation”.

One of the reasons the crime rate in Switzerland is low despite the prevalence of weapons — and also why the Swiss mentality can’t be transposed to the current American reality — is the culture of responsibility and safety that is anchored in society and passed from generation to generation. Kids as young as 12 belong to gun groups in their local communities, where they learn sharpshooting. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association runs about 3,000 clubs and has 150,000 members, including a youth section. Many members keep their guns and ammunition at home, while others choose to leave them at the club. And yet, despite such easy access to pistols and rifles, “no members have ever used their guns for criminal purposes,” says Max Flueckiger, the association’s spokesperson.

“Social conditions are fundamental in deterring crime,” says Peter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton in Great Britain, who has studied gun violence in different countries and concluded that a “culture of support” rather than focus on individualism, can deter mass killings.

Society and Culture play a huge part, apparently. So, even though research has shown that Homer was right when he said “the blade itself incites to violence” (no, not this Homer, this Homer), it appears that positive societal and cultural conditions can largely overrule the effect. 


Yet with all this, there is good news. Even though the gun death rate in the US is 10x more than in Switzerland, yet it is decreasing.

In 1992, the “Murder and Non-negligent Manslaughter” rate in the US was 9.3 per 100,000; in 2011 it was 4.7. And despite the fact that Grand Theft Auto first came out in 1997, when the “Motor Vehicle Theft” rate was 505.7, ten years later it was down to 364.9, and as of 2011, three years after GTA IV came out, it was 229.6.

The interesting thing about statistics is that they can, if you present them right, say whatever you want them to say (sometimes independent of what they actually say). For example, at the start of this article, I made a bit of a big deal about there being slightly over 32,000 gun deaths in 2011. That is, again, 87 a day. However, at the same time, there were almost the exact same number of automobile related fatalities. 87 people a day die from car crashes–yet we never hear about it.

Result of a serious automobile accident

Somehow there is a lot of emotion tied up in the gun debate. For example, in 2000, there were nearly 42,000 killed in car crashes; that same year, 28,663 were killed by guns (homicides, suicides, accidents, etc). By comparison, an estimated 112,000, or 306 per day were killed due to obesity related health issues. The funny thing about that, when the article in the Washington Post came out about it in 2005, people were both relieved that the CDC’s estimate of 400,000 deaths per year due to obesity were wrong, but were also angry at what they perceived as scaremongering by the government. The fact that it was a mere 112,000 per year almost made people think the whole obesity issue was not a real problem! Four times more people die from obesity than from guns and people say “talk to us when it gets bad”.

True, 30K gun deaths is not a small number, and I am not trying to make light of it, but when put in perspective, the time, energy, and emotion put into debating the topic seems disproportionate. And you may have noticed that in 2011 the gun deaths were over 32K, while in 2000 they were only 28K. “They are going up, I knew it!” But not so fast. Per capita, or per 100K population, the numbers are a bit different.  The rate of all gun deaths in 2011 was 10.3, and in 2000 it was 10.19–some increase. Gun homicides, however, have gone from 3.84 to 3.6 in that time period, with gun suicides making up some of the difference, from 5.89 to 6.3.

On the international scene, Pinker lists the period since WWII as the “Long Peace“, at least for the Major Powers. Of course, you can see more detail in the video listed at the beginning, or read the book.

English: A peace tattoo and two peace signs, S...

English: A peace tattoo and two peace signs, San Diego County Fair, Del Mar, California, 2009. Photograph by Patty Mooney, Crystal Pyrmaid Productions, San Diego, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the end of the day, it appears that Civilization is winning. The US was losing 100,000 a year in WWII, and now we lose fewer than 1,000 a year in Afghanistan/Iraq. No doubt the Information Age has made the present appear more troubled, since everybody hears about every bad thing in every part of the world, whereas that just didn’t happen 20 or 30 years ago.

In terms of violence there is more than just gun violence–there is spousal abuse, child abuse, rape (which is down from 42.8 to 26.8 in the period 1992-2011), bullying, hate crimes, etc. I have focused a bit on gun violence as that is very easy to see and measure and is heavily in the public view.

Be glad and rejoice–Violence is Decreasing! Now, as long as you manage to not kill yourself in a car accident, or from bad diet combined with minimal exercise, there is a good chance you have a long, peaceful life ahead of you.


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2 responses to ““Better Angels” and Thoughts upon Violence”

  1. Tech Savvy says :

    Interesting as always and good research.

    It appears to me though, that as violence in the general population perhaps has decreased, the violence in the cults seems to have increased, for example, the murders / suicide in 2005 at Sabbath Services for the Living Church of God. In fact, if we were to measure the hyperbole and count the boasting of many of the leaders today (such as David Pack claiming 3 other leaders of other cult would die and he’d get the memberships), it would seem that, if anything, church wars are escalating. If so, this is an interesting perspective to play with.

    Moving on, one thing which seems apparent is that school shootings are rooted in bullying. Helpless middle school students are attacked by bullies that make their lives miserable. In high school, they discover power in the form of guns. They no longer need to suffer the bullies and can take matter into their own hands… leading to tragedy.

    The political solution seems to be gun control. Is that the right solution? Bullying in school has escalated and teens are often afraid to go to school. Some commit suicide to evade the bullies. Social media makes it ever so much worse: Everybody can tap into exposing people they don’t like and they can pick on whoever they want.

    Perhaps the solution to that particular problem is to stop the bullies. Oh, you know, like how Switzerland does things. Their teens have guns. They are taught how to use them. They have gun clubs. It certainly looks like, what with the National social standards shared by the country and the course work the students have that they seriously pursue, there just might not be as much bullying.

    Just remember as a skeptic, violence can take many forms, such as the bullying of a corporation of their workers… especially now that the corporations have found they can save money on Obamacare by reducing the hours of their workers, leaving them destitute at the poverty level.

    Let’s just hope that those who are bullied in corporations in that manner don’t some day skew the stats back to growing violence.

    We would, after all, like to think of ourselves as civilized, no matter how silly an idea that may be….

  2. Eric Sell says :

    Good to hear from you, Mikey!

    Yeah, bullying is a kind of a big topic and one I wanted to cover, but it just would have been an abrupt left turn from where the post was going. Personally, I tend to think that a little MORE violence would be useful–specifically, there used to be a time when you could haul off and punch your bully and it could pretty well be done with (my dad has told me he did this in school). But now, if you try to “discourage” a bully, YOU get in more trouble than the bully! And, of course, nobody likes a tattle-tale, so the system has left those bullied with very little recourse…and so to stop some fist-fights the groundwork is laid for shootings.

    Violence does take many forms, and let’s hope the corporations don’t lay too much “violence” through lessened working hours…yet, even if they do, it will be a temporary thing; all-in-all, more people will have Health Insurance in the US, an area our country is woefully behind in. I’m sure similar arguments were made when Safety regulations were implemented for the workplace, but the long-term effect is that fewer people die or are maimed at work than 100yrs ago. So, everything should balance out…

    Inter-cult violence? Church Wars? Now that’s something I did NOT see coming! Of course, for Pack, I’m sure that if other cult leaders die, their people would end up either at United (which seems the popular place to go from the folks I’ve spoken to), or splinter into various new groups–Entropy at work, as you’ve pointed out so well before!

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