I think it was after Sandy Hook that I resolved not to pay attention to any further American mass shootings. “If this is what the Americans are willing to accept in order to have their precious guns, so be it”, I thought. Before I had a faint hope that simply by following the news I could contribute to change. Without reflecting on it I implicitly assumed that non-Americans, by being part of a horrified public, would contribute to statistics which would reach policymakers somehow, would show the damage these events do to the perception of the USA by others, would breach the insularity of the American gun debate and show how aberrant American gun culture − of which mass shootings seem an integral part − actually is. We, non-Americans, would in effect have to substitute those Americans apparently unable of being appalled by these events, so went my reasoning. At one point, however, I simply gave up on this assumption. As I am not a resident or citizen of the USA, and as such have no way to influence policy, following the news on this topic would have no effect other than disgusting me. No thank you.

I honestly don’t know how many mass shootings there have been since and which were covered by the Dutch and British media (my main sources for news). I have a faint memory of one in Texas, but only because friends kept bothering me about it and acted surprised when I professed ignorance. And yet. Yet I feel compelled to write after the Florida shooting. I don’t know if it is the victims being articulate or the piggish ignorance and ratfaced spite of American gun interests having been prominently personified this time. Either way, though I have no illusion of my words having any impact or use other than as an act of bearing witness, I intend to cursorily describe the Dutch view on gun ownership.

To start with, some facts. Within the European Union, only Poland, Lithuania and Romania are estimated to have a lower civilian gun-ownership rate than The Netherlands.[1]* The Dutch rate is 3.9 guns per 100 people. In the US, by comparison, the estimated gun rate is 88.8 per 100. However, as stated earlier the USA is an outlier when it comes to guns and thus not the best country for a comparison. When looking at the Dutch gun rate within a broader context its peculiarity in its own right becomes clearer. Its gun ownership rate isn’t even half of the average of 10 guns per 100 people and out of 178 countries, only 66 have a lower rate.

When looking at similarly developed countries the image doesn’t change. The Netherlands is, together with the USA, in the top twenty of the 2016 Human Development Index.[2] Of these twenty, six others besides the USA also appear in the top twenty of gun ownership rate and three more are in the top fifty.† Only Japan, Singapore and South Korea have lower gun ownership rates out of this group. Of the other countries with the highest gun ownership rates seven more are part of the 51 countries classified as having “very high human development”.‡ Geographically, Western European rate is four times higher than its own and the Netherlands has the lowest gun ownership rate within the region.§

Still, while I am by no means an expert on comparative gun legislation, I find it hard to imagine that our gun legislation is so singularly strict compared others. Instead, I believe it is our attitude towards guns which explains why so few own one in the Netherlands. Private gun ownership is looked upon in an almost exclusively negative manner. It is almost perceived as a character flaw and something inherently suspicious, even when the owner is a hunter. A gun, so the idea goes, is ultimately a tool whose function is to cause harm so why do you intend to do this and to whom?

The idea of guns as a deterrent is not only strange to us, but also unconvincing. You own a hammer not just because you want to be prepared for the hypothetical situation when you will need to hit a nail on the head, but because you expect this is a realistic scenario which you will encounter at some point. This is perhaps a rather complacent comparison, but even if you take rarer situations like those requiring fire extinguishers or hurricane shelters I believe you will find that those who do not acquire them, despite being financially able to, simply cannot imagine being in a scenario which would justify such preparations. Now, these examples are mine, but the scepticism towards claims that guns are simply a deterrent is a commonplace sentiment.

The distrust of legal gun ownership goes so far that there is even limited sympathy for ultimate self-defence in case of a threat. This would, so the reasoning goes, only lead to a downward spiral where criminals will assume, and prepare for, a situation in which their targets own guns thereby making crime more dangerous for everyone. So even if I never come into contact with legal gun owners and even if none of them have malign intentions, they make society less safe for me.

In addition, the political argument in favour of private gun ownership seems wholly bizarre to us since our own society is an empirical refutation of the idea that widespread gun ownership protects liberty against tyranny in government. Though the Dutch are on the whole pro-American to the point of obsession, there is a rhetorical repository of anti-Americanism which partially consists of claiming that in almost all the fields which Americans present themselves as world leaders − such as economic, civic and press freedom − we are actually doing better. “If guns are necessary for preserving freedom,” so the argument goes, “then how come we are not a dictatorship?”

Instead, the only case in which we feel that gun possession (not ownership!) is legitimate is in the case of soldiers and police officers. As a gun ultimately is a tool whose function is to cause harm, there has to be public − that is to say democratic − control over who is allowed to use this tool and with which intention. Nevertheless, causing harm remains in principle largely suspicious in the Dutch mind and it is only out of practical considerations that it is to be allowed. This ethos is so strong that even the former Chief of Defence of the Armed forces Peter van Uhm professed a distaste for guns in a TED Talk he made and legitimised their military usage by arguing that it eventually will lead to the disappearance of guns from society.

The contrast with American attitudes could scarcely be larger. To us the impossibility of gun legislation reform in the USA is incomprehensible. So much even that a Dutch comedy show ridiculed America’s gun culture as a disease dubbed Nonsensical Rifle Addiction (NRA). The humour in the sketch might seem blunt, but it does not come near to how crass the hostility and defensiveness of gun-rights advocates in the face of these events is in our perception.

On my side, you will find no pretence that the Dutch position is the right one. I simply wish to leave the reader − the American reader in particular − with a sense of exactly how particular and contingent America’s common sense on gun culture is. That is all I can offer as a sign of solidarity to those unfortunates who died or were involved with the Florida shooting.

* * *

* I will consistently use the numbers given in the Small Arms Survey though I realize they aren’t perfect. E.g. I am slightly sceptical about the Polish official gun rate, given its well-developed network of armed civilian militias.

† The first set consists of Canada, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. The second set contains Australia, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. There is no data for Liechtenstein and Hong Kong while the data for the UK is given for four countries individually.

‡ These are Austria, Bahrain, Cyprus, Finland, France, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Within this category only Bahrein has not yet been mentioned as having a lower gun rate than the Netherlands alongside with Japan, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Singapore, and South Korea.

§ Narrowly defined as Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the UK. The average between these countries is 15.7.

[1] Small Arms Survey (2007). Small arms survey 2007: Guns and the city. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from: http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/publications/by-type/yearbook/small-arms-survey-2007.html

[2] United Nations Development Programme. (2016). Human Development Report 2016—’Human Development for everyone’. Retrieved from: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/2016_human_development_report.pdf

2 thoughts on “Article 12: A Dutch perspective on American gun culture

  1. Very well written article and to-the-point! The idea that gun is a right and not necessary evil (and for that reason, a highly regulated one) is beyond our understanding as Europeans. All the available statistics concerning gun-ownership point to the direction of a “very American problem”. The most astonishing observation is that for the vast majority of gun-owners, there is a very real and plausible threat, against which your only protection is, well, a gun (63% according to this stat: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2016/sep/19/gun-ownership-survey-gender-video). You will she that very same argument, being repeated time after time in order to justify gun-ownership (you can see it being repeated in that video: https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2016/sep/16/gun-nation-a-journey-to-the-heart-of-americas-gun-culture video?INTCMP=inart_docs_gunnation3. So, the real question for me would be, “what are those Americans being afraid of?”. That’s whole other discussion, which we could save for the next time we see each other :-).


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