In this Daily Kos story (via TPM) a bunch of open-carry extremists visited the “Grassy Knoll” in Dallas, Texas. You may remember Dallas as the place where President Kennedy was assassinated with a firearm in 1963; you may also remember said knoll as the place where, as the popular legend goes, a second gunman allegedly fired one or more of the fatal shots. Why were these people there? Well, as seems entirely unremarkable these days (in America at least), they were rattling off standard unhinged Tea Party/Christofascist talking points regarding Obama being a secret Kenyan Muslim out to secretly destroy America by teaching white kids hippety-hop, or whatever it is that populates the fever dreams they experience in between binge-watching Walker: Texas Ranger.
The True Pooka (a chap you should visit on the tube) linked to it on FB and it started a discussion about guns. If you’ve ever been involved in or witnessed a discussion about guns between Americans, you’ll know that this particular topic polarises opinion more than sport & religion combined – enacting meaningful gun control legislation in the US appears as Sisyphean as trying to undo the damage already accomplished in only half a year by the Tory government here in Australia. As I often do, I waded in to this discussion. As I often also do, I started writing a FB comment which would’ve been a huge TL;DR, so I’m doing it here instead. My focus was the gargantuan task of altering not just US laws, but attitudes to guns – a daunting task requiring a multi-faceted approach and a view to the extreme long term.
I think the existence of other tech-equivalent countries in the world (incl mine, Australia) where gun control exists and where spree shootings, school shootings and all manner of gun crime are exceedingly rare shows two things: that gun control is a thing that works without unduly restricting people’s freedoms (leaving aside that the legal right to be equivalently or better armed than your local beat cop is more an extreme privilege than a “freedom”) and that the problem the US has with guns will need to be addressed at levels deeper and wider than merely legislative and in the very long term.
Economically (which of course means “politically” as well), they’re big business, hence the NRA turning, within living memory, from a sporting shooters’ association into an outright lobby group for manufacturers & sellers of guns, opposing even the most mild regulation, making it far too easy to obtain them and contributing to the extremism and toxicity of gun culture. Waiting periods, mandatory training, restrictions on the mentally ill or convicted criminals, especially ones with violent histories, almost any restriction on the types of weapons available – opposed by the NRA.
Culturally, guns are fetishised to a worrying degree – the NRA report advising that schools should have armed guards and allow teachers to carry, that idiot woman posing in front of the US flag holding an assault rifle & a Bible and these open-carry extremists rolling up, heavily armed, to malls or the scene of a Presidential murder to blather about how much they hate Obama sums up a great deal about America that worries many non-Americans (as I’m sure it does other Americans). Guns are seen as nothing less than the bringers of justice & peace and the ultimate symbol of American freedom – things like free speech, religion, association, the right to vote (or to not vote) and the bald eagle himself can apparently take a back seat to the right to put small holes in things from a distance.
The right for a civilian to carry a gun on their belt is also a problem. Open-carry advocates might, by and large, have the best of intentions when they suggest an average citizen (by which they almost certainly mean themselves) could put down a murderer before he becomes a spree-killer, but I think they presume too much. They might well be a crack shot and exercise perfect gun safety and handling at the range, but without actual combat experience or even police-style weapons training, pulling your .45 and facing down a disturbed person with an assault weapon who’s already opened fire in a public place is not something Mr or Ms Average from next door is equipped to do, no matter how much they practice with targets or, Bickle-like, in front of a mirror. There’s a galaxy between “Are you talkin’ to me?” and actually discharging at a living, breathing, moving, shooting human being. Invoking the angry well-armed loner from Taxi Driver may sound like a simplistic caricature, but that is the unfortunate impression that’s projected when open-carryists seriously suggest the average citizen essentially could fill the role of a trained SWAT cop and take down a spree-killer. That or that other American stereotype, the lone gunslinger breezing into a put-upon one-horse town to clean it up once and for all, squinting out from beneath the brim of his white Stetson and mumbling do-or-die one-liners.
It’s tempting at this point to use as an example the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre, in which a lone, deeply disturbed man armed with an IQ of 66, an AR-10 semiautomatic and some other weapons (obtained without a gun license, which the killer was ineligible for anyway) murdered 35 people at a tourist attraction in Tasmania in 1996. In Australia, a country not well-acquainted with such brutality, it was a dramatic wake-up call. The then PM, John Howard, instituted license restrictions, a complete ban on semiautomatic rifles and severe restrictions on other self-loading weapons as well as an amnesty and a buyback program. Australians responded and almost 700,000 banned weapons were turned in to the government – a resounding success for the program.
Why I say it’s “tempting” to use this as an example is because it’s simply not translatable. For all their similarities, Australia and America are gulfs apart on this issue. First, population: 20 million vs 300 million. Next, history: in 1788 Australia was settled as a British colony, just as America was, but we remained so until 1901 at which point we were federated as a nation via numerous constitutional conventions. America’s revolutionary past, filled with tales of heroic local militia resisting the tyranny of King George III (and hardly ever with tales of the vital support provided by Louis XVI of France – but that’s another history lesson), is well-known, oft-related and is a clear inspiration to many gun enthusiasts. Another significant difference is the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution, which reads:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
This amendment, seen as inviolate by many because it’s in the Constitution (never mind the fact that Constitutions can, in fact, be amended and amendments can be repealed), has been interpreted by the US Supreme Court to mean that the right shall be extended to all citizens, not just those in regulated militias. This is not to begin a discussion about the 2nd Amendment, only to point out a further point of comparison between our two countries. In essence, though, the difference is this: America shot their way out of being under the British bootheel, Australia talked its way out – but, considering we didn’t consider ourselves under the bootheel in the first place, we were happy to stay as part of the Empire and then part of the Commonwealth once the Empire dissolved in 1949.
Then there’s the health problem. The question of why people so frequently decide to vent their rage via bullets onto unsuspecting citizens in public places is a question also not often discussed in general terms in the US. Discussions of what motivates individual killers always follows a mass murder, but America has a peculiar problem with frequency – the question of why people want to kill others in large numbers in the first place can’t be answered simply by pointing to easy access to high-powered weapons. Is there something about American culture that drives men, sometimes boys – to such extremes of rage? What of the effect of seeing 24hr coverage of every mass shooting – does every Columbine create a Virginia Tech? Does every Sandy Hook create a Santa Barbara? Lonely, enraged, disturbed people become household names once they open fire in a school, a theatre or just the street. Is there some appeal in adding your name to the list? What avenues exist – or should exist – for people feeling such extreme isolation and rage?
The gun problem in America is multi-faceted, with politics, corporate interests and culture (including religion, civil liberties, patriotism, history and mythology) and the Constitution itself all playing a part in elevating the humble firearm to a symbol (to many, at least) of the very freedom to exist and to pursue happiness as guaranteed citizens by said Constitution. It’s not a problem per se that people like guns – people in other advanced nations like guns with far fewer problems – it’s that, in the US, the wrong sort of people find it too easy to obtain the wrong sort of guns and do the wrong things with them – and that decent people are all-too-quick to oppose any governmental measure designed to prevent that from happening and invoke both the literal law of the land and images of their heroic revolutionary past to do so.
That some people are willing to utilise their extreme gun privilege to publicly visit the scene of an assassination and invoke images of a president murdered with a firearm while toting their own high-powered weapons and discussing their irrational, unhinged and almost certainly racist hatred for a sitting president is also a problem – or, it should at least be seen as such. That it not only wasn’t but was a completely legal thing to do and really only received criticism in the left-leaning areas of the US press is a problem in itself – yet another in the increasingly dense cultural, economic, political and mythological thicket that will need to be pruned, extremely carefully and likely over many decades, if America is to grow out of the childish association of firearms with freedom and the regular outbursts of murder and grief that are its results.