Forget About Reform: In America, Guns Run Deep
In the wake of the latest episode of gun madness in America, allow me to make a rather obvious future prediction: There will be another mass shooting in the United States in the coming year. It will be followed by a clamorous debate on gun control and the moral state of American society. The CNN guys will provide statistics on the successful Australian experience with gun control. Meanwhile at Fox, Sean Hannity will once again blast The Left for ‘politicizing’ a national tragedy while his friend in the Oval Office pounces on a fresh opportunity to attack the FBI (read: Mueller/Russia investigation). In Europe, we’ll once again be following this American routine very closely, forever asking the questions: What an earth is wrong with these Americans? How many were killed this time? And Why won’t Congress, or Trump, or whoever’s in f***ing charge, finally enact measures to prevent the next bloodbath in some suburban high-school? But what most Europeans don’t fully understand, however, is the importance of guns to the American cultural ethos, not to mention the ideological ammunition and political muscle of passionate gun advocates today. Keeping the above in mind, a more debatable but equally pessimistic prediction follows: There will be no meaningful gun reform in the U.S — not tomorrow, not in five years time, not if Bernie gets elected. To understand why, read on…
Every nation develops a mythology serving to reinforce its identity, ethos and culture. The Italians love their art, the Japanese never surrender, and Americans love their guns. Historically, guns have always held a special place in American folklore. Their cultural roots run as deep as the story of how the world’s most powerful nation came into existence. Prior to the revolutionary war of independence, there was no centralized American army to defend settlers from the threat of foreign invasions. As a consequence, responsibility for protection lay in the hands of private citizens who formed militia. Service was mandatory, and many of those men would later join the armed forces to fight the British in the Wars of Independence which gave birth to the United States. Once America was formed, it soon began expanding Westwards. The ‘Wild West’ was an exciting place full of opportunities, but also uncertainty and danger. Guns, essential for protection and invasion, played a vital role in this process. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner believed this 19th century process of expansion beyond America’s western frontier to be the defining period in American history. The period, heavily featuring guns and glorified in American culture to this day, inspired the creation of popular icons like Indiana Jones. Over time, popular mainstream images of tough men carrying guns came to symbolize the American spirit of self-reliance, masculinity, and power.
Whereas early American settlers found them necessary to survive in and conquer unknown and wild territory, U.S citizens today treat their guns as shields protecting them from often exaggerated or imaginary threats, be it ‘government tyranny’, ISIS, or the stranger who sets foot on their lawn. It therefore comes as no surprise that the main reason Americans cite for owning guns is self-protection. In Europe, we find that logic difficult to understand. To us, more guns simply means more gun-violence. But as my friend Łukasz Gardjas explained:
“Europeans think guns kill people, and so we have gun-control. Americans think people kill people, so they have guns.”
Despite this mentality, guns aren’t as physically prevalent as I once thought — only 30% of Americans own a gun. Furthermore, Americans often tend to favor specific measures to tackle gun violence. According to the Pew Research Center, 90% of Democrats and 77% of Republicans support background checks for private sales.The idea of creating a federal database to track gun purchases is backed by 84% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans. Public opinion is also generally in favor of banning assault-style weapons (80% D, 54% R). However, that’s where the good news stops — on the more general notion of gun ownership, a majority of 64% believe that most people should hold the legal right to own guns. Furthermore, the proportion of people believing it is more important to protect gun ownership over gun control measures rose from 29% in 2000 to 52% in 2016.
Aware of the public’s mood, passionate gun advocates have developed potent ideological arguments portraying even minimal gun control as an attack on the ‘divine’ right to own guns in general. Groups like the NRA have brilliantly exploited institutionalized American fear of ‘big government’, portraying gun-control as an assault on ‘liberty’ itself. For evidence to prove this — look no further than NRA chief Wayne LaPierre’s statement in the wake of the Marshall County High School shooting in Florida: “The elites…Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eradicate all individual freedoms.” Combine that with a constitutional argument concerning the so-called Second Amendment — and you’ll find that the pro-gun lobby is ideologically and legally armed with heavy ammunition. Their passion and determination also exceeds that of gun-control advocates. Republican strategist Grover Norquist explains this: “You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their ‘control’ position?…but for that 4–5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this.” And the Republican base especially, particularly in deep red states, cares deeply about guns. The famous NRA grade system, in which the organization awards politicians marks in relation to their positions on gun control, encourages conservative lawmakers in particular to be very cautious when voting on guns — especially when their seats in Congress could depend on it. The end result is the suffocation of legislative gun control efforts.
So count me on the side of the pessimists. Some of you may be thinking of Donald Trump’s recent statements outlining a support for background checks, raising age limits and mental health initiatives as an example of emerging political momentum towards gun-control after the Florida shooting. But who are we fooling if not ourselves? On the very same day, Trump tweeted the following:
Did we really expect discipline and gravitas from Trump? After Sandy-Hook or Charlottesville or pretty much any statement he’s made since getting elected? Besides, Obama tried the background-checks thingy and failed miserably. If such common-sense legislation, strongly backed by public opinion fails, can we really expect meaningful reform in America — an actual reduction of guns and gun-violence? Answering no to this question seems a matter of realism rather than pessimism.