The Enemy Within

America's dangerous love affair with guns

Last week we saw the latest mass shooting in America where innocent lives were lost at the hands of a gunman whose sole intention was to use his weapon to commit the most grievous disruption he could.  The weapon was bought legally, and despite the obvious mental health issues that someone whose decision to kill people must face, there was only minimal checks on whether he was fit and capable to own such a devastating tool.  Guns have always been a part of American society, but now more than ever they are an unrelenting force of evil in the world’s most “advanced” country.

It’s staggering that since 1968 more people have been killed by guns in America than have died in ALL of the country’s wars.  The War of Independence, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan and the War in Iraq all claimed the lives of fewer Americans, combined, than the ordinary citizens at home themselves in 48 years.  The fear of terrorism has been prevalent in American culture since the atrocities of 9/11, but the fact remains that people are more at risk of being gunned down by an American with a weapon bought at a local supermarket than killed by a foreign terrorist.  You are 428 times more likely to be killed by a gunman than in an act of terror in the USA. In fact, domestic gun deaths have killed more Americans combined than terrorism, wars, AIDS and drug overdoses COMBINED since the start of 2001. The most dangerous enemy of America lies within.

The horrific crimes that are committed on what seems to be a regular basis in America are committed by weapons purchased legally.  Often the first crime that these people commit is firing their guns during their attacks.  These are lone wolf operatives whose intentions and actions are unpredictable by law enforcement until it’s tragically too late.  There’s no way of stopping these crimes from happening without massive changes both legally and socially.  A “Big Brother” surveillance system is anathema to American values and not an option that’s worth considering, so the only real alternative is to slowly restrict the supply of weapons to make these tragedies all the more rare.

To get a gun in America you need to be a US citizen over the age of 21.  Since the Brady Law of 1993, named after President Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary who was shot and paralysed in an assassination attempt, all buyers must also pass the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  While definitely a step in the right direction, the criteria that need to be met to pass the system are hardly exhaustive.  Someone will only be denied the right to purchase a gun if they:

  • Have been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  • Are under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  • Are a fugitive from justice;
  • Are an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
  • Have been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
  • Are illegally or unlawfully in the United States;
  • Have been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
  • Having been a citizen of the United States, have renounced U.S. citizenship;
  • Are subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner;
  • Have been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

So, for example, there is no prohibition on someone who is voluntarily being treated and medicated for depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) from buying a weapon.  These three illnesses are far too common among those who commit gun atrocities but still there is no action being taken to prevent them from doing so.

Public support in America for well over a decade has seen stricter gun control as the preference of most Americans, if not a majority.  Gallup polls over the last 25 years have shown that there is more support for stricter gun control.  Pew Research polls from July show strong majorities in favour of background checks on private sales (85%), laws preventing mentally ill people buying guns (79%) and a federal database to track gun sales (70%), with 57% also believing there should be a ban on assault-style weapons.  The issue has been shielded from political action by a pro-gun Republican party whose lurch to the right and continued support from gun lobbyists has seen them make the support of the 2nd Amendment a central tenet of their party’s agenda.

While a stunning piece of political prose and a key influence in the democratisation and liberation of the world, America’s inflexible and outdated constitution means that even majority support for ending the unfettered access to weapons is an impossibility.  The amendment would need to be repealed by the passing of a new amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate to pass before being approved by three-quarters of the US states.  And with the Republicans in control of Congress and most state legislatures, as much as Barack Obama might like to make reform of America’s gun laws as a final part of his legacy, it isn’t going to happen.  Americans are being held hostage at gunpoint by the Republican Party.

The argument of gun control often comes down to a discussion of rights, and the “right to bear arms” is a much loved part of America’s long-term relationship with freedoms.  While the original intention of the amendment was to protect citizens against a tyrannical government, the world has become a completely different place in the two centuries since its inception.  A well-armed militia of Americans would be comfortably dealt with by the might of the US Army.  And while the right to do as you please, including owning a gun, is something that is often sought to be protected – when the ownership of something whose sole purpose is to end the life and liberty of another human being, I think it’s hard to argue that guns are a protector of freedoms themselves.

Another argument is that of self-defence, that having a gun makes you safer from attack as you can deal with the situation.  Aside from the fact that a confrontation with somebody holding a gun has a painfully high probability of ending in serious injury or death from one participant, it’s also patently not true that those with guns are safer than those without.  A society without firearms would be truly the safest option, and while it’s true that there will always be criminals with weapons they might be used less frequently, which is to everyone’s benefit.

Initiating a wide scale rollback of firearms in America is certainly not feasible, and could even be a recipe for sure-fire disaster in some cases, but a gradual demilitarisation of the public can be the only measured way of making the public safer.  Controlling the sale of new weapons and particularly keeping a much closer watch on ammunition are two ways in which the US Government could clamp down on the proliferation of guns whilst maintaining their constitutional commitment to the right to bear arms.

Australia provides a model of what can happen when gun control is implemented and the results have been astounding.  After reforms in 1993 following the murder of 32 people in Port Arthur, new gun laws saw the rate of firearm related deaths plummet in Australia.  After enduring 13 mass shootings in 18 years, Australia’s death rate by firearm was only 0.14 per 100,000 in population in 2012.  In America that year the figure was 2.97 per 100,000.

Even here in the UK the changes made after the Dunblane massacre have meant that the country is a safer place.  Handgun cartridges and eventually .22 handguns were banned across the country in 1997 through reforms by John Major and later Tony Blair’s Government.  In 2012/13 only 30 people were killed in the UK by a firearm down over half from pre-Dunblane levels.

Obama has tried to make gun control a part of his agenda but he’s found it naturally hard to use his dwindling political capital to drive the issue home, made even more difficult by the inherent desire not to make hay out of tragedy.  People want change, and not a soul would argue that these gun attacks are anything but monstrosities, but with economic hardship, foreign strife and other social issues more engaging to a largely politically accepting electorate, it isn’t going to happen.

The fact remains that despite a long-standing support for real change to America’s gun laws, even more long-standing constitutional and party political issues are trumping it at every turn (no pun intended).  America may be the land of the free and home of the brave, but that’s come at a tremendous human cost.  America has an enemy within, but one it is willing to withstand, for now.

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