“What the fuck is wrong with America?” It’s the stock refrain that echoes across the rest of the developed world after another mass shooting blights an otherwise civilized, progressive and responsible state.
“Gun control,” comes the shout from Europe’s ancient capitals. Kill the Second Amendment; excise the law that routinely leaves bodies heaped in schools and churches across the bloodied republic.
It’s an easy answer and wholly unsatisfactory. Democratic America is what it chooses to be, but the issue is so aged, politicised and now polarised that banning guns is not only impossible, it would likely do little to stop the type of bloodshed witnessed last week in Roseburg.
Here’s what is known:
The US boasts a high murder rate — one of the highest in the developed world. Guns are likely the main cause of this higher rate, being the prime weapon in around 65 percent of all US murders.
An American is five times more likely to be murdered than a British person, and 40 times more likely to be murdered with a gun. However, overall crime rates in the US are falling, with the rate of gun deaths halved since the early Nineties.
Nobody knows how many guns there are in private hands. A 2007 Small Arms Survey suggested around 270million but it’s likely much higher.
The reason there is no national firearms database is because the government has not been allowed to create one. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, argues that the government knowing who owns a gun is an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms. Not only can Washington not stop citizens buying a gun, it doesn’t have the right to know who owns one.
Why is there no gun control?
The disproportionate power for the NRA, which plays on an old and ingrained distrust of the government, has turned Second Amendment absolutism into a test of identity. You cannot be a true Republican, a true conservative, a true constitutionalist, or a true American and countenance gun control, so they argue. Backed by the gun manufacturers, the NRA has money to bully politicians, funding those who display Second Amendment fidelity, while financing the opponents of politicians that pose a threat.
And there is plenty of money to go around. In the past seven years, the share price of most major gun manufacturers has increased; Sturm Ruger’s share price has gone up 700 percent since 2009.
The upsurge in sales is tied to the election of Barack Obama; gun enthusiasts, anxious that the commander-in-chief would enact gun control, responded by stockpiling weapons.
However, the gun lobby didn’t cause this anxiety. The election of the country’s first African-American president churned up a raft of ugly sentiment — racial, religious and social — allied to a shifting national demographic that led many citizens to feel America was changing and not for the better. The gun lobby feed off this anxiety while stoking the flames.
Despite the increase in sales, crime rates have still fallen. Yet the US retains a deserved reputation for gun violence. This is because although the overall trend is downward, the numbers of mass shootings, the type that capture national and international attention such as Oregon, are rising.
Would gun control work in the United States?
It is unlikely that implementing controls, such as background checks for buyers, would stop the type of mass shooting that increasingly plagues the national body.
Neither would banning guns, at least in the short term. There are an estimated 300 million weapons in circulation in the US; restricting access to guns, as enforced in the UK and Australia, would not hinder a determined buyer. The time for that has long passed.
And despite a succession of mass shootings (11 during Obama’s tenure alone), there remains little public appetite for gun prohibition. A 2011 poll showed that only 26 percent of US citizens want to ban handguns.
What onlookers can fail to appreciate is the depth of feeling towards concepts of liberty and individual freedom that burns in the national consciousness. Even if it were proven that gun controls would prevent mass shootings, some Americans would still resist.
The loathing for government restrictions is so deeply entrenched that there is almost no price for which many Americans would hand over their firearms. And for Second Amendment absolutists, the NRA included, liberty is so sacrosanct that they would be willing to endure any atrocity to retain the right — even if that means scraping 10 children off the wall every six months.
It’s a Faustian pact, but it’s also a choice. If there were a genuine demand for legal restrictions, candidates would emerge in regional and national elections campaigning on that plank — “vote for me, I’ll ban the guns.” Citizens would vote for those candidates en masse and the country would change. That they do not is down to crony capitalism and the influence of the NRA, but it’s also because Americans choose not to.
Here’s the real question: does a lack of gun control make mass shootings inevitable? This is where fact gives way to conjecture and politics. The NRA skillfully diverts attention away from guns after every massacre, framing the problem as a mental health issue.
But it’s a far broader cultural problem. So what is it about American culture that drives young men to take an automatic weapon to a school, church or cinema and start shooting?
Guns are part of the problem, but guns alone don’t turn sane people into mass murderers. Then again, there is something perverse and fetishistic in the way guns are revered in the US that is individual the country.
Opponents of the Second Amendment point to the success of banning weapons in the UK and Australia after the Dunblane and Port Arthur massacres. Would those countries have suffered further atrocities had guns not been banned? Possibly, but with the multitude of guns in circulation in the US (unlike in the UK and Australia) comparisons are problematic. The best you could say for a blanket ban is that it may eventually cause a cultural shift away from firearms, but probably not for generations.
It’s an ‘American’ problem.
Guns have become a tribal issue in a country increasingly separated by two opposing identities. Speaking about this article to an otherwise dispassionate and rational ally in the Midwest triggered a visceral response in which gun control was instantaneously dismissed. Likewise, speaking to colleagues in New York sparks an opposing but equally primal reaction.
This plays out on a national level with massacres met by entrenchment on both sides — those who believe guns make individuals safer and those who believe they make the country as a whole more dangerous. The makeup of these opposing groups falls along political, ethnic, social and geographic lines, as revealed by Pew polling.
Speaking after the shooting last Thursday, Obama scolded the nation for becoming “numb” to the problem. He is right; it has become “routine.” But the detachment is not because Americans don’t care… it’s because they don’t know what to do. Half the country advocates measures that wouldn’t stop mass shootings while the other half refuses to acknowledge the gun’s role in creating a destructive culture. And that, to answer the original question, is what is wrong with America.