For most of us outside the US, Americans’ fascination with weapons in the private sphere is beyond comprehension. A brief glance at the shocking numbers of fatalities and injuries caused by these guns can lead to only one rational conclusion — ban or reduce their presence to a bare minimum. Only last month at a country music festival in Las Vegas, Stephen Paddock, in a completely random shooting, killed 58 people and wounded more than 500. It was the worst such massacre in US history. And last week it was the turn of Devin Kelley, who opened fire at the First Baptist Church in the small Texas town of Sutherland Springs, killing 26 people, around 4 percent of the local population.
No place is immune, no place is too sacred for these people to execute innocent citizens point-blank, be it a school, a church, a cinema or a music festival.
Following this kind of massacre, a controversy revolving around the right to bear arms rages for a few days, is argued and debated with great passion and emotion, and then almost evaporates from public discourse, until the next bloody carnage. The ease of acquiring weapons in the US dawned on me when I was visiting family in Cheyenne, Wyoming, on my first trip to the local Walmart. What took me by complete surprise was not only the oversized packaging of almost every type of food, but a massive cabinet full of guns — all for sale. In one of the most tranquil of places I had ever been, a home to wonderful, hospitable and generous people, the presence of weapons has been completely normalized. Children are growing up watching the purchase of arms and ammunition along with the weekly groceries.
Carrying guns for the average American is not just about self-defense, as its supporters argue. In US society it is a state of mind, a culture nurtured from early age.
Those in the powerful gun lobby — the National Rifle Association (NRA) — and their supporters hold to the Constitution’s Second Amendment as their ultimate justification in resisting gun control. Yet the Second Amendment does not state the right of individuals to own or carry guns, but that “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.” It takes quite a bit of creative thinking to interpret the Founding Fathers’ wish to protect the independence of individual states from the tyranny of the federal government as a license to hand almost anyone a gun.
Mass shootings are the events that are always guaranteed to draw attention to the impact of weapons in American society. Nevertheless, as horrific as they are, and despite having great psychological impact, they amount to a very small number of the deaths caused by guns. In most cases their impact is similar to terrorist attacks in spreading fear, but usually without any ideological or political objectives. Of the 100 people who lose their lives to gun violence every day, two thirds are suicides and most of the rest are homicides.
Anyone who calls for tougher laws is accused of betraying the Founding Fathers, but the real betrayal is handing weapons to those who deprive innocent people of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Currently it is estimated that there are 300 million guns in the US, around one gun per citizen. This is a staggering figure — nearly double that of Switzerland, which is the world’s second-highest gun-owning country. Shooting in self-defense, which is the NRA’s favorite pro-ownership argument, amounts to less than 2 percent of gun fatalities. Study after study has demonstrated the strong correlation between the proliferation of guns and the fatal use of them. Moreover, the criminal lack of regulation, ranging from background checks to protection orders, banning bump stocks or banning those under 21 from purchasing firearms, is a major contributory factor to America’s daily deaths by the gun.
All the signs are on the wall, for anyone who bothers to look at them, that the gun issue in the US requires urgent and radical reform. One major obstacle is that the discourse on gun control has been framed in ideological-political terms. Arguing that owning a gun is a near-divine right enshrined in the Constitution places great restrictions on rational argument. There is also the vested economic interest of those who manufacture weapons to maintain this market. In such a vast and diverse country as the US, there are circumstances in which carrying a gun makes some sense, but to allow concealed guns in Texas universities, for example, is sheer madness.
The presence of a formidable lobby, the NRA, in a country proud of the influence of strong lobbies, curtails genuine debate at the expense of the thousands upon thousands of lives that could have been saved by tighter gun control. It is almost impossible to conduct a constructive debate on the issue, as anyone who opposes it is branded a wishy-washy liberal who is betraying the values of the Founding Fathers. In reality the real betrayal of the spirit of the Founding Fathers is handing guns to those who massacre innocent people and thereby deprive them of their right for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg