LogoSane Guns Commentary
 On Southern Violence, Herding and the Pre-Civilized Man
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It has been noted that violence in America is most pronounced in the inner cities and in South. Understanding the roots of the southern phenomenon is of value because of what it helps us understand about the attitudes of one strain of pro-gun advocates throughout the rest of the country.

Sociologists and ethnologists argue that southern violence is based on a number of factors, including the history of slavery which brutalizes the slaver, the climate, poverty and, probably the most important factor, a "culture of honor." /1/

The "culture of honor" is most represented by a Louisiana shooting in the 30's. Seems a man lived next to a gas station and the hangers-on at the station would tease him regularly. One day, he took his shotgun and opened fire, wounding two of the bystanders and killing one person who just happened by at the wrong time. Eleven jurors argued "He ain't guilty. He wouldn't have been much of a man if he hadn't shot them fellows." (reported by Hodding Carter -- who was the 12th jurist.) /2/ Until the mid 1970's, Texas classified killing an unfaithful wife found in "a compromising position" justifiable homicide. /3/ Even after the law was changed the culture has not. Recently, in Texas, a man was sentenced to a total of 80 days in jail for shooting his wife repeatedly, until the gun jammed. He then left, un-jammed the gun, and returned to finish killing her. /4/

While the transposition of this culture to the South is rooted in the arrival of the highland Scots, they also apply to Mediterranean herding cultures as well. In fact, the Persian and Arabic word used most for honor is izzat -- and applies most often to valor on the field of battle.

Sociologists have noted that herding societies tend to be more violent than farming ones. Since farmers set down roots and tend to retain the same neighbors, it is in the best interests of the neighbors to find non-violent means to resolve conlicts. Herders, on the other hand, tend to be more nomadic and less in contact with any external authorities, so they tend to take the resolution of interpersonal conflicts into their own hands. ("If you steal my sheep, it isn't honorable for me merely to apply to some external authority for redress, to redeem my honor. I must avenge the loss myself.")

The matter of personal justice is far older than the reliance on society to correct the imbalance. Historians and religious scholars note that the Code of Hammurabi, followed by the Laws of Moses (The Torah, or first five books of the Bible) represent the earliest examples in western culture of the society assuming a responsibility for the administration of justice in inter-personal disputes. To John Locke, this is the transposition from a state of nature to a governed society.

Which is why the discussion is relevant to us today, even outside of the south.

Among a portion of the most vocal pro-gun advocates, even outside of the south, there exists this pre-civilized, herding culture mindset of personal justice that conflicts with the industrialized nation's view of the society. Randy Weaver is an excellent example. No matter what one thinks of the specific case, Weaver is lionized by a segment of his fans for handling matters on his own, rather than relying on the instruments of justice (i.e., society) to sort things out in the end. He is the presumed victim doing the only thing possible to defend his honor and, therefore, the deaths of his son and wife are totally removed from any action on his part -- and this anti-semite and racist becomes a drawing card at gun shows./5/

The United States is the youngster among industrialized nations and, therefore, has had a limited time to work towards becoming a civilized nation. For the first two thirds of our nation's history, we have also had the frontier to absorb those whose process of becoming civilized was more difficult than the majority of society's. We could romanticize the early Randy Weavers, because they were "out there" and not occupying or threatening the population centers. But the frontier has disappeared. Now the pre-civilized can no longer seek uncivilized areas in which they fit, so they become a "problem" for the civilization that has occurred.

But there is a second factor in the comparison of the herder and farmer that is relevant, as well -- the one of putting down roots. The herders propensity towards violence is rooted in his mobility. It is the mobility that brings him into conflict with others and allows the conflict absent a pre-existing social structure. It is the mobility that removes the value of attempting to establish cooperation rather than confrontation in a transient relationship. And it is the mobility that creates the reliance on self in lieu of community.

In our increasingly mobile society, this bodes ill, for it is no longer the herder, alone who is mobile. More and more of us are -- from farm laborer to corporate executive.


  1. See Richard Nesbitt and Dov Cohen, "Violence and Honor in the Southern States," in Dizard, Muth, & Andrews, Guns in America: A Reader, New York University Press, New York, NY, 1999 for the term and for the basis for this Commentary.  Back^
  2. Hodding Carter, Southern Legacy, Louisiana State Press, Batton Roiuge, LA, 1965, pg 50  Back^
  3. Nesbitt and Carter, op cit, pg 265  Back^
  4. Debra Dennis, "Man gets probation in slaying: Husband shot his wife in front of their child", Dallas Morning News, October 23, 1999  Back^
  5. B'nai B'rith, B'nai B'rith Blocks Randy Weaver Gun Show Appearance, March 25, 1999.  Back^


©Copyright, 2000, Mike Rosenberg