Published on Wednesday, October 4, 2006 by the Independent / UK
The Big Question: Can America Ever be Weaned off its Love Affair with Guns?
by Andrew Gumbel
This week's school shootings in Amish country, in which five children died, are just the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of spectacular mass murders to hit the headlines in the United States.
Last week, a gunman in the Colorado Rockies burst into a schoolroom and killed a student before turning his weapon on himself. Seven years ago, we had the bloodbath at Columbine High School. We've had disgruntled ex-employees shooting up their former workplaces, shootings in fast-food restaurants, and a parishioner in Fort Worth, Texas, shooting up his local church.
Each time it happens, a panoply of reasons comes to the fore. Gun-control activists blame the phenomenon largely, if not wholly, on easy access to firearms. Cultural conservatives like to blame Hollywood for its violent movies and video games. Other frequently identified causes are the prevalence of antidepressant prescriptions, the peculiar alienation of new white suburbs and the warp-effect of the media.
Is it about the guns?
There's no question that the gun culture - stemming back to the frontier spirit of the 19th century and justified, at least by gun-ownership advocates, by the Second Amendment of the Constitution - plays a major role in perpetuating the high numbers of violent deaths.
In the US, there are roughly 17,000 murders a year, of which about 15,000 are committed with firearms. By contrast, Britain, Australia and Canada combined see fewer than 350 gun-related murders each year. And it's not just about murder. The non-gun-related suicide rate in the US is consistent with the rest of the developed world. Factor in firearms, and the rate is suddenly twice as high as the rest of the developed world.
Children are affected particularly hard. An American youth is murdered with a firearm every four and a half hours on average. And an American youth commits suicide with a firearm every eight hours. It's worth remembering that many of the most spectacular mass murders of recent years were really suicides, with the perpetrators choosing to take a few other people with them while they were at it. Gun-control advocates argue they manage to carry out their murderous fantasies only because firearms give them the means to do so.
Why is gun control so ineffective?
Any adult with a clean criminal record can buy a gun in the US with relative ease. Gun shops and dealers will conduct mandatory background checks - introduced under the 1993 Brady bill, named after the White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was hit and disabled during an assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. But dealers at gun shows - popular throughout the heartland - are exempt from the federal law, making it easy for criminals or children to lay their hands on whatever they want. The semi-automatic TEC-9 machine pistols used by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine were bought at a Colorado gun show.
Federal law, more generally, is subject to constant pressure from the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun-ownership lobby group, which has the influence to run elected officials out of office if they dare to challenge its agenda. That explains why a nationwide ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, introduced during the Clinton administration, was allowed to expire on the eve of the 2004 presidential election - despite the abiding fear of al-Qa'ida sleeper cells possibly operating in the US and planning another attack. Not only did John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, not feel able to use this as a campaign issue against President Bush. He felt obliged to tout his own gun-loving bona fides for fear of losing key swing states such as Pennsylvania.
State by state, gun-control laws vary widely. California is relatively strict. Colorado closed the "gun-show loophole" in the wake of Columbine, and Oregon has followed suit. Seven states have assault weapon bans, and 19 have laws making it a crime for gun owners to leave weapons in places where they might fall into the hands of a child. Pennsylvania, with its hunting and shooting traditions (the movie The Deerhunter was set there), has one of the worst gun-control regimes. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave Pennsylvania a D+ grade last year.
What about the broader culture?
Donald Sutherland, the Canadian-born actor, once pointed out it is almost as easy to buy a gun in Canada as it is in the US, yet the incidence of gun-related deaths in Canada is dramatically lower. He argued that both countries have a frontier spirit, only that the iconic figure of the Canadian West is the Mountie - a law officer - while the iconic figure of the American West is the outlaw. Gangsters and crime syndicates have flourished in the US, and Hollywood has certainly done its bit to glamourise the empowerment of a man wielding a firearm.
Even the most ardent gun-control advocates will acknowledge there is more going on than just access to deadly weaponry. Tom Mauser, who lost a son in the Columbine shootings, blames several other factors. He sees a latent violence in the culture, spanning everything from television shows to the uncompromising rhetoric of talk-radio to the eruption of road rage. He also worries about alienation among young people, poor parental oversight and inadequate communication between school authority figures and students - especially in a suburban high school such as Columbine.
What role does the media play?
Park Dietz, perhaps America's foremost criminal profiler, believes saturation media coverage of one mass murder will lead, almost inevitably, to another mass murder within a couple of weeks. He told The Independent recently: "It's not that the news coverage made the person paranoid, or armed, or suicidally depressed. But you've got to imagine this small number of people sitting at home, with guns on their lap and a hitlist in their mind. They feel willing to die. "When they watch the coverage of a school shooting or a workplace mass murder, it takes only one or two of them to say - 'that guy is just like me, that's the solution to my problem, that's what I'll do tomorrow'."
The Amish country murders bear a disconcerting similarity to last week's shootings in Bailey, Colorado. In both cases, the gunman released the boys in the room and attacked the girls. Coincidence? Perhaps more a case of one high-profile event triggering another.
Is there hope for an end to America's gun violence?
* With every high-profile mass murder, victims' advocates and gun-control lobbyists gain more visibility, and more influence
* Someone, eventually, will make the link to homeland security: why make it so easy for al-Qa'ida to acquire assault weapons?
* The numbers of American children who die in gun violence means sooner or later, the madness will stop
* Congress is in thrall to the NRA, and is too scared to act
* The burst of reformist energy that followed Columbine has subsided, and the most recent mass murders have been greeted with resigned indifference
* The US media is too addicted to its regular, real-life horror show to want it to stop
© 2006 Independent News and Media Limited