Americans hate to hear it, but other countries do a lot of things better than we do. Mass transit, health care, paid vacation, family leave, recycling, rehabilitation of criminals, support of the arts — there are several nations that do all of those things better than we do, despite the U.S. being one of the five wealthiest countries in the world.
Above all, the most troubling comparison emanates from the very thing that stands before us again this week — the amount of gun violence inflicted on Americans from sea to shining sea.
From the everyday shootings that take place in Baltimore and other cities to mass shootings like those in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, the amount of American carnage gives us a tragically unique standing among industrialized nations.
The Institute for Economics and Peace, an international think tank founded by a tech entrepreneur from Australia, tracks several factors that contribute to violence around the world, and it publishes an annual Global Peace Index. In the institute’s 2021 report, the five most peaceful nations were Iceland, New Zealand, Denmark, Portugal and Slovenia.
The United States was ranked 122nd out of 163 countries and territories.
Does that surprise anyone?
A relevant fact I came across in recent reporting: The U.S. has 4.25% of the world’s population and 46% of all guns in private hands. That’s according to the Small Arms Survey, a nonpartisan research organization based in Switzerland that collects data on guns and armed violence around the globe.
The more guns a country has, the more violence it will have. That’s not only common sense, it’s been proven over and over again, and right in front of us. Easy access to guns is certainly at the root of many of the homicides in Baltimore, and it’s what makes mass shootings possible.
If common sense and logic were still as abundant as they used to be, there would be no military-style rifles for private sale in the United States, and the Congress would have responded to mass shootings with stricter gun laws after the massacre at Sandy Hook.
Other countries did that, and they are far less violent than the U.S. today. (After massacres in two mosques in 2019, New Zealand almost immediately banned military-style semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity magazines.)
There are a lot of things in this country that do not make sense, but the lack of will to break the obsession with guns to save lives — particularly the lives of children — sits at the top of my list. No other fact of American life stands out as illogical as the amount of guns we’ve allowed to be sold (an estimated 400 million in private hands now, according to the Small Arms Survey) and the liberal gun laws in red states. (Starting on May 17, the day after he turned 18, the shooter in Uvalde went to a Texas gun shop and bought a semi-automatic rifle, then 375 rounds of ammunition, then a second semi-automatic rifle, according to authorities.) You pair those numbers and facts with all the usual pathologies that exist in our society (and are often undetected or untreated), and the result is what we’ve grown accustomed to — day-to-day killings and a series of massacres.
A country that prides itself on common sense and care for the common good would have responded on a national scale by now.
Instead, we have gridlock.
With their votes, millions of Americans repeatedly have sent to Congress men and women, the majority of them Republicans, who believe support of the National Rifle Association is essential to keeping their seats in the House and Senate. By supporting the most extreme elements of the gun culture, they live in denial of guns as a threat to public safety and accept the level of death and injury they inflict.
That’s how it looks here and how it must look to the rest of the world: Legislatively and through our courts, the U.S. maintains its absurd obsession with guns even as children die with their teachers in classrooms. (President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian leaders took time out from their war with Russia this week to express sympathy for the devastated families in Uvalde.)
History: There was a time, mostly in the last century, when Congress could identify a problem and fix it. That’s why we have child labor laws, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s why we have the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Water Act and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
For the past decade, we’ve had the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, but, unlike the earlier measures I mentioned, not a single Republican voted for it.
The reasons for this partisan gridlock are many, with the gerrymandering of congressional districts near the top of the list.
Still, casting aside politics — something essential to affirming a principle and making an effective law — gun violence is a serious, soul-sucking problem. It traumatizes families and damages communities. It makes us a country people would flee from rather than flee to.
Public officials who deny that fail to serve the country. Their fear of the NRA, cynical inaction and defiance of common sense makes the nation more violent than it should be.
I don’t have a clever solution for this. I can’t shame a member of Congress who displays neither conscience nor common sense. The only hope is that voters will.