Abandon hope, all who seek gun control, writes Dani Garavelli
THE most distressing aspect of the response to the shooting dead of nine black worshippers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina is that no-one is even pretending it could prove a watershed moment in the US’s attitude towards gun control.
‘By staring into that, by seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack-shit’
After 20 children were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, there was a fleeting moment when it looked as though the country might come to its senses; when bipartisan support for a package of gun control measures suggested it might – at last – stand up to powerful lobbies who put the “right to bear arms” before the rights of innocent people to live their lives free from the threat of hate-filled killers. But that moment came and went and, in the end, even the least controversial piece of proposed legislation – which would have extended background checks to weapons sold privately and at gun shows – was filibustered out of the senate.
Now nine more innocent people have died, there is anger, of course, but it’s not the kind of constructive anger that fuels change; it’s the futile railing at the moon of weary citizens who hate what their country has become but have no idea how to reclaim it.
As Obama spoke out at the US Conference of Mayors in San Francisco (the 14th time he has been forced to address gun violence during his presidency), Republicans accused him of exploiting the Charleston shootings for political ends; but even he sounded defeated. “I refuse to act as if this is the new normal or to pretend that it’s sufficient to grieve,” he said, as he called on ordinary citizens to change the way they think about guns, and force Congress to follow their lead. But he knows polls show that any shift in public opinion over the past two years has been away from – not towards – greater gun control; and he wasn’t offering any new solutions. Later, his spokesman Eric Schultz admitted the game was up when he said every possible avenue to address the issue had already been exhausted.
It was chat show host Jon Stewart who most powerfully articulated the despair of those who believe the US is destroying itself by its refusal to confront its love affair with firearms. In a scathing, five-minute monologue, he pointed out the disparity between the country’s aggressive attitude towards foreign terrorists such as al-Qaeda or Isis and its shoulder-shrugging inaction over domestic mass murderers. “By staring into that, by seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack-shit,” he conceded.
While advocates of gun control were lamenting their own impotence, their opponents were mobilising against any possible attack on their constitutional rights. On the zoomer fringe, there was the usual talk of a false flag operation; some conspiracy theorists suggested Charleston killer Dylann Roof’s Facebook page appeared manufactured and questioned the convenience of the fact that the first photograph which emerged showed him wearing Rhodesia and apartheid-era South African flags.
Elsewhere, more mainstream right-wingers were doing their best to downplay the atrocity (using terms such as “accident/incident” and “senseless tragedy” instead of “mass murder” or “terrorism”) and to shift the debate away from guns and on to other factors such as Roof’s allegedly abusive childhood and his alleged use of Suboxone.
Republican presidential candidate and former Texas governor Rick Perry lashed out at Obama and said drugs, not guns, were the real problem for the country (ignoring the fact that – high or not – he couldn’t have taken out nine victims without the weapon his father apparently gave him for his 21st birthday). Perry’s rival Rand Paul blamed it on “people not understanding where salvation comes from”.
As with every spree shooting, the gun lobby was also quick to point out that none of the legislation proposed in the wake of Sandy Hook would have stopped Roof owning a gun. This appears to be true: Obama wanted to ban assault weapons and high- capacity magazines as well as extending background checks. But Roof’s gun does not appear to have been an assault weapon. Witnesses have said he had to reload several times, so it is unlikely it had a high-capacity magazine, and the proposed extension of background checks specifically excluded gifts between family members.
At the same time, Roof had an outstanding drugs possession charge and, as such, was already legally barred from gun ownership – demonstrating, NRA types say, the ineffectiveness of existing legislation. Of course, others might argue this proves only that not enough is being done to enforce it.
America’s out-of-control gun culture isn’t the only – or even the most shocking – social problem the Charleston massacre exposes; with its echoes of 1960s Ku Klux Klan church burnings, it reminds us that – 150 years after the end of civil war and 47 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King – racism is a constant and pernicious feature of life in the US. If the shootings of a succession of unarmed black men by police – and the footage of a police officer throwing a girl at a pool party face-down to the ground – are evidence of a two-tier justice system, then Roof’s claim that “you rape our women and you’re taking over our country” shows racial hatred is also prevalent in the broader community, especially, perhaps, in states that continue to fly the Confederate flag.
Still, concerns about racism and concerns about gun violence are not mutually exclusive. In the US, 85 people a day die from guns; some will lose their lives in high-profile sprees such as Sandy Hook or Aurora, but many more will die in street violence that will go unreported; and then there is the handful of children every year who accidentally kill themselves with weapons left lying around.
For the kinds of people who trot out inanities such as “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or who believe the answer to shooting sprees is to arm more civilians, these victims are collateral damage in the just fight to uphold the second amendment.
After Sandy Hook, I wrote a column which ended: “If the slaughter of 20 innocents – and the mental scarring of hundreds more – does not change hearts and minds, nothing ever will.” It didn’t. And it won’t. «