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There is one question that the pious critics of America’s so-called gun culture cannot answer. If mass school shootings like that in Connecticut really are a product of the apparently mad Second Amendment, of the fact that guns are widely available in the US, then why did such shootings only take off in the late 1970s and early 1980s? Guns have been available in the US for more than two centuries, but multiple-victim shootings in schools, of the sort that rocked Connecticut and Columbine before it, are a very modern phenomenon. It cannot be simply the availability of guns that leads people to massacre children or their fellow students, or else there would have been horrors like this throughout American history.If you look at this long and comprehensive list of shootings in American schools, one thing becomes clear very quickly: between the 1760s and the late 1970s, with a few exceptions, most shootings in schools were just a continuation of criminal activity in general. They involved the killing of one or two or maybe three persons, as gang clashes spilled into the classroom, or spurned teenage lovers exacted revenge on the object of their affection, or students lashed out at teachers they hated. It isn’t until the 1960s, and then much more notably in the 1980s and 90s, that the phenomenon of *mass* school shootings emerges, where the aim is to kill as many young people as possible for no obvious, discernible or even old-fashioned criminal reason. There must be some modern culture shaping these outrages, something far newer than the Second Amendment or America’s longstanding “gun culture”.
The critics of America’s gun culture casually point the finger of blame at the more backward elements in American society, particularly at rifle-toting rednecks. As one East Coast commentator puts it, the gun has become “America’s Moloch”, its pagan god that devours innocent children, and it is all the fault of those communities that are given to “religious fundamentalism” and which are known to “deny global warming or evolution”. These gun worshippers apparently revere “the great god gun”, and their capacity for logic and reason has been destroyed as a result. We know who he means: Southerners, the ill-educated, the sort who support the NRA, who speak in a drawl and probably chew tobacco, whose insane gun love is now apparently poisoning all of America.
But look at the photo of Adam Lanza. Or better still watch the videos and manifestos made by the Columbine killers or the Virginia Tech shooter and other recent school shooters. Do you really see Southern-style gun culture in these videos and words and images, or do you see a different, more modernculture at work? I see youngsters raised to consider themselves little gods, who see their self-esteem as king and who believe their angst must always be taken seriously. I see youth brought up in a world where we are increasingly encouraged to cultivate a persona, preferably a dangerous, edgy one, through media like YouTube and Twitter. I see young people so imbued with the narcissistic creed of the politics of identity, where how you feel and what you want must take precedence over any social or communal considerations, that they have been absolutely wrenched from both their own communities and from even basic moral codes.
I see the culture of narcissism, taken to its extreme, not the culture of gun worship. Which rather suggests that the supposedly liberal politicians currently wringing their hands over the availability of guns in the US might want to shine the spotlight on themselves instead, and on the dislocated, atomised, self-regarding modern world they have had a hand in creating.