America doesn’t like to be reminded of the fact, that it is the school massacre capital of the world. A country so awash with guns that the statistics are embarrassing, even to put on paper. A country lacking any real sense of remorse in the face of the relentless and senseless killing of children and teachers in the incomprehensible setting of schools. A country that is unable or unwilling to take decisive action against a firearm epidemic.
Marking the anniversaries of gun violence is commonplace. Last month it was the Parkland high school shooting in Florida, with 17 deaths on Valentine’s Day 2018. Next month will see the 20th anniversary of the 13 deaths at Columbine High in Denver, Colorado.
After the Denver tragedy, a predictable outcry ensued. There was hope that this outrage would lead to the reform of the weakest gun laws in the world. Twenty years later, absolutely nothing of any note has been done. Numbed by the routine of it all, memories fade and anger dissipates until the next massacre. The cycle of despair is endless.
Americans collectively own more than 300 million guns – about one for every person in the country. According to the FBI, 8,124 people were murdered in America in 2014 – an average of more than 22 killings every day.
The firearm-related death rate per 100,000 is 11.96 compared with the UK figure of 0.23. Adjusted for population size, you are 51 times more likely to be killed by a gun in the US than the UK. Worldwide, the US figure is only surpassed by Venezuela, Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. But as a high-income nation, Modern America is an extreme outlier in a universe of its own. The story behind America’s obsession with guns reveals a country where its Constitution and Congress conspire against the citizen. So, how did we get here?
Any explanation has to be viewed against the cultural, commercial, constitutional and ultimately corrupt nature of US politics resulting in the triumph of lobbying and money over common sense and public safety. It is a tangled web with big issues interacting in complex ways, with one result – gun mayhem.
The start of the story and the source of this madness is the Second Amendment to the Constitution allegedly protecting the “right to bear arms”, which was adopted in 1791. These 25 words, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of the free State, the right of people keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”, are the cause of much of the grief the US is now experiencing. America is attracted to the literal interpretation of many things but this amendment is so divorced from reality, historical context and credibility. King George III was mad at the time, militiamen were fighting the British, the state-wide police and security services that exist today were not in place and muskets were the only personal weapons available. The Second Amendment is 228 years old and from a time, long since gone, which has little relevance to modern America.
The US sees itself as the pioneering country of rugged individualism with a dislike of government and where the frontiersman mentality determines you look after yourself and your family and where the fear of crime, not the reality, drives the need for personal security. This is the cult of the individual doing battle on every front with the adventures and memories of the Wild West thrown in, trusting yourself and no one else. This is about identity, a cultural overhang where delusion, romance, sentiment, nostalgia and fear distort reality.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the main lobbying group which exploits the Second Amendment in the name of freedom and preaches the primacy of guns. For the NRA, the massacre of helpless children has less moral significance than the right to exploit fears for financial gain. Guns, they argue, are not the problem but the solution to America’s ills. They offer siren voices against reform, while supporters of new regulations rise and fall as memories of each incident dim, the press spotlight fades, congressional interest wanes and people are “between massacres”.
The ten most prominent gun manufacturers, with annual worldwide sales of over $4 billion, use the NRA to push sales and spread fear and loathing about what wicked governments will do to people’s freedom and their guns.
Congress is compliant and cowardly across the partisan divide, but this is especially true of the Republican Party who are staunch advocates of the Second Amendment. Shameless levels of corruption and lobbying result in vast sums of election money being exchanged for services provided and campaign donations.
Adding to this toxic mix is an often fearful, detached, ill-informed and complicit public, constantly at the mercy of the NRA. This powerful and toxic conspiracy of Republicans, the NRA and gun manufacturers drowns out any opposition. Those who have money and clout care little about undermining democracy and squandering innocent lives for profit.
Finally, there’s no show without Punch. President Donald Trump is happy to do the bidding of the NRA and the gun manufacturers. One of his first acts in office was to make it easier for the mentally ill to buy guns. The gun lobby is part of Trump’s coalition for the 2020 election.
Maybe this ancient and largely irrelevant amendment has endured with such force because it has become a metaphor for freedom and liberty, the most over-used words in America, and a warning to government to stay away.
The debate in the US, however, is not about abolishing the Second Amendment or banning guns – only the gun lobby talks about this.
It is instead about the modest idea – after 228 years – of regulating the buying and selling of guns, banning military-style weapons and introducing universal background checks. There may now be some light at the end of this very dark tunnel. After the Parkland killings in Florida and the Democrats’ success in the mid-terms, two new Gun Control Bills were passed by the House of Representatives last week, which would require background checks for all firearm sales, including those sold at gun shows and online, and extend the time allotted to the FBI to conduct background checks.
This is the first time in a generation that some progress has been made. It may be short-lived because the Republican-controlled Senate, in a bitterly tribal Congress, will throw the Bills out. But the Parkland massacre may yet be a tipping point, as a new and passionate generation of young, articulate Americans becomes more successful in forcing politicians to answer the call for action and stop defending the indefensible.