How Come All Those Guns Are In The South?

              I know it’s probably too early to start handicapping the 2020 Presidential race, but if any of my Gun-control Nation friends are thinking about which Democratic candidate might be the best bet for enacting a serious gun law, they might start paying attention to Beto O’Rourke. Why? Because if Beto grabs the brass ring and the Democrats shove Mitch McConnell and his Trump stooges out of the way, the political alignment will be exactly what worked to produce gun laws in 1968 and again in 1993-94, namely, a Democratic-controlled Congress at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and a liberal Southerner in the Oval Office at the other end.

              What this little bit of history points up is the degree to which gun violence may be a national problem, but opposition to gun control is a regional problem because ever since Richard Nixon came up with a brilliant ‘Southern strategy’ and moved the South’s political coloration from blue to red, the self-appointed protectors of our beloved 2nd-Amendment ‘rights’ can always find fertile grazing ground in states and regions where the phrase ‘federal government’ is a not-very-disguised code for ‘civil rights.’

              But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the argument against gun control that pop out of the moths of every GOP politician from below the Mason-Dixon line is just a cynical attempt to ‘hold the line’ against the encroachments against personal liberties by big-government in Washington, D.C. If one out of every three homes in America contains at least one gun, I can guarantee you that in the 13 Confederate states, the 3 border states and some rural swatches of the Midwest, the ratio is one-to-one.

              What the GOP is taking advantage of is not some special affinity that Southerners have towards guns. It’s the legacy of history and of historical conflicts that are still being played out. In this respect, the NRA and other Gun-nut Nation noisemakers (e.g., Sleazy Don) are playing to an audience which is large enough to maintain a critical political edge.

              In 1865, when the War of the Rebellion came to an end, the South was gun-rein.  Or at least the guns had to be kept hidden, because all small arms were confiscated by the Union Army which also enforced martial law. Beginning in 1866, however, with the emergence of white supremacy groups (Ku Klux Klan, Knights of the White Camellia) in response to Reconstruction and the ratification of the 13th Amendment which ended slavery, Southern whites began to rearm.

              When Southern states started imposing laws to undo Reconstruction by limiting Black suffrage, segregating public facilities and schools, these Jim Crow measures were often enforced by armed ‘militias,’ such as the South Carolina Red Shirts, who called themselves the ‘military arm’ of the Democratic Party and were particularly active in the election of 1876. Politically-speaking, this was the election that, de facto,  returned the South to the racialist divisions which had existed prior to the Civil War. I find the color of the MAGA hats to be very instructive in that respect.

              For all the nonsense about how today’s African-American community should arm itself because this would maintain a long tradition of Blacks defending themselves in the post-Reconstruction South, the threat to the Black community didn’t come from the federal government, it came from the armed hooligans and thugs who constituted a real-life form of domestic terrorism. Unless, of course, you would prefer to believe that the burning and bombing of more than 100 Black churches since the 1950’s was nothing more than an expression of religious freedom on the part of some misunderstood Southern Whites.

              There are plenty of legal gun owners in the South who keep guns around because they either hunt or enjoy sport shooting, or in some cases have simply decided that they feel better knowing they can grab the old six-shooter just in case. But what makes the South so gung-ho about guns is the degree of violence which this region has suffered for the last 150 years. And remember that guns and violence go hand in hand.

              Thanks to Eric Foner for pointing me towards certain key sources.

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Was The Civil War Our Bloodiest Time? Maybe Not As Bloody As Today.

We usually think of the Civil War as the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history based on the number of men who went off to fight and never returned home.  The definitive book on how this veritable avalanche of death changed American social culture was written by the historian Drew Gilpin Faust, who otherwise spends her days running a little university in Cambridge, Mass.  Her book describes how in just four years, more than 600,000 men perished at a time when the country’s total population (including slaves) was slightly above 31 million.

To put this into perspective, total mortality in World War II was 405,000 out of a national population count of 132 million.  In other words, in the conflict with the second-highest number of casualties, the mortality rate was .003 percent.  The Civil War mortality percentage was .019, almost ten times the casualty rate of World War II.  And in fact, the Civil War numbers may be understated, according to recent scholarly publications, by as much as 25%. Wow!

Given my interest in the medical response to gun violence, I decided to look at the Civil War data in a little more depth.  First, and this is a well-known fact, two-thirds of all Civil War mortality, perhaps even higher on the rebel side, were not from battlefield injuries, but from contagious diseases which spread like veritable wildfire among stationery troops.  The biggest killer was typhus, which continued to decimate armies up through World War I.   Next in line was ‘acute diarrhea,’ followed by dysentery, pneumonia and various types of ‘fevers,’ that were classified as ‘miasmatic’ disease.

All of the above information and much more can be found in a remarkable document, The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, a 6,000-page collection that was prepared and published by the United States Surgeon General five years after the war came to an end.  Most of the data was collected from military medical units that were located at or near the battlefields themselves, or ran the military hospitals that sprang up in larger cities, particularly Washington, D.C.  By war’s end there were more than 20,000 beds in military hospitals in and around the nation’s capital, one of which happened to provide a bed for my mother when she gave birth in 1944 to me.

Roughly 90,000 men in the Union army were killed in battle or died from gunshot injuries either during or after they were being treated for their wounds.  The figure has to be used with caution because, in fact, the numbers for troops who lost their lives while fighting did not come from the Surgeon General, but from the Office of Adjutant General, which was responsible for verifying battle deaths in order to figure out pension/survivor benefits during and after the war.

Now check this out.  In fact, physicians and surgeons treated more than 235,000 cases of gunshot wounds over the course of the conflict, of which less than 15% ultimately died.  That would be a pretty impressive case fatality ratio for what was the birth of trauma surgery, except that roughly 70% of all gun wounds were to the extremities, particularly arms and hands, two areas of the body which are not particularly vulnerable to injuries which lead to death.  What this reflected, Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg notwithstanding, was that most battles involved troops who were stationed behind stone walls or in trenches with the torso well out of sight.

If we could construct a case fatality ratio covering contemporary gun violence, I would suspect that current numbers might be worse.  The best we can do is compare fatal to non-fatal gun injuries from the CDC, which shows a ratio of the former to the latter of 16%. Which might mean that guns are much more lethal today than they were in America’s bloodiest war, and by the way, compare an annual average of 22,500 gun deaths during the Civil War to 30,000+ gun deaths today.  Were the years 1861-1865 America’s bloodiest time?  I’m not so sure.

 

 

 

Should We Compare Civilian Gun Violence To Military Gun Violence? You’ll Learn How Violent We Really Are.

            I was at a hospital conference this morning where the speaker happened to mention that gun violence claimed more American lives since 1968 than were lost in every military engagement fought by U.S. troops since the country began. And while this is a shocking notion – the idea that we are more the victims of our own violence than the violence suffered when our country is at war with other countries – I decided to take a deeper look at those numbers, in particular the gun injury numbers from the Civil War.

            Why look at the Civil War?  For two reasons.  First, in terms of wartime deaths, it was far and away the costliest war of all.  We used to think that the final toll was somewhere over 500,000; that number was recently revised upwards to 750,000, which appears to be closer to the real mark. But this global number hides a significant issue that must be explained when it comes to comparing war deaths to civilian gun violence, namely, that two-thirds of the soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865 were victims not of wounds from warfare, but died from diseases caused by unsanitary conditions on and off the battlefield, and at least another 15% died from other causes not related to battle engagements at all.  In fact, it is estimated that only 20% of all the men who died on both sides during the Civil War actually were killed during the fighting itself.

            According to the Congressional Record Service, and I tend to think their research on all issues is about as valid as any research can be, the total number of battle deaths suffered by U.S. troops since 1775 is 575,000.  This number excludes casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, and also doesn’t count Confederate soldiers who lost their lives between 1861 and 1865.  Throw them into the overall figure and we are still something just beyond 600,000 victims of gun violence in warfare over the entire history of the United States.  According to the CDC, the total number of gun deaths for the civilian population of the United States since 1999 is 497,632.  And everyone thinks that gun violence has claimed more lives than Americans lost in battle if we go back to 1968?  Give me a friggin’ break. How about just go back to 1995?

            I don’t think that comparing civilian gun deaths to overall military fatalities is a valid comparison at all.  For the simple reason that men and women in uniform die from all sorts of causes, natural and otherwise, which may have nothing to do with whether they were victims of hostile fire or not.  Soldiers are not infrequent victims of accidents in training, military suicides may be declining lately but they are certainly not unknown.  As far as we can tell, the great flu pandemic of 1918 probably first infected Western countries from an outbreak in a military base in France. The ratio of all military deaths to combat deaths in all American wars is in the neighborhood of 2:1. The percentage of marines killed in Desert Shield – Deseret Storm, of all the Devil Dogs serving in the Gulf, was one-one hundredth of one percent. Hell, you would have been safer walking around with the 1st Cavalry Division in Wadi Al-Batin than traipsing down Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx.

            Know what?  I’m sick of the 2nd Amendment and I’m sick of all the dopes and dupes who email me nonstop to remind me that the 2nd Amendment gives them the ‘right’ to protect themselves with a gun.  Because the truth is that the number of people who successfully use a gun to protect themselves and everyone else is about as many as the number of troops who lost their lives protecting Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.  Which by no means should be taken as even the slightest rebuke of those who participated in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. But carrying a weapon into battle and carrying a weapon as you walk through Walmart just isn’t the same thing.      

Gun Control Then And Now. Does History Repeat Itself?

It’s a standard argument among pro-gun advocates that gun control is antithetical to the norms and traditions of a free society.  And the proof that is usually thrown up consists of vague references to the efforts by dictators like Stalin, Mao and Hitler to disarm their own populations as a way of consolidating their repressive regimes.  Now we finally have a serious book on the subject written by Stephen Halbrook, an attorney whose resume shows him to be one of the most active, pro-gun litigators in the United States, including serving as Counsel to the NRA.

Halbrook’s book, Gun Control in the Third Reich, details the efforts byhitler the Nazis to disarm the German population, in particular the German Jews, between the advent of the regime in 1933 and the widespread anti-Jewish violence known as Kristallnacht that broke out in November, 1938.  It was the latter event that escalated anti-Jewish persecution from legal statutes to organized violence, and paved the way for a much wider consolidation of repression and dictatorial authority. The author shows how the Nazi government used gun control measures promulgated under the democratic, Weimer government, to identify and arrest Jews and other political undesirables, thus effectively frustrating the ability of anti-Nazi elements from resisting the growing tyranny of the National Socialist regime.

While Halbrook’s well-researched and balanced narrative is a significant contribution to modern European historiography, it is also, despite his claims to the contrary, an argument against current efforts to expand gun controls in the United States.  The author notes: “A disarmed population that is taught that it has no rights other than what the government decrees as positive law is obviously more susceptible to totalitarian rule and is less able to resist oppression.”  [Page. 218] If anyone believes that this statement is anything other than a thinly-veiled reference to the anti-gun ‘dangers’ of the Obama Administration, I refer you to a recent statement, among many others, made by Jim Porter, current President of the NRA, who argues that Obama’s attacks against the 2nd Amendment are just another example of his “usurpation” of Congressional authority.  Isn’t that exactly how Germany slid from the democracy of Weimar to the tyranny of Hitler?

It’s a nice and simple way of viewing the world to assume that one government’s attempts to disarm its own population is no different from any other attempt.  Unfortunately, it’s not true.  The original gun control measure passed by Weimer in 1920, and then refurbished by the Nazis in 1938, came about as the government’s response to organized, armed political violence from political movements both on the Right and the Left.  The extension of gun control by the Nazis was motivated by a similar desire to disarm groups that posed a political threat to the government, insofar as these populations, including Jews and Communists, were considered “enemies” of the State. At no time did either Weimar or the Nazis ever consider or even discuss gun control in response to non-political violence of any kind.

The last time that anyone in the United States took up arms against the U.S. Government was the bombing of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861.  And while the initial impetus for the first federal gun control law in 1968 was the assassination of JFK, nobody ever imagined that Lee Harvey Oswald was spearheading an all-out assault on our political institutions or laws.  Whether it takes the form of crimes (homicide, assault) or mental illness (suicide), gun control initiatives in this country always flow from concerns about gun violence perpetrated by citizens against themselves or others, not violence either for or against the State.  In fact, data gathered by the United Nations shows that we are the only country in the entire world whose level of gun violence rises to levels found only in Third World countries where the use of small arms is still a destabilizing political or economic force.

Don’t get me wrong.  Halbrook’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on the organization and consolidation of the Nazi regime.  But what this country needs is a serious and sober discussion about how to limit and ultimately eradicate gun violence, and this discussion will not take place if either side continues to justify their positions by taking historical events out of context and pretending that they somehow apply to the present day.