Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shooting America

On Friday, 14th of December 2012, a young gunman walked into Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and proceeded to shoot and kill 26 people, including 20 children in the ages of 6 and 7 years. This horrific incident was one of the worst mass murders even in the violent history of America. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t entirely isolated. In fact, this was the third incident of a similar kind to take place in the United States just in 2012. These recent cases include the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado, on the 20th of July 2012, in which twelve people were killed and 58 injured; and the shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, on August 5, in which a white supremacist killed six people, possibly mistaking the Sikhs for Muslims. Six of the worst mass shootings in America have taken place since 2007.

Could this finally be a turning point—the straw that broke the camel’s back, in the words of Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California—in the American attitude towards gun violence? There are signs of outrage that seem unprecedented; after all, the horror of the slaughter of these little children is just too painful, too hard even to imagine. But don’t hold your breath.

There is much focus on the mental health of the shooter and on providing increased security in schools. This is understandable. However, I do not see this primarily as a mental health issue. This is not meant to belittle the importance of psychological factors or to deny the importance of mental illness as an explanatory factor. America’s mental health care system is clearly broken and there seem to be extraordinarily many sick people who turn to violence. However, there are crazy people everywhere, but in most other places they can be stopped before they are able to commit mass murder. Just recently, a Chinese nutcase attacked a school in his own country. Armed only with a knife, he was able to injure a number of people but not to kill anyone before he was apprehended.

In this latest case in Connecticut, the assailant was in the possession of three advanced pieces of weaponry: Glock and Sig Sauer handguns and an AR-15 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle. He used this firepower to enter the school and then to kill the kids and their teachers. It is worth noting that apparently he had acquired access to these guns from his mother (who was the first victim of his killing spree), a gun enthusiast.

What surprises me is that so relatively few Americans have arrived at the inevitable conclusion that access to high-powered firearms itself is a threat. While a few people like Feinstein and Dan Gross of the anti-gun violence Brady Campaign have systematically brought the issue of stronger gun control up, the debate still seems to be up in the air. Although most pro-gun politicians have had the sense of laying low since Friday’s tragedy, a number of gun activists, sensing a threat to their God-given right to carry any weapon, have again decided that attack is the best defense. People like John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, has been seen on a number of TV talk shows peddling his claim that everywhere where stricter gun controls have been effected, murder rates have gone up (would someone please look at the statistics behind this implausible claim). Citing the Aurora example, Lott asserts that the shooter actually chose that particular movie theatre because it didn’t allow guns. There were other theatres closer to the murderer’s home but, Lott implies, there might have been armed people there who would have returned the fire, so the shooter was afraid of attacking them. Just imagine a gunfight in a crowded and dark movie theatre.

Another creep, Philip Van Cleave, president of the sinister sounding Virginia Citizens Defense League, actually had the temerity to tell Washington Post on Sunday after the Newtown massacre that guns are fun. Defending the people’s wish to own semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15 (implicated in the three latest massacres mentioned above), he was quoted by the newspaper as saying: “I could ask you why should anyone want a Ferrari? [Bushmasters] are absolutely a blast to shoot with. They’re fast. They’re accurate. … Guns are fun, and some of them are much more cool than others.” Apart from the stunning insensitivity, Van Cleave’s views may not be that rare amongst Americans.

Who exactly Lott, Van Cleave and their ilk envision could have been better armed to fight back in the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown is not clear to me. The young teachers who died with their students? Or perhaps the children themselves? Employing armed guards and arming teachers or movie goers or citizens in general so that they can return fire when a deranged person starts shooting at them is such a dystopian vision that few of us I imagine would cherish. And would all of us really want to be trained in handling guns?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe many Americans do see this as a desirable way of protecting oneself and one’s liberties. After all, this is a country where large groups of people arm themselves in preparation against a takeover by the socialists in the Federal Government (or even—gasp!—the United Nations) . It would seem inevitable that an even larger number of people walking and driving around with concealed weapons would result in those guns being used when things heat up in, say, a traffic jam or a supermarket line. And the risk of innocent bystanders getting hurt in these altercations seems high.

This happened on Friday, August 24, 2012, when a man shot his former co-worker near Empire State Building in Manhattan. The police killed the assailant immediately following the incident, in the process injuring eight innocent bystanders with ricocheting bullets—and remember, these were highly trained law enforcement officers who are experts in handling firearms.

“Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” has long been the rallying call of the supporters of the National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful pro-gun lobby. Regretfully, that’s just not true. There will always be nuts who want to kill people. However, their ability to do so is significantly increased by the availability of guns. Later the same evening, the brother of the Empire State Building victim was interviewed by CNN. His opinion: Don’t turn this into a referendum on firearms; if the killer hadn’t had a gun, he could have used a “baseball bat or whatever.” Perhaps so. People who are inclined to commit premeditated murder do find a way to do so. A baseball bat would do the trick, but it just might be more difficult to carry it concealed to the spot, then un-shield it rapidly when the intended victim is in sight, and to wield it to his head—all on a crowded city street. The intended victim might have a higher chance of escape, too, when he sees the batter approaching. In this particular case, the victim was also physically larger than the assailant, which might have made a difference in a fight without guns.

A more important point is that premeditated murder is, by definition, usually targeted towards a specific individual against whom the would-be murderer bears a grudge. Such murders occur in all countries.

There are two very obvious cases where the availability of guns does create a much larger hazard. One, as we have seen, is indiscriminate mass murder by a lunatic. An individual’s ability to massacre a large number of people is directly correlated with the availability of guns, especially powerful assault weapons. In this year’s cases, the madmen’s ability to kill was multiplied by the availability of such automatic weapons, with clips holding more than 100 rounds of ammunition reducing the need to reload. Such weapons and clips have no legitimate use in private hands, as they are by no stretch of imagination needed for hunting or target practice. Their only purpose is to enable the killing of as many people as possible in close combat.

The other case, which so obviously speaks against having guns around is that the majority of killings in the US happen between family members and people who know each other. Only a small fraction of these are premeditated murders. Most are either accidents (every year many people shoot themselves or their dear ones accidentally when fondling their beloved guns) or happen when arguments—between spouses, friends or colleagues—heat up and a loaded gun happens to be handy. Guns kill people, even when people don’t intend to do so.

In the December 2012 issue of The Atlantic, that appeared on newsstands just before the Connecticut massacre, Jeffrey Goldberg argues that it is too late to install any further gun controls in America. There are already some 280-300 million guns owned by private citizens in America and each year this number is increased by more than 4 million. These are of course stupendous figures, given that the total population of the USA is just around 311 million. I have recently heard that slightly less than half of American adults own a gun. Simple arithmetic thus implies that these people have multiple guns at home. Goldberg draws the conclusions that it would be impossible anymore to regulate the situation through democratic means and, therefore, it would be better to give more guns to law-abiding citizens so that they can defend themselves. This is a saddening view, although it does have a certain logic. Yet, by the same logic it would be futile to attempt to address any similar issue that involves an advanced situation, including nuclear disarmament. His solution would also bring back the Wild West in which disputes were settled with six-shooters.

Except that in the Wild West, guns were quite strictly controlled in towns where the sheriff made sure that gunslingers would check their weapons at the gate. Joe Klein in Time magazine (August 6, 2012) outlined how this free-for-all guns-galore is not an American tradition or what the Founding Fathers expected. Rather it’s a result of a concerted advocacy effort by all kinds of right-wing groups since the 1970s to overturn gun control legislation. In 1993, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, legislation was passed to ban assault weapons, but that too was let expire a decade later.

Of all industrialized countries, the United States has by far the largest amount of guns per capita: 88.8 firearms per 100 people. This is far more than the 54.8 in the second most gun-heavy country in the world, Yemen. America has some 5% of the world’s population but, depending on the estimate, up to half of the world’s firearms in the hands of private citizens. Topping the list with Yemen, which many consider en route to becoming a failed state and which now is the principal host of Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, should not be an accolade most Americans would want. Still a large number of Americans seem to be perfectly content with it.

Unfortunately, my own country of origin, Finland, is number 4 on the list (the third place goes to Switzerland, where most men who have served in the army have a rifle in their closet). Why Finland, the seemingly tranquil Nordic country known for its peace-making efforts on the world scene? I suppose the reasons are something similar to those that would be applicable to America, too: a macho culture of rugged individualists. There, too, men go on rampage shooting people.

Another factor that militates against gun control in America is (you guessed it) money. There is a lot of money involved in gun sales and they are not limited to domestic sales, as if the 4 million guns sold in the US annually wouldn’t be enough. Mexico’s drug war is largely fought with American guns: it is estimated that 80% of the guns confiscated from Mexican gangs have been bought legally in the US.

In the American political system, lobbyists for special interest groups play a central role. Politicians find it hard to go against the lobbyist if they want to stay in power. According to the Time article by Joe Klein, NRA has funded a total of US$18.9 million to political parties and candidates running for federal office since 1990. Of this amount, 82% has gone to the Republicans. The New York Times columnist Charles Blow has calculated that the NRA’s financial contributions to politicians in Washington are 4,100 times larger than those by the largest anti-gun organization, the Brady Campaign.

When culture, tradition, corporate interests and money come together, it will be a tough job to go against them and change things when it comes to the prevalence of guns and the ensuing gun violence. This is the reason for my pessimism, but I do hope that I am proven wrong. Perhaps, in the unspeakable tragedy of the Sandy Hook elementary school, there lies a seed of hope for some modest reform. If nothing more, it would seem reasonable to start by banning semi-automatic assault weapons and clips containing tens or hundreds of rounds of ammunition.


Jouni said...

Juha, your story puts the pieces well together; there is a well argued rationale to impose gun control laws in USA - the more semi automatic guns are available, the more opportunities weird people have to use them in massacring innocent people.

However, I am afraid that we will see that more guns than ever are being purchased in short term, because NRA and other gun lobbyist are exploiting people's fear after the recent massacres and the lobbyist will convince that you need a gun to protect yourself - the more murderous gun, the better.

The high gun density in Finland is partly explained by hunters who own rifles and shotguns.

Juha Uitto said...

Thanks. The hunter argument is valid here too. Then again, in Finland they don't shoot deer with assault weapons.