Why Are Americans So Obsessed With Guns?


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Every day, 80 Americans are shot to death. The terrible slaughter at Sandy Hook is not as unusual as it should be.The massacre of innocents at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday was indeed, as President Obama put it, heart-breaking. His halting, grieving address to the nation captured the pain that is felt in the immediate aftermath of such a shocking event. But the pain will not last, for it has happened before – and no American politician will have the nerve to propose the only cure to this repetitive insanity, which would be a sensible, mature and responsible attitude towards the ownership and use of guns. He would never be elected to public office again.

This President can not stand for election a third time, so perhaps he might be able to break the mould. But it is hard to believe. The truth is, America is a society obsessed with guns and addicted to their repulsive but effective use as instruments of death. They like them; they teach their children how to shoot them, as Nancy Lanza did her son Adam, the young man responsible for the carnage in Connecticut; they store them; they harbour a fetish for them, and will never tolerate any attempt to deny them their toys. They rarely admit what their guns are designed to do, which is to kill.

Statistics may be a bad excuse for prose, but those which pertain to this subject make chilling and necessary reading. They demonstrate that there is a pathological pleasure at large in the United States. There are nearly 300 million guns to be found there, one third of them handguns – which are useless for hunting purposes, but brilliant as tools for killing. This represents the highest concentration of private ownership of murder weapons in the entire world. The rate for murder by gunfire is 100 times that of the United Kingdom.

Every year, 17,000 people are killed in America, 70 per cent of them with guns, and nearly 20,000 people commit suicide by shooting themselves to death in the home – where a gun is readily to hand in the cupboard. Almost half of all US households have a gun stored as easily as the knives and forks, the bed linen and the toothpaste. People are shot at work, at school, at the supermarket, at bus stops, or even at the front door if they ring the bell at an inconvenient time. In the whole world, only Colombia has a worse record.

The statistics are even more heart-breaking when applied to the young. The slaughter of children by gunfire in the United States is 25 times the rate of the 20 next largest industrial countries in the world combined. If you add them all up, since the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968, well over a million Americans, children and adults, have been shot to death, and even now 80 people die in this manner every day. The terrible slaughter on Friday is not as unusual as it should be.

Even the colloquial vocabulary which litters American speech betrays a callous indifference to the brute fact of murder. I have heard otherwise sage and highly educated men talk of “taking out” an undesirable foe, as if it were a trivial and simple matter, not the bloody ending of somebody’s life.

Speaking personally, the very notion that an object in my hands could kill somebody in seconds if I pushed the right button fills me with passionate dread. Most Americans would think me utterly stupid. They would also think me blind to one obvious advantage which a gun bestows, and that is the powerful value of deterrence. Possession of a handgun protects us, they say, from random assault.

The trouble with this bland statement (too shallow to be called an argument) is that it is not true. Careful studies have demonstrated, over and over again, that homes which do not have a gun in the drawer are safer than those which do, for the mere sight of such a weapon provokes immediate action; the only thing it deters is thought. Besides which, most gun murders at home are perpetrated not by an intruder, but by a member of the family or an acquaintance. One only has to ponder for a minute to realise that a squabble is more likely to be resolved by discussion and compromise if there is no gun available to end it quickly.

Most tragic of all is the incidence of suicides, far higher in American homes which possess guns than in those which do not. A young person in the grip of overwhelming unhappiness anywhere in the world may contemplate putting an end to it all. But using a knife takes great courage, is messy, and ensures that death will be painful; gas and pills are unreliable; and all three are so slow that there is time to think again, to reflect, and to strengthen the mind. Fear is itself a deterrence. But if a gun is at hand, resolution of one’s troubles can be swift and painless, effected in seconds, before any temptation to ruminate can interfere. The gun renders suicide an attractive and emotional option; homes which harbour them are inherently dangerous places.

Adam Lanza presents us with a woeful illustration of all this. He was troubled, and he had weapons. It was easy. And yet, incredibly, suggestions have been put forward to extend the carrying of guns well beyond the home, to virtually anywhere. A Texas Republican in the House of Representatives, Louie Gohmert, once proposed a bill to permit members of Congress to carry firearms into the Capitol Building, presumably in their hands, their pockets, their briefcases. For what purpose? To shoot other members who don’t say the right things? Or to protect against what and whom exactly?

That such a barmy idea may even be uttered speaks loudly of America’s malaise. In Arizona, where the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the slaughter of six others took place last year, almost anyone can have a permit to carry a concealed weapon and be allowed to take guns into a bar (where presumably they are going to drink something more potent than lemonade); that same state’s legislators have talked about passing laws permitting teachers and students to carry their guns to school with them. Such is the contagion of madness.

Furthermore, the news channels are so far removed from any moral anguish about all this that they happily pounce upon the scene of latest slaughter to get close-ups of bloodstains on the floor and to portray the distress of the bereaved in harrowingly stupid interviews (“How do you feel?” etc); the coverage is repeated dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, reducing pain to entertainment and making the viewers passively complicit. Some channels will not deign to air any view which might suggest that citizens, even those who are mentally disturbed, ought perhaps not to be armed with lethal weapons in the first place; they might thenceforth be refused advertising revenue if they dared.

That is why President Obama’s decency, humanity and restraint should be a lesson to the media and a snub to their extravagance. In 2008, the deranged student Seung-Hui Cho mowed down 32 of his fellows at the university known as Virginia Tech. The news channels did exactly what he wanted them to, obliging him with massive attention. This young man had no point that he wanted to prove, no statement that he needed to make, no enemies that he wished to conquer. He wanted only to express himself, and took with him two powerful guns with which to do so.

This was murder in the pursuit of self-esteem, what the writer James Carroll called “expressive violence”. It was the perversion of yet another American value, the one which says no child should have his aspirations for self-expression thwarted; ally this with the value that nobody should be denied the right to own and use a gun, and you have the loudest expression of self imaginable.

Over the decades, there have been some weak attempts at sanity, always subsequently rescinded. When a gunman tried to assassinate President Reagan and instead gravely wounded White House press secretary Jim Brady, the US Congress was shocked into action. It passed the so-called Brady Law, which included some small measures to make handguns less easily available to maniacs. In the ensuing 30 years, that law has been so progressively emasculated that it now means nothing at all. Any politician who tried to give it some weight would not be elected to public office. This is not because the public would not welcome reform, but because those with power and money would not allow it.

Here is the sort of thing they do: in Virginia, laws have been enacted prohibiting the police from mounting so-called “sting” operations on shops which openly sell assault weapons to people without checking their histories. The police are thereby legally prevented from doing their job of keeping public order. Whenever they try to, somebody will happily go before the camera to proclaim the right to carry and use a gun without any restriction, even that of lunacy.

And here is the sort of thing they say: an Arkansas Republican called Jay Dickey told an International Herald Tribune journalist that “it’s really simple with me. We have the right to bear arms because of the threat of government taking over the freedoms that we have.” By this, the man can only mean the freedom to kill, which he cherishes higher than the freedom to be governed democratically. It is indeed a frightening remark, because the US government is seen as the enemy.

Nor is this paranoia isolated. After the vile shooting in Arizona, the sale of handguns rocketed precisely because the loonies were terrified that their government might take their guns away. Former vice-president Cheney once loudly proclaimed, to wild applause and the kind of whooping with which adolescents greet pop stars or baseball heroes, that America’s source of happiness sprang from the barrel of a gun. His audience, of course, was the National Rifle Association, one of the most noisome and dangerous groups in the world. It is impossible to overstate its power and influence. On the matter of weapons designed to kill, it controls America.

Another example might suffice to make one’s eyes pop. In 2010, the Democrats wanted to pass a measure which would oblige political parties to reveal where all the heaps of money they use in their campaigns actually come from – the true and accurate origin, rather than some disguised cover organisation. In order to get support in the House of Representatives, they had to write in a special clause exempting the National Rifle Association from any such disclosure. The NRA, just like a Mafia network, insists that its puppetry be undetectable.

That is not all. It also works tirelessly to prevent any bill which seeks to remove the protection of gun manufacturers from lawsuits from being passed. The message is that makers of guns must be free from legal interference. There was once, for example, a ban on the ownership of assault weapons – designed to be used by armies, not by young men like Adam Lanza. That sensible restriction was allowed to expire in 2004, largely due to the NRA’s fulmination against any legislator who promised to extend it.

Members of Congress are afraid of this pernicious organisation, which has spent more than $35 million on its lobbying machine since 1997, and spends millions more on advertisements and publicity often devoted to the calumny and denigration of anyone who resists the appeal of its reckless morals. It is not above simply telling lies about its opponents to get its way.

On the occasions when reasoned argument replaces dirty tricks, gun enthusiasts claim that the Second Amendment to the Constitution affirms their almost sacred right to gun ownership. But that is still highly debatable. The wording is as follows: “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.” As long ago as 1939, the Supreme Court declared that this Amendment meant that people could only carry guns for military use in a militia, not for personal use at home. That much should be clear anyway, for the subsidiary clause “being necessary to the security of a free State” indicates that the militia is for the protection of the State, not the individual.

With this in mind, the District of Columbia passed a law in 1975 prohibiting the private possession of handguns, loaded rifles and loaded shotguns, with the deliberate purpose of making Washington safer from the turbulence caused by murder with firearms. In 2008, in DC v Heller, the Supreme Court revisited the definition and reversed itself. By a 5-4 majority, the Justices opined that the Amendment guarantees the right of individuals to bear arms for non-military uses, with breathtaking disregard for the meaning of the words.

One of the four dissenters, Justice John Paul Stevens, wrote: “Until today, it has been understood that legislatures may regulate the civilian use and misuse of firearms so long as they do not interfere with the preservation of a well-regulated militia.” Not any more. The National Rifle Association, which regards regulation of any kind as interference with freedom, was gleeful. A former US solicitor-general said that the gun lobby had “hijacked” the Second Amendment.

Arguing in their favour, Robert E Levy in the Boston Globe pointed out that the Second Amendment is contained within the Bill of Rights, that part of the Constitution which is designed specifically to deal with the rights of the individual in any dispute with the State, and that therefore it puts a constraint on the powers of government. It would also, in that case, place constraints upon the power of language to elucidate rather than confuse.

For the NRA, it all boiled down to self-defence, which is nowhere mentioned in the Amendment. One of the more ardent justices, Antonin Scalia, actually encouraged people to keep a handgun at home, which was a recommendation close to incitement, in view of what the gun was meant to do: he said it could be pointed at a burglar. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the ban had originally been put in place in order to safeguard a higher right than that of weapon-toting, namely the right to life itself. This sane point of view did not apparently carry sufficient weight with his colleagues in the Court.

In a further example of the NRA’s unparalleled power, it has made virtually impossible the assignment of any government funds for research projects favoured by the centre for Injury Control and Prevention, lest they be used for the promotion of gun control. Well, obviously they would, since guns cause injury at the very least. But that is too close to truth. The centre is so beset by anxiety on the issue that whenever a study commissioned by it so much as mentions firearms, it informs the NRA up-front, as a courtesy; we do not know if it is thanked for it.

The NRA might assume the manners and attitudes of a John Wayne, but the world which inhabits its imagination disappeared well over a century ago. Justice Breyer, with rare eloquence and clarity, has pointed out the differences between an “18th-century, primarily rural America, where frontier life demanded guns, and the present, primarily urban America, where gun possession presents a greater risk of taking innocent lives”. This obvious truth, grounded in nothing more complex than common sense, eludes everyone at the NRA. Breyer goes on to say: “Today’s Court should not base an answer to a question about an issue such as gun control on the facts and circumstances of 18th-century society.” Quite.

A few years ago, Mayors Bloomberg of New York and Menino of Boston organised a group of fellow mayors to speak out against gun violence, on the grounds that neither the White House nor Congress appeared willing to do so, and somebody should. They were not popular with the NRA, and their movement went quiet. Yesterday, Mayor Bloomberg again urged the President to crack down on guns. But the bald and distressing fact is that all too many Americans are intoxicated with the glamour of guns and indifferent to the havoc and horror they create. Worse, they regard them as fuel for the kind of anarchic, nihilist entertainment in which they rejoice.

Such appetites may, and should, be easily satisfied with gun clubs, where gun nuts can shoot at inanimate targets to their hearts’ content, with little harm to anyone. Why don’t they? Because such a skilful sport lacks the one ingredient which infatuates them the most – the risk of death through the exercise of individual power.

Of course, there is no reason on earth why any American should heed what I say, and they might even justifiably consider my words an impertinence to their country. Indeed, in a lifetime of writing about crime and criminals, I have never argued anything with so little expectation of success. But what really depresses me is that even if Americans’ police chiefs, their parsons, their heroes, or their President, were to say something similar, they would pay no attention at all.

Brian Masters is the author of ‘The Evil That Man Do’ and ‘Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen’