Despite being angered by much of the public discourse surrounding America’s gun violence epidemic, I have tended to shy away from writing much about the issue. This is largely for two reasons. First, because mass shootings are such a common occurrence, and because nothing ever seems to change, I do not particularly want to rehash the same article every time some lunatic shoots up a school, a shopping mall or a place of worship. Second, I am not American and, rightly or wrongly, my opinions on the matter will inevitably be viewed less worthy as a result. However, given that fellow non-American Michael Psaris (who edits Bournbrook’s History section) recently wrote an article on the subject which I believe to be wrong and misleading in almost every way, I couldn’t help but offer this brief rebuttal.
It is true that Americans have owned guns for hundreds of years and that mass shootings have only become common in recent decades (more specifically since the early 1980s). It is, however, wrong to suggest that ‘guns cannot – therefore – be the decisive factor that now causes mass shootings’. This is because Michael omits the type of guns with which such shootings are often carried out. Of course there weren’t many mass shootings in the United States before the 20th century. Such atrocities are rather difficult to commit without semi-automatic weapons.
Guns are definitely not the only problem and gun violence has deeper underlying causes (practically no one is claiming otherwise). But they are almost certainly not what Michael thinks they are. Let’s take the ‘dismantling of Christianity’. For one, America is among the most religious countries in the developed world and, if greater religiosity led to less violence, it would also be among the most peaceful. Alas, it is not.
There is also an assertion that it is something to do with cannabis, for which I would love to see some evidence (hard evidence, individual anecdotes don’t count). The Dayton shooter smoked weed, just like most Americans who are not mass shooters. Frankly, if we are going to pin gun violence onto any single drug, it should probably not be the one whose primary effect is to make you curl up on the sofa, laugh hysterically and eat three bags of doritos before falling asleep. As for ‘the abdication of personal responsibility’ and ‘the evisceration of any institute of authority’, I will also probably need more details.
No one has a definitive answer as to what causes gun violence in America on a macro level and, indeed, one of the most startling facts about this epidemic is that the most recent government research into it dates back to 1996. You might assume, given the magnitude of the problem, that America’s leaders would be doing more than ever to understand it, yet the Republican Party has consistently blocked research into gun violence for over 20 years. What are they afraid it will find?
Of course, we can still draw on some educated assumptions. The perpetrators of mass shootings tend to exhibit the following characteristics: most of them are young, many have a prior history of violence, and almost all of them are men. Mental health is also often cited, particularly by Republican politicians who then quickly forget about the role of mental illness in order to continue fighting against easily accessible healthcare.
The United States does have a mental health crisis. 13% of Americans take antidepressants. Nearly half of those not receiving mental health care list cost as a barrier. But this is where the discussion inevitably leads back to guns. One of Donald Trump’s first acts as President was to quietly roll back an Obama era regulation aimed at preventing people with severe mental illness from purchasing firearms. Almost exactly a year later, a 19-year-old suffering from clinical depression and ‘explosive’ anger issues walked into Stoneman Douglas High School and gunned down 17 people with a legally purchased AR-15.
To be clear, only a tiny fraction of people suffering from mental illness have gone on to commit gun violence and, while many perpetrators of mass shootings suffer in some way from a diagnosed mental illness, most do not.
Weekly mass shootings are not just a major problem in America, they are a uniquely American tragedy. Whatever macro level issue you might choose to single out, there is always another country out there with similar levels of mental health issues, drug consumption, violent crime and so on which does not have regular mass shootings. The only thing which seems to set the United States apart is that it is the only country in the world where privately owned firearms outnumber private citizens.
This is not about banning guns (find me a single prominent Democrat who argues that). This is about making sure that people who often cannot be trusted alone with a knife are not able to buy assault rifles. This is about ensuring that those with a history of crime or domestic violence (the latter of which is linked to as much as 57% of mass shootings) cannot own guns. This is about preventing individuals who are deemed to be too much of a security risk to board a plane from owning weapons intended for the battlefield. This should not be controversial.
The overwhelming majority of Americans support stricter gun control. Emphasis on ‘stricter’, because the US already has gun control. Fully automatic weapons are already illegal. Suppressors are illegal. So are surface to air missiles. Clearly, even today, there are some weapons which the US government has decided are not covered under the 2nd amendment and which the founding fathers could not have reasonably foreseen when the Bill of Rights was written.
The removal of (some) guns from (some) people does not show ‘a level of distrust from the state towards the citizens of the nation’ any more than when the state requires its citizens to have a driver’s license (and decides that some people are in no fit state to drive). Or, should we wish to go there, when the state decides that its citizens cannot responsibly enjoy some recreational drugs. Every state has some fundamental level of distrust towards its citizens. Why else would we employ police?
Mental health and lack of affordable access to treatment is a (relatively minor) factor. Violent crime generally is a factor. A media culture which helps immortalise mass shooters is a factor. Religious extremism, racism and white supremacy are factors also. But if we are to take this issue seriously, we must acknowledge that easy access to firearms for people who definitely should not have them is a fundamental problem in itself. Fixing that must inevitably form part of the solution.
Photo by Gary on Flickr.