America’s problem with guns

This article originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm

Opinion: mass shootings in the United States have sadly become all too common in recent times yet measures to address this malaise are rarely enacted. Just how did we get to this point?

We have been here many times before: America convulsed by a mass shooting in which innocents (young and old, men, women and children) have lost their lives as a lone gunman tears a murderous path through an ordinary day. In Sutherland Springs, Texas, it was at a Sunday church service. In Las Vegas last month, in an attack that set a new record for death toll, the location was an open-air concert.

We have seen bloodbaths at schools (in Sandy Hook and Columbine), at universities (Virginia Tech), at nightclubs (Orlando), at fast food restaurants (San Diego), at community centres (Kansas City), in movie theatres (Aurora, Colorado), public meetings (Tucson, Arizona), and too many other locations to keep track of. Each time the grief, lamentations, and dismay recede and the United States resumes its pace of life. Then, another event shocks us into public discussion, editorials, vigils, outcries, argument and despair. Gun control has become one of the great intractables, where no matter how much discussion takes place, no progress occurs.

Photo By: Justin Connaher

I grew up in the US and all my family live there. Like so many others, I keep asking myself how did we get to this point?

One factor obviously remains the National Rifle Association, a highly effective manufacturers’ interest group that masquerades as a grassroots organisation. In autumn 2016, the NRA launched its own streaming service, NRATV, with a strap line “The Truth is Under Fire”, identifying itself with conservative causes, Trumpian rhetoric and (white) populism. In short, they position gun ownership as a political identity, sanctified by the second amendment to the constitution.

The episode in Las Vegas represented a temporary setback to the NRA’s message, given the scale of the slaughter and the killer’s use of a bump stock to accelerate the firing of rounds to machinegun rate. But any pressure on the organisation has been relieved by the episode in Texas. Here, a gun-owning neighbour, Stephen Willeford, heard the shots in the church and returned fire with his own rifle. He then flagged down a passing pickup truck to give chase, the classic “good guy with a gun” taking on a “bad guy with a gun”. NRATV duly interviewed him in a 50 minute broadcast, under the banner of NRA member and hero.

“Personal protection” constitutes the major rationale cited by proponents of owning handguns. But the argument falls apart in the face of the evidence.

The story of Willeford’s response is compelling in its own way, but the telling of it misses the point. Entrusting law enforcement to random, armed citizens is hardly a solution, and the fact remains that 26 people were killed in that Texas church, including a pregnant woman. Instead, it speaks of a desire to change the subject.

Attention has now shifted to the failure of the Air Force to forward information on Deven Patrick Kelley’s 2012 conviction for assault on his wife and young son to national databases. This would theoretically have prevented him from purchasing the weapon used in the attack (a Ruger AR-556 rifle; he also had two handguns in his car).

The other classic move is to change the discussion to matters of mental health, as President Trump promptly did, calling Kelly a “deranged individual”. The same shift of attention happened in Virginia Tech in 2007 with the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. In the case of the Las Vegas massacre, the search was for Stephen Paddock’s “motive” in the absence of obvious signs of mental illness.

But even if such an illness could be established, surely the problem is that ill people have access to weapons enabling them to destroy lives on a massive scale (one of President Trump’s first acts in office was to rescind regulations that made it more difficult for mentally ill people to buy guns). The simple fact is that the overwhelming number of mass shootings, regardless of the psychiatric history of the perpetrators, have been performed with weapons obtained legally.

Something else is going on. We have perpetuated our own system of terror, placing citizens at risk of random attack. The president underscores the national hypocrisy by demanding extreme vetting for immigrants, in the wake of the Halloween attack in New York City, while pandering to the NRA agenda by upholding unfettered access to guns (they backed his presidential campaign heavily). What this tells us is that societies have acceptable levels of violence, and that, ultimately, no amount of carnage is enough to galvanize political action in the US.

Why is this so? Part of the problem lies, I suspect, in the size of the country. As an entity, the US is too large for these episodes to have sufficient impact to demand national action. They can be absorbed emotionally because they belong, ultimately, to a locality. The contrast in the UK after the Dunblane massacre is instructive: action had to be taken after the fatal shooting of 16 school children and a teacher in 1996. I was living in the UK at the time, and Dunblane felt immediate, close and urgent to address.

Entrusting law enforcement to random, armed citizens is hardly a solution. Instead, it speaks of a desire to change the subject.

In a geographically dispersed America, the scene is always distant – Sutherland Springs is too far away. So is Blacksburg, site of Virginia Tech. So is Charleston in South Carolina, site of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Dylann Roof took the lives of nine people. So is Newtown, Connecticut, site of Sandy Hook Elementary School. So is Denver, Colorado, site of Columbine High School. And on it goes.

For many Americans, gun ownership represents a “freedom”. Any threat to what they understand as a right leads them to resist efforts to legislate in order to make background checks more stringent, to restrict sales at gun shows and between private individuals and to limit the availability of the most destructive weapons.

But this ostensible freedom only exists by abridging other liberties. What freedom do people experience when warnings of “live shooters” routinely shut down public spaces, schools, campuses, and other venues? Should it really be necessary to install metal detectors in schools? Does it make the country more or less free when you need to arm people in churches, movie houses, and classrooms as a prophylactic measure against the possible appearance of a random shooter? America has simply chosen as a nation to rank the right to bear arms above any other right.

From RTÉ Radio One’s Today With Sean O’Rourke, US Republican commentator Charlie Wolf and Democrats Abroad Ireland’s John Kelly discuss gun control

Meanwhile the “good guy” argument thrives as a fantasy in which the virtuous will protect the public against those intent on doing harm. This is achieved by furnishing teachers, guards, and others with sidearms to ensure our safety at every turn. The massive escalation of weaponry that such a system would require is too obscene to contemplate, but it fails even the first test of experience. If such an approach works, how did Major Nidal Hasan succeed in killing 13 people at the US army base in Fort Hood, Texas in 2009? Or Aaron Alexis murder 12 at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013, in the midst of a concentration of trained and armed personnel?

“Personal protection” constitutes the major rationale cited by proponents of owning handguns. But the argument falls apart in the face of the evidence. An article in the Annals of Internal Medicine published in 2014, examining a range of prior investigations, concluded: “all studies found significantly higher odds of homicide victimization among participants who had access to a firearm than among those who did not”. The truth of the matter is that more guns result in more shootings and more deaths.

Those who imagine defending themselves with a firearm might want to take note of some stark figures. The FBI reported a total of 499 “justifiable homicides” by private citizens in the US in 2014 and 2015, mainly performed with firearms. Over the same period, about 25,000 people died in gun homicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (leaving out suicide, a popular use for personal weapons). But we remain trapped in a circular logic in which the proliferation of guns fuels the fear of attack and the purchase of yet more weapons.

Statistics on gun ownership indicate the high percentage of white males among those who keep weapons.[7] NRATV cultivates this audience, as does the widely circulated Guns & Ammo magazine, judging from the photography and video on its website. Hunting enthusiasts, ex-military and law enforcement no doubt form a significant part of its wide readership, but one comes away with a strong sense that a major source of its appeal stems from supporting threatened masculinity.

A current article by Richard Nance in Guns & Ammo on “Off Body Carry” does helpfully note that “for women, carrying a concealed handgun in their purse is a natural choice. After all, women typically carry purses anyway, and it’s a lot easier to add a gun to the mix than redesign a wardrobe to accommodate carrying a handgun in a belt-mounted holster.” (He goes on to offer sensible tips on accessing the weapon quickly, advising women to zip their weapon in a dedicated pocket and to keep the pocket free from an “eyebrow brush or an ink pen” lest such items work their way into the triggerguard, a “recipe for disaster”.)

Of course, the great obstacle to progress on gun control has been the Second Amendment with its guarantee of the right of the individual to bear arms, leading one recent commentator to call for its repeal. The amendment’s wording is at best ambiguous: “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.”

Do we take the final declarative phrase as definitive, or accept that it is radically modified by the preceding clauses? If the intention was not to modify it, then why include them? Americans sacralise the Constitution and the wishes of the Framers, as they understand them, even as the lethal power of weapons has long since overtaken the orginators’ intentions. My own view is that literalists should accept the force of the opening clause and require gun owners to enlist in the military if they wish to bear arms, not that this would have spared us from Deven Kelly or Maj. Hasan.

In a geographically dispersed America, the scene is always distant – Sutherland Springs is too far away. So is Blacksburg, site of Virginia Tech. So is Charleston in South Carolina

The American fixation with guns has entered the territory of the grotesque and self-parodic, promoting the likes of Dana Loesch to prominence as a ferocious spokesperson for the NRA. Anyone who needs a reminder of what it all comes down to should spare a moment to visit the site of Aftermath, which specialises in “Trauma Cleaning & Biohazard Removal”. Their thoughtful review of relevant statistics prefaces an invitation to hire them to provide a professional service to sort out the mess. They remark: “In the unfortunate and tragic event that someone is accidentally shot and injured or killed, there will likely be a substantial amount of blood loss that needs to be cleaned up. This cleanup is the responsibility of the property owner, and it comes with risks.” Indeed, like the American romance with the gun itself.

View more from Prof. Daniel Carey on RTÉ Brainstorm, or see all NUI Galway articles on RTÉ Brainstorm.

Daniel Carey

Daniel Carey, MRIA, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway and Professor of English in the School of Humanities. He was Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014-16.