24 July 2012
The mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, this past Friday was horrific and shocking, but it was also an event that occurs with uncomfortable frequency in American life. The past few years have seen killing sprees committed by lone gunmen in Tucson, Arizona and Fort Hood, Texas, and Blacksburg, Virginia; mass murder in the United States has become something unexpected yet hardly unthinkable. Whatever it is about America that causes the country to experience such tragedies on this recurrent basis — its lax gun laws, its culture, or simply its vastness — it seems to tough to deny that massacres like the one in Colorado have become the kind of awful event that the country cannot expect to be permanently free from.
And yet, of course, mass killings are a terrifying rupture of reality. American life, for most people, is dully peaceful. Most citizens of the United States don't expect to visit the movies and become the target of a crazed gunman, just like others didn't expect to find such violence on a university campus or while meeting their congressional representative. And nor should they. Despite stubborn reminders to the contrary, killing sprees aren't a part of American life.
At times like these, discussion sputters briefly and inevitably to the question of gun control. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg kicked it off this time, saying after the shooting, "Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it." The same murmurs sounded after Jared Lee Loughner shot — and nearly killed — Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona last year, but not even the near death of a politician could rouse federal representatives to tighten American access to guns. Recriminations flew — as they are flying now — about whether one side or another was "politicising tragedy," gun rights advocates dreamed up macho fantasies in which they could have prevented the situation through superheroic force, and any reforms that might once have occured disintegrate before they get a chance to build up momentum.
Non-Americans in particular watch this process in bemused dismay. Elsewhere in the Western world, people wonder how a society could watch such violent attacks occur again and again without taking what they see as obvious legal remedies to prevent them. Nick O'Malley capably explains the political landscape that prevents gun control measures from taking hold:
If you can't grasp the geography you look to the landmarks. In 1994, Congress approved a 10-year ban on 19 types of military-style assault weapons, a few months later some Democrats blamed the laws on their loss of the House of Representatives.
Five years later, Al Gore, then the vice-president, cast a tie-breaking Senate vote on legislation to restrict sales at gun shows.
Gore lost the 2000 election. Still, since then both Obama and Romney have shown some resolution on guns.
Before the last election Obama advocated closing the loophole that allows for gun purchases without background checks at gun shows, and for reinstating the assault weapons ban.
In April 2008 he described some angry voters of small town America as people who ''cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them as a way to explain their frustrations''.
Bad move, it confirmed the worst for his gun-advocate opponents.
As governor of Massachusetts Romney banned assault rifles in his state. But he has had a change of heart since.
As he prepared for his first presidential run in 2006 Romney became a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and this year he told the NRA national convention: ''We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners.''
Some of this — the vaunted power of the NRA; the willingness of swathes of voters to change their vote over gun rights — might be politicial superstition, but political superstition causes real life paralysis. American politicians have convinced themselves voters will not stand for gun control, and so they will refuse to risk trying to convince those voters they should. But voter backlash isn't the only reason America won't embrace gun control, even when many other countries would.
The other reason is the extent to which gun ownership — legal, unremarkable, and non-controversial gun ownership — is a part of American society. I like to ask Americans after I have met them whether they have ever shot a gun. (I have not.) An unexpected number say they have — and the sorts of people who say they have is unexpected too. Gun owners or users aren't the unhinged hicks of foreign stereotype. A lot of Americans, particularly those out in Western states like Colorado, see gun ownership as part of harmless recreational activity. They're not interested in walking down the street with a Glock strapped to their side; they just like going off into the woods every now and then with their buddies and bagging a few deer.
Whatever my thoughts on hunting, I can't really see the sense in making criminals out of people like this. Nor am I convinced the American populace would believe such people have anything in common with murders and outlaws. In Australia, we could effectively outlaw most firearms because our gun culture was so marginal to our predominantly urban population. The United States is not the same — not yet, anyway.
Which doesn't mean there are not gun control measures it could take, if it wanted. The debate over gun rights in the country has been torn between people who would like to stereotype all gun owners as dangerous ignoramuses and a coterie of vocal Second Amendment true believers, who imagine their right to bear arms should extend limitlessly and that the state's monopoly on force is both oppressive and incompetent. A great many Americans belong to neither category. Perhaps these people might accept the state requiring more stringent background checks on gun owners, stricter licensing laws, or bans on the most destructive weapons. Perhaps such laws might make it harder for alleged killers like James Holmes to inflict their mayhem on the world. They certainly wouldn't deprive any single law-abiding American of the right guaranteed by the Constitution to own and carry a firearm.