It was just before Christmas 2012 when a reclusive 20-year-old gunman called Adam Lanza – with a history of persistent mental health problems, and a huge home arsenal of guns, knives and bayonets – took an assault rifle to the children of Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, killing 20 pupils aged six and seven, and six teachers. The killing was so horrific, and its impact on the community so devastating, that even the President, Barack Obama, thought it might at last shift opinion in Congress towards tighter gun control.
“No single law,” he said, “no set of laws, can prevent every senseless act of violence in our society. But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this.” And even Donald Trump, then still a private citizen, agreed, declaring in one of his famous tweets that in his remarks on Sandy Hook, the President spoke “for every American”.
It was not to be, of course. Every attempt to tighten gun legislation was blocked in Congress; and by 2015, Barack Obama was describing the impossibility of achieving gun law reform, against the might of the America firearms lobby, as the greatest frustration and disappointment of his presidency.
Mass shootings – defined as events in which four or more people are killed or seriously injured – continue to take place in the United States at the rate of one every 60 hours, and are so common that they often go unreported in national and international media.
This week, one such incident did make the news, when 17 young people were killed in a single mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida. And while many people in the UK will have been shocked to learn that there have already been 18 school shootings in America in the first 44 days of 2018, the truth, pointed out this week by former New York police chief Bill Bratton, is that these events now represent a “new normal”.
Yet, as President Obama himself pointed out, the problem of gun crime in America dwarfs the danger of terrorist attacks, which have resulted in mountains of intrusive, restrictive and discriminatory legislation and other measures. Since the 9/11 attacks, more than 16 years ago, fewer than 100 Americans have died in terrorist incidents; whereas more than 1,800 have died in mass shootings in the five years since Sandy Hook alone, and the annual US toll of murders, suicides and accidental deaths caused by gunfire stands at a staggering 33,000 a year – more than the entire US death toll in the Vietnam War, every two years.
Nor is this situation in any way normal; every international comparison shows the American rate of gun deaths per head of population is ten times higher than in any other developed western democracy, and a hundred times higher than in the UK, which typically has fewer than 200 gun-related deaths a year. And in every case, the numbers of murders and suicides involving guns correlates most strongly to the availability of firearms. Where firearms are rare and difficult to obtain, death rates from gun crime or suicide are low; and that figure applies not only to the difference between the US and other developed countries, but also to differences between states within the USA.
Yet in the United States, which once liked to think of itself as the world’s greatest enlightenment democracy, those facts, and those undeniable comparisons, are greeted with a wall of unreason, and a blare of hysterical scaremongering about federal attacks on citizens’s rights, that makes stricter gun control all but impossible.
And for us, in countries that have so far avoided the sales pitch of those who claim that the answer to violence is the circulation of ever more guns, there are lessons to be learned from this travesty of a political debate. That there are principles involved is not in question; the United States is a republic where citizens do not accept that the state should have a monopoly on the bearing of arms, and to a certain extent that is fair enough.
There is no argument of principle or reason, though, that could possibly justify a system which allows the accumulation in ordinary suburban environments of the kinds of hideous arsenals possessed by mass shooters like Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook, or the shooter who killed 58 people and injured more than 800 at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas last October.
And the failure to legislate to prevent this kind of horror should act as a warning that we have reached a moment, in our western democracies, where a combination of massive vested interests and hyped-up right-wing ideology, disseminated through both old and new media, can trump both rational argument, and the most basic instincts of human compassion and self-preservation.
The global debate on climate change is plagued by these recurring patterns of outright denial, and aggressive contempt both for factual information, and for expert opinion based on it. The UK’s recent decision to leave the European Union arguably involves a serious level of economic self-harm, and major damage to the prospects of our young people, all undertaken in a mood of patriotic rage whipped up by a bunch of mischief-making millionaires who care not a jot either for the peace of Europe, or for the real well-being of the British people.
And in a time when many people are turning away from the news in despair, shocked that so many crazy and unthinkable things seem to be happening without restraint, it is worth considering the forces that have made it possible for unreason to prevail so easily, in our supposedly scientific and rational western world. Not least, perhaps, the growing individualism and isolation of our lives; our increasing tendency to live in front of our screens, and to lose touch with those independent, convivial places – around the workplace, in clubs and unions, or in the street-level life of towns and cities – where people were once able to step back from the world-view pumped at them from above, and to give a serious and down-to-earth reality check both to the claims made by the mighty, and to the motives that might underpin them.