Another day, another tragic massacre in the United States. As parents of the 20 children killed in Newton, Connecticut, struggle to come to terms with their agonising loss, voices are being raised for tighter gun controls. But as we all know, this is a recurring theme: each time some nut goes on a shooting spree, newspaper editorials call for tightening up gun laws.
However, lawmakers in Congress, scared of the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association, don’t follow through. Right- wing libertarians invoke the Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to bear arms. And the whole thing dies down until the next shocking atrocity.
This time, observers think it might be different because 20 out of the 27 victims were children below ten years of age. An emotional Obama made a vague statement about ‘doing something’ when he spoke about the tragedy. But I’m not holding my breath for any meaningful legislation to be passed any time soon. The Republicans control the House of Representatives, and in any case, the procedure for making changes in the constitution are so complicated that only a bipartisan effort has any chance of curtailing the rights granted under the Second Amendment.
And the current polarisation in Congress as well as the whole country makes such a unified approach highly unlikely.
The relevant provision of the amendment is fairly unambiguous: “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.”
It is important to remember that when the constitution was ratified by the federating states in 1788, the founding fathers of the newly established country were very conscious of the threat posed by an overbearing central authority. The idea behind the Second Amendment was to serve as a check to authoritarian rule.
But this has led to a situation where nine out of ten Americans own at least one firearm. The three guns used by Adam Lanza to carry out the massacre were legally registered to his mother, another victim of her son’s rampage. And even the tightest gun controls being discussed would not have prevented a schoolteacher without a criminal record from buying firearms.
Even if, by some miracle, no further arms were sold in the United States, there are already nearly three million legally registered guns out there, apart from millions of unregistered ones. There is simply no way any government could possibly force Americans to give up their guns.
FISCINATION WITH ARMS: As the thousands of gun clubs and shops across the country attest, Americans have a strange fascination with firearms. Magazines and websites feed this love affair. Although some states have a mandatory
waiting period before a gun is delivered, there are few other restrictions beyond a quick check for criminal activity. And for those who do have a shady record, unregistered weapons are easy to come by.
At one website (www.dallasguns.com), I saw thousands of guns from virtually every manufacturer under the sun. And there are many, many such sites.
The mantra the National Rifle Association and its many members and supporters have adopted is: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” But this glib formulation ignores the fact that a gun makes it much easier to kill. Shockingly, some 34,000 Americans are killed by gunshot wounds every year. On average, guns take the lives of five children under ten every day. There are an average of 1,260 homicides with guns in the European Union (with a bigger population) every year as against nearly 11,000 in the United States.
Fuelling this mayhem are the lax gun control laws: in 32 states, anybody can buy guns over the counter, no questions asked, no ID demanded, and no background checks carried out. In fact, no IDs or background checks are required for around 40 per cent of all guns sold in the US.
This relaxed official attitude towards gun sales has been made possible by some very effective lobbying by the National Rifle Association. In the 2008 presidential elections, for example, it committed $40 million to the McCain campaign. And it doled out some $18 million to various congressional candidates. This kind of money buys you a lot of influence.
The NRA’s slick website (www.nra.org) has all kinds of slanted news: for instance, it tells us that although the state of Virginia saw a 73 per cent increase in the sale of firearms since 2007, it witnessed a 27 per cent decline in violent crimes in the same period. The implication here is that more guns don’t necessarily lead to more crimes. But obviously, there are many more causes for a decline in violence than the ownership of firearms.
However, despite the NRA’s considerable clout, the fact that it was not a significant force in the recent elections might encourage legislators to finally tackle the gun issue.
One factor that’s not much debated in the US is the glorification of guns and violence through computer games, movies and TV shows. Even mainstream cinema is now packed with gory sequences. America’s many wars have elevated the status of the warrior, and criminals are often sympathetically portrayed. All these images create a certain moral ambiguity towards violence among the young and the easily suggestible.
Adam Lanza, the 20-year old Newtown killer, was known as a solitary figure who did not mix with his classmates. But in this, he was hardly different from thousands of other children. We will probably never know what snapped inside him as his mother is dead, as is he through suicide. His father moved to another part of the country years ago, and his brother was working in another town.
Mental illness and instability can cause all kinds of irrational and unpredictable reactions if untreated. But the presence of easily available guns in such circumstances is surely a formula for disaster. The reality is that modern societies create many stresses, and it is impossible to anticipate when a frail mind will crack. It is far better to keep guns out of reach than to permit anybody to buy arms.