What will it take for America to finally act to put an end to its national scourge of gun violence? A mass shooting at the annual conference of the National Rifle Association (NRA), perhaps? Because a country that can endure massacres at schools, cinemas, university campuses and, now, gay clubs, does not appear to be one with the will to check this seemingly inevitable run of gun horror. Even the prospect of gun rights being exploited by Islamic terrorists does not seem likely to spur politicians into gun control action. Why is it that this superpower, as obsessed as it is with security and banning harmful items (read Haggis and Kinder Eggs), is incapable of controlling the devices which kill over 30,000 a year?
In most rational public discourse, following any sort of tragic or disastrous event, the public want to know what action their political leaders intend to take. After the Dunblane primary school massacre in Scotland in 1996, the UK government swiftly prohibited the ownership of handguns. Driving tests and licenses were introduced decades ago to deal with the problem of surging numbers of cars on the roads. Yet it is still exceedingly easy for any American citizen, often including criminals, to purchase military-grade weaponry with out any form of license, training or background check. The result is that just one individual with an AR-15 assault rifle – the mass murderer’s weapon of choice – is able to prosecute mass casualty terror attacks. There is no sign that US politicians are about to snap into action. The power of not only the gun lobby, but also of an intensely pro-gun political culture, precludes any possibility of policy overhaul.
The NRA spends millions of dollars every year lobbying Congress and state legislatures, and millions more supporting pro-gun candidates. Especially for Republican politicians, to lose the support of the NRA is to kiss goodbye to any chance of electoral success. The arguments made by organisations like this seem preposterous: that the way to stop mass shootings is to arm teachers, shop assistants, nightclub-goers, etc…; that the communist President Obama wants to take your guns, while he, hypocritically, gets protection from men with guns. The power of the NRA has put paid to even some quite minor attempts to tighten US gun laws. The influence of this lobby group, however, cannot be viewed in singularity: it has to be understood in the context of a national political culture so ingrained with gun-mania.
This fervour is more than simply reverence for the Constitution. To be sure, the founding document is a kind of national religion, but many parts of it are often ignored or flagrantly violated: think of the prohibition of ‘cruel or unusual punishment’ and the support of many on the Right for practices of torture. Gun advocacy stems from a peculiar national psyche tormented by the prospect of an over-mighty government only ever one step away from tyranny. It was, gun right enthusiasts assert, the tyrannical British attempt to ‘take the guns’ which ignited the War of Independence; and look what happened in Germany when Hitler went for the guns. These contentions may seem ridiculous in 21st century America, but they hold real credence in many parts of the country. The extremes of this movement are verging on conspiracy theorism – gun confiscation is the first stage of a federal conspiracy to enslave the provincial population.
What’s more, the current gun control debate is wrapped in the context of an era of hyper-partisanship. The prospect of Democrats and Republicans working together on any issue, let alone one as controversial as this, is tiny. Moderate Republicans cannot work with Democrats to achieve common sense changes to gun laws, for fear of being labelled part of the Obama conspiracy. In addition, the Supreme Court has made it clear over decades of cases that all but the most minimal gun restrictions will be struck down. Politically and constitutionally, gun control of the level deemed appropriate elsewhere in the world seems to be an impossibility.
There is a more practical reason, as well, why gun control is possibly doomed to fail: the level of saturation of guns in America. In terms of private guns per head of population, only war-torn Yemen exceeds the US. There are more privately owned firearms in America than there are people. This gives weight to the gun lobby argument that ‘good guys’ need guns to protect themselves from ‘bad guys’. Any criminal worth his name knows he needs a gun; thus law-abiding citizens feel the need to furnish their homes with defensive armouries. There comes a vicious circle of kinds. Not only does this lead to more gun violence, but the chance of an accidental shooting rockets. Until the Orlando massacre on 12th June, more people had been accidently shot by toddlers than by Islamic terrorists this year.
The commentator Dan Hodges summed up the state of US gun debate neatly: ‘in retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over’. It is a sad indictment of the supposed land of peace and freedom that anyone can own, carry and use industrial-scale killing machines. We know that there are people out there who wish to carry out terrorist attacks; surely America can make it a little harder for them to do so.