On July 20, as Norway prepared to commemorate the anniversary of the horrific mass killing in and around Oslo a year ago, the US added yet another page to its own tragic history of gun violence. Among the unanswered questions swirling around the nightmarish slaughter of 12 people and the wounding of 58 more in an Aurora, Colorado movie house last Friday, one can be answered with certainty: there will be no national debate on gun control.
Politicians and commentators - both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals - will mouth the usual pieties, calling for a reflection on the nature of violence in US society, the need to mourn with the families of the victims and so forth. And there it will end. President Obama and Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney in public remarks lamenting the atrocity, both avoided any mention of gun control. If all the assassinations of US leaders and collective tragedies that the country has endured over its history as a result of firearms have not moved the country toward limiting firearms, why would one more mass killing?
After all, who even remembers the killings of this year: the shootings at a hospital in Pittsburgh in March, the random shooting of blacks on the streets of Tulsa in April, the shooting spree in a Seattle cafe in May or even the wounding of 17 in a Tuscaloosa bar just two days before Aurora? Most of the killings and maiming of US citizens pass under the radar, like so many of the daily deaths in far off, war-torn societies. Even headline-producing massacres in the US capture attention only briefly and then are tucked away in a growing volume of morbid statistics. One notable response to the 2011 Arizona killings in which Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot, was that in a matter of a few days, sales of the 9 millimeter Glock semi-automatic pistol, used in the bloodbath, doubled. Indeed, several days after the Aurora killings gun sales and applications for background checks are up sharply.
Nature of the crisis: facts and figures
There are an estimated 300 million guns in the United States and one in four adult Americans owns at least one. Thirty-eight states now approve carrying concealed weapons after a routine background check. More than 32,000 people in the US die from gunshot wounds yearly—five times the number of US servicemen and women killed in over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another 70,000 or so are wounded by guns presenting the troubling statistic of an average of 280 Americans shot daily.
There may be another 200,000 annual assaults in which guns are used, and yearly gun-related violence is estimated to cost one billion dollars. Britain offers a perspective on the US crisis. In 2010 there were 8,775 gun-related murders in the US while the UK had 58; on a per capita basis the US rate was 30 times greater than that of Britain. And many of those killed had barely begun their lives.
The most recent analysis of data from 23 industrialized nations shows that 87 percent of the children under age 15 killed by guns in these nations lived in the United States. Nearly 3,000 children under the age of nineteen die from gunshots yearly (more than the total coalition casualties in Afghanistan since 2001); among black teens, gun homicide is the leading cause of death.
The politics of gun control
The politics of gun control are the most obvious barrier to a serious debate in the US. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a strong and vocal supporter of gun control in a city where he can get away with it, this past weekend called out Obama and Romney: “You know, soothing words are nice, but maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be President of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it [gun violence], because this is obviously a problem across the country,” However, there is simply too much political downside to a forthright position favouring gun control.
It is difficult to remember that there was a time not long ago when, except for the radical right, it was a given that US politicians were pro-gun-control. Astonishingly, even Republicans like Richard Nixon favoured a complete ban on the civilian ownership of handguns and Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, oversaw the strictest state gun control laws in the nation at the time. Today, virtually no national politician is willing to take on the gun rights issue. Obama has been more than circumspect in avoiding the issue, but voters’ perceptions of him as a liberal (and therefore untrustworthy on the issue of gun control) are enough to have caused a 20% spike in gun purchases after his election in 2008.
There is a notable list of defeated politicians in recent years who advocated some form of gun control. To cite just two: Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley whose support for gun control was a key factor in his suffering an unprecedented loss of his Congressional seat; Al Gore, who lost his home state of Tennessee (and Clinton's Arkansas) in 2000, and whose mild support for gun control was considered a major factor.
With the Republican base solidly against limits on guns, nothing can be expected from Romney in the campaign or in a hypothetical presidency. For Obama, besides the polls indicating declining support for gun control, the demographics are intimidating. Many white working class voters, which Obama needs to win and who overwhelming support gun rights, are in swing states like Ohio and Florida. The latter is critical for Obama and is hosting the Republican convention in Tampa this August. Support for gun owner rights is so strong in Florida that the state imposes a $100,000 fine on any local governments that seek to prevent people from carrying licensed arms. Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law allows a citizen to use deadly force if he feels threatened. In another southern state the Georgia legislature passed a law to allow guns in airports (ultimately vetoed by the governor). Across the country, state gun laws are now more relaxed than ever before.
US permissiveness on gun ownership and use appear outrageous outside the US, but laws regulating guns rest on a bedrock of social and cultural history as well as the economics of gun manufacturers, dealers and political lobbies like the National Rifle Association. According to the most recent Gallup poll, only 26% of Americans support a ban on handguns, and a majority now even opposes a ban on assault rifles. The percentage of Americans in favour of some form of gun control has been declining inexorably for the past two decades.
Thus, even if unique political circumstances allowed for a successful legislative campaign to overturn some firearms laws or impose restrictions on gun purchases and types of weapons sold, this would still not deal with the majority public support for guns, and local and state resistance. Gun control supporters have to address a national culture in which a large percentage of US citizens see guns not only as a Constitutional right and a first line in the defence of individual freedoms, but also as a safeguard against a host of threats—social, political and demographic. While some think of firearms only in terms of sporting and hunting guns, many others believe weapons offer a measure of security in somehow allaying their fears of a changing - and in many respects declining - US society.
The totemic power of guns
Americans spread westward across the vast North American continent, creating and consolidating a nation by conquering what stood in their path. It waged wars with Mexicans and Indians and patented a brand of frontier self-defence and vigilante justice— a species of redemptive violence, which in turn is glorified in popular culture to this day. Its “Manifest Destiny” was realized with a bible in one hand and a rifle in the other - captured again in in the 1940s song lyrics by Frank Lesser: “…praise the lord and pass the ammunition”. The idea of guns standing for a crude but righteous retribution is found in the slang, “equalizer”, for a pistol. It finds an echo in the latest tragedy, as many gun enthusiasts solemnly noted that no one in the theatre was carrying a gun which could have been unholstered to rectify the situation and that the horror in Aurora serves as an example, not of the need to have gun control, but of the need to have “right to carry” laws.
Untrammelled access to weapons of any type is promoted now as a bulwark of an ideological apparatus upholding individual freedoms over collective responsibilities, and which includes an instinctive mistrust of government and its regulation of society. Easy access to arms takes centre stage in protecting citizens from encroachments upon this perceived freedom. Firearms become a totemic surrogate for liberty and are fiercely defended against any measures to limit access to them—no matter how feeble the attempt and no matter what calibre the weapon. The appearance of a crack in that protective ideological shield provokes the cry that this or that politician or government official is “coming for your guns”. This in turn is proclaimed as the first step in a full scale assault on individual rights and freedom in the US, ending with the state taking control over your life. In this way attitudes toward guns have become a litmus test for American patriotism.
The critical role of the NRA
Yet, history and culture do not explain why support for gun control has been dropping steadily in the US over the past two decades. In part the problem is embedded in a federalist Constitution which grants states the right to regulate gun ownership; as the country has shifted right, so have attitudes toward guns—especially in the south and west. The chief reason, however, is the relentless, skilful and amply bankrolled political campaign by the mighty gun lobby, the National Rifle Association.
The NRA, with a public approval rating of nearly 70%, received $52 million from 2005-2011, mainly from gun manufacturers and arms dealers. This powerful national pressure group opposes any restriction on gun sales - even high-powered assault weapons like the AK-47 reportedly used by the Aurora gunman to wreak quick and terrible destruction. Semi-automatic assault weapons were banned in 1994 but the NRA pressured Congress to let the ban run out in 2004. “With that drum magazine, he could have gotten off 50, 60 rounds, even if it was semiautomatic, within one minute,” Aurora police Chief Oates said.
The NRA also opposes background checks as an encroachment on the citizen’s rights found in the 1791 amendment to the US Constitution: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Although gun control advocates claim that the amendment was designed for a time when militias were needed for national defence—hardly the case now in a nation armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, the US Supreme Court has ruled that the amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm, irrespective of service in a militia.
The NRA, emboldened by a favourable public and political climate, continues to press for easing the few existing restrictions on the purchase of firearms. In mid-July Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President and spokesman for the NRA, appeared at the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty to denounce the “anti-freedom policies that disregard American citizens’ right to self-defense.” The prognosis, then, is for continued setbacks for gun control legislation and its advocates; backing the NRA has become an article of faith for conservatives and is too politically dangerous to oppose for Democrats and even some progressives—especially those with national aspirations.
It maybe that, as H. Rapp Brown once said, violence is as American as apple pie. Shooting sprees at post offices and work places have become so common in recent years that the phrase “going postal” entered the language as a metaphor for getting very angry. The US may or may not have a more violent character and more than its share of psychopaths and disturbed persons than is the case in other places. However, it should be clear that having unlimited access to guns acts as a match to tinder and a force multiplier to underlying anti-social behaviour patterns in giving the US the highest incidence of violence among developed industrial countries. Unfortunately, the US political horizon offers the country little but more of the same.