USA: domestic guns and mass murder

By Graham Peebles

Guns in homes, carried in handbags and school rucksacks, briefcases, car glove compartments and jackets, accessories to kill and injure, to threaten and intimidate. Don’t leave home without one!

In 2010 over a third of adults in the United States owned a gun and there were a staggering 310,000,000 non-military guns (known to the authorities) in the country. It is a number one can barely register. One thing is certain: it is far too many firearms for any one country. A series of mass killings have recently shaken a gun-complacent America into debating the issue of arms within society, gun controls, regulations and enforcement. But it is a debate inhibited by political cowardice in a billion-dollar election year, for nobody running for office wants to upset the high church of guns in America, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its 4.5 million members.

These latest killings follow in a stream of such tragedies and cause many around the world to shake their collective heads at a society that seems not to learn from these dreadful violent incidents. They illustrate once again the need for a new and sane approach to gun controls. Surprisingly though, a current Gallup report found that “Americans have shifted to a more pro-gun view on gun laws … with record-low support for a ban on handguns, an assault rifle ban and stricter gun laws in general”. In fact, only 11 per cent support tighter gun laws at all. What will it take, one asks, for common sense to prevail and for this fear driven tryst with firearms to come to a timely end?

Mass figures, presidential position

The “soul-searching” the president advocates … does not include discussing what to many seems imperative and obvious: tighter gun controls or, better still, a complete ban on the sale of firearms coupled with the handing in of all weapons in private ownership…

Writing in the Guardian newspaper, investigative journalist Amy Goodman reports that “an average of 32 people [are] killed by guns in this country [USA] every day – the equivalent of five Wisconsin massacres per day“. That equates to an average of 11,680 domestic murders annually. To establish some perspective, in Afghanistan – a war zone  there have been, according to United Nations figures over 12,793 deaths in the past six years. That is, a thousand fatalities more in total than takes place in a US at peace, every year.

What then does President Barack Obama have to say about this social epidemic? After the murder of seven people during worship at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on 5 August by former soldier Wade Michael Page, President Obama said: “I think all of us recognize that these kinds of terrible, tragic events are happening with too much regularity for us not to do some soul-searching.” To many of us it is unclear what is meant by such a platitude, or why such a deep investigation is necessary, when the solution seems plain. The “soul-searching” the president advocates, however, does not include discussing what to many seems imperative and obvious: tighter gun controls or, better still, a complete ban on the sale of firearms coupled with the handing in of all weapons in private ownership, save those used solely for sport.

The president’s position has, at least publicly, remained unchanged since he arrived at the White House in 2008, when he promised to the 80 million or so gun owners that he was “not going to take away your guns”. How reassuring. Writing in the Arizona Daily Starin March 2011, two months after US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot dead in a supermarket parking lot in Casa Adobes, near Tuscon, Arizona, Obamaencouragingly said, no doubt with all sincerity: “None of us should be willing to remain passive in the face of violence or resigned to watching helplessly as another rampage unfolds on television”. He went on to state what many millions know: “Every single day America is robbed of more futures. It has awful consequences for our society. And as a society, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to put a stop to it.” Indeed we do, Mr President, so what inspired measures are you proposing that will put an end to the killings in supermarket car parks, colleges and homes, and in the parks and streets of your country? “My administration has not curtailed the rights of gun owners – it has expanded them, including allowing people to carry their guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.” Add to this the latest addition to legal gun carrying, on the US train network Amtrak, and the meaning of the determination to “do everything we can” becomes clear.

Major murders mass accidents

Since beginning this article more major killings have captured the attention of the world’s media. Manhattan, a reasonably safe island in New York, witnessed a shooting on 25 August near the Empire State Building. According to the BBC, a sacked clothes designer fatally shot a former colleague in the head. The police then fired 16 rounds and killed the gunman. In addition to the two killings, nine bystanders were injured “by bullets, some possibly fired by police, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said”. In Texas A&M University, the Guardian reported, a police officer and a bystander were killed and others injured during a shoot-out with a gunman, who was shot and later died.

The police carry guns, of course, some might say they are forced to, in order to meet “fire with fire”, killing with killing. And sometimes accidents, or “collateral damage”, a military term designed to normalize the inhumane, are inevitable – the price of security, the supporters of such policies would no doubt stridently claim. The weight of fear and an attachment to a distorted ideal of freedom which forces them to bear arms and to attack, not defend, underpin such views. Killing and injuring in the name of freedom, security and liberty, it’s our right, the advocates of guns cry. Is there a right that supports murder and justifies killing, intentional or indeed accidental? “Sorry, it was an accident,” is small comfort to the bereaved.

Friday 7 September saw two such “accidents” in New York. A shopkeeper being robbed was shot and killed by an armed uniformed policeman. According to a Huffington Post report, “the death appeared to be an accident… There was no sign that the shooter and other officers at the scene mishandled the situation,” said police commissioner Raymond Kelly. “The tragedy here, of course, was that Mr Cuevas [the shopkeeper] was shot, but I see nothing wrong with the procedure,” the commissioner added. One doubts the family of Cuevas would agree.

Strengthening legal filters is unlikely to find the psychopath in the human haystack, the criminal shopping offline on the black market or the unstable “regular Joe” who flips out when he is made redundant.

A second man threatening suicide with a knife was shot  not disarmed, comforted and given needed support  by armed officers in the district of Queens. The tension inherent in attending an armed incident must be great. Expecting violence, frightened yet “pumped up”  mistakes are to be expected, perhaps inevitable, triggered by such circumstances. The fault lies not with the officers, who are, we trust, following “procedure”, and we must assume them to be responsible, well trained and armed to protect themselves and those in danger. But common sense says that no accidental deaths would occur without the guns being carried, drawn and inevitably fired.

The attack on the Sikh community in Wisconsin follows closely on from the slaughter that took place on 20 July in the suburb of Aurora in Denver, Colorado, at a screening of the latest Batman film, the “Dark Knight Rises”. James Holmes, a 24-year-old PhD neuro-science student masked and heavily armed, shot 14 innocent people, including 12 dead and an unborn child. The mother was shot in the stomach and neck, but survived only to lose the foetus she was carrying. Her six-year-old daughter was also killed and a further 50 people were injured.

The first question  impossible to answer  that comes to the mind is why. Why did a young student shoot 14 innocent people or, looking back a little, why did a biology professor in 2010 kill three colleagues during a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama? Would they have met Obama’s description of villainous law breakers (“I’m willing to bet that responsible, law-abiding gun owners agree we should be able to keep an irresponsible, law-breaking few  dangerous criminals and fugitives, for example  from getting their hands on a gun in the first place”). And I am willing to bet that you have no idea that a college lecturer was dangerous, or that a postgraduate student of neuro-science was a “fugitive”.

Strengthening legal filters is unlikely to find the psychopath in the human haystack, the criminal shopping offline on the black market or the unstable “regular Joe” who flips out when he is made redundant.

Massive business

The US domestic firearm industry is a huge business; since 1999 it has been worth, according to the Guardian, “on average, about 3.5 billion dollars every year”. Guns are relatively inexpensive: an AK-47 assault weapon, for example, costs around 500 dollars, and a low-calibre handgun can be bought in a supermarket for as little as 75 dollars. Not only is it big business, but also “it is recession-proof, rising and falling less with the economic tide than the electoral one. When Democrats are elected the sales go up.” When Obama was elected in 2008, sales of firearms increased by 50 per cent compared with the same time the previous year, perhaps in nervous anticipation of reforms to gun laws. Stock up before the legal purge is the mentality. It is a purge that never came, and so the killing goes on.

In a country where capitalism is the national way coupled with a very American notion of freedom, business, profit and the right to carry guns are held together in an orthodox marriage, the vows performed by the extremely powerful NRA and seen as sacrosanct. Add to this trinity the much trumpeted Second Amendment, which says: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.” Taken together, you have a poisonous cocktail that causes the death of around 12,000 people a year.

Uncertain amendment

There are various interpretations of the cherished Second Amendment. The first is based on the absence of an 18th century civilian militia (the US army of the time)  a “well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defence of a free state’  seems the most logical and appropriate and would appear to restrict gun ownership and the right to bear arms to the personnel of a militia. However, as Civil Liberties state, “justices have disagreed on whether the amendment is intended to protect the right to bear arms as an individual right, or as a component of the ‘well-regulated militia’. Ambiguity is a convenient tool in continuing to justify the commoditization of weapons, which are sold as a “must have”, enriching the firearms industry, enabling the selling of guns to a fearful populace under some vague pretext of self-defence against the state and or personal safety.

Fearful right to attack

The notion that peace can be achieved and maintained nationally or internationally through the constant threat and repeated exercise of force, as America seems to believe, is a false one. Violence begets violence. Peace is realized through removing the causes of conflict and division. To make war in the name of peace, as America has repeatedly done and continues to do, is to cloak ones actions in a fabricated nobility.

It is logical that where there is the greatest concentration of gun ownership there will be the highest number of gun-related crimes and murders. A study by the Harvard Injury Research Centre unsurprisingly found that “a broad array of evidence indicates that gun availability is a risk factor for homicide“, and “states with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide”. This last finding was calculated from studies in over 50 states of the United States.

In addition to the spurious argument for gun ownership based on the “right to bear arms”, there is the idea that guns ensures personal safety, that weapons are an aid to and are primarily used in self-defence, and that bearing arms generates psychological security. These views are completely false, as indeed the Harvard team discovered. “Gunsare not used millions of times each year in self-defence” and “Most purported self-defence gun uses are gun uses in escalating arguments and are both socially undesirable and illegal …firearms are used far more often to frighten and intimidate than they are used in self-defence”. The Harvard team also found that almost half of all gun owners have a small arsenal of weapons, with four or more guns in their bedside cabinets, kitchen cupboards and office drawers.

Gun ownership creates physiological and, more importantly, psychological fear. The self same paranoia that drives gun ownership justifies drone attacks in Pakistan, and false imprisonment, torture and abuse in Guantanamo, and is a necessary factor in controlling any society, by any regime. The Harvard study on gun ownership revealed that, “By a margin of more than 3 to 1, Americans would feel less safe, not safer, as others in their community acquire guns.” Mostly guns are kept within the home, and are used more often to frighten and intimidate partners, family members and “friends” than to “thwart crime; other weapons are far more commonly used against intruders”. The same pattern applies to teenagers, 12-17-year-old gun-packing adolescents who report being more likely to threaten and be threatened by a peer carrying a gun than to use a weapon in self-defence.

Trust is not built through actions based on paranoia and a fear of the “other”, who may or may not be a “fugitive”, a “terrorist”, a “dangerous criminal” and or a threat to “national security”. Actions rooted in fear do not alleviate unease but reinforce anxiety.

Stop selling guns, call for all weapons in circulation to be handed in to police stations and make holding firearms illegal, unless they are intended for sport. This straightforward, if radical strategy would drastically reduce gun crime, individual homicides and mass killings. It is, President Obama, the right thing to do and the “common-sense” approach.

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