All guns blazing: The stark reality beyond US firearm laws

By J Brooks Spector 17 December 2012

The latest news of an American tragedy that took place on Friday has already played out on the television screens of thousands, perhaps millions, of newscasts worldwide. Billions of horrified viewers are being asked, yet again, to make sense of American society and its fatal fascination with firearms. This time around, once again a young man; yet again a loner; once more a man fascinated by guns; but this time, uniquely, of the twenty-eight victims, twenty are children in a Connecticut elementary school. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The inhabitants of the peaceful Newtown, Connecticut, which was founded decades before the American Revolution, are reeling after what befell them on Friday – an event that seems like some kind of divinely ordered plague straight out of the more violent parts of the Old Testament. On that day, Adam Lanza, son of one of the school’s teachers, killed his mother, then went to her school and shot a half dozen teachers and school employees and twenty small children. According to police, his victims all died from multiple wounds inflicted with several weapons.

This massacre is now the second-deadliest school shooting in American history – there is a record book being kept on this peculiar kind of horror – and it is one of the deadliest mass shootings anywhere around the world, except in battle zones. By contrast, over the past two decades it is exceeded only by the 2007 Virginia Tech University spree that led to thirty-three deaths (including the shooter) and the 2011 killings in Norway that left seventy-seven dead.

As it turned out, Lanza was himself the son of an avid gun collector – and in a tragic irony, her gun collection ended up being used against her as well. As the day progressed, the initial shock changed to horror, and the horror went national. By the time the news cycle had barely completed its first iteration, President Obama had gone live on television, shedding highly public tears as the nation’s symbolic grieving parent – acting on behalf of all those who would never see their children graduate from high school and college, grow up to become adults, get married and have children of their own.

On that Friday, he called for “meaningful measures” to deal with this plague of mass killings that have served as baleful punctuation marks in contemporary American life. Then, on Sunday, Obama spoke at a special service for the victims in Newtown on Sunday evening. Standing on a spartan stage, Obama declared he would use “whatever power” he has to prevent shootings like the Connecticut school massacre.

“What choice do we have? Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” These words seemed to be a definitive sign his administration would make a run for some form of gun control legislation, especially since the deaths in Newtown, Connecticut demanded national efforts. “Surely we can do better than this. We have an obligation to try.”

Adam Lanza seems to have been a bright but socially awkward student with no close friends. While he was in high school, Lanza was active in the technology club, but the club’s teacher-advisor told the media Lanza had “some disabilities” and seemed not to feel pain like the other students. As a result, he needed supervision when he was using soldering tools, for instance. He also had the occasional “episode” when he seemed to withdraw completely from his surroundings.

Nonetheless, police officials have said Lanza had no criminal record and so was presumably not barred from being in possession of a lethal weapon. However, Lanza’s home life appears to have been more than a bit unusual. His mother had reportedly declined to allow anyone into her house, even members of the social clubs she participated in that usually met in the respective members’ homes in rotation. No one yet knows what served as the tipping point for Adam Lanza. And, since the killer is now also dead by his own hand, it may never be possible to know for certain.

But, even as the hurt and pain has only started to be felt by the victims’ families, the national discussion has already moved to a new plane – yet another debate about the place of firearms in contemporary American life. This debate hinges in large part on twenty-seven words of the American Constitution’s Second Amendment: “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.”

There have been two basic interpretations of this clause. There is the “individual rights” interpretation that argues the government has no right whatsoever to control the absolute right for self-arming by its citizens. The second view is the “state’s rights” view; that the founders of the American republic, in their constitution-writing deliberations, simply intended to support the right of individual states to maintain their respective militias, and thus the right of citizens to join and bear arms in those bodies. In effect, this was simply a reach-back to the importance of those militias in defeating British efforts to reassert colonial rule of America. Or, from the grammarian’s perspective (and the Founding Fathers were supremely literate men), this “right to keep and bear arms” is simply a dependent clause in support of the phrase that speaks to those well-regulated militias.
It probably didn’t matter too much about which view was the right one when 95% of all Americans lived in small villages or on farms, and a sharp eye and steady hand with a Kentucky Rifle was the difference between roast venison on the table and a meagre vegetarian diet. But times have clearly changed. While many American people do still hunt for recreation, the numbers who depend on their skills with a rifle to eat have reached vanishing proportions. And possession of an automatic or semi-automatic rifle was never part of the hunting culture anyway.

In place of that argument, member/lobbying groups like the powerful National Rifle Association have bulked-up a new rationale built on two pillars of sand foundations: firearms in the hands of the citizenry will keep the bad guys at bay; and that firearms in the hands of sturdy yeomen citizens will keep the inevitable tendencies of a tyrannical government from enslaving the country. After Obama’s re-election, for example, the association’s president, David Keene, had written, for example, “We have to be prepared to fight him on each front, rally friendly elected officials, persuade those in the middle and let all of them know that gun owners will not stand idly by as our constitutional rights are stripped from us.”

But the statistics tell a rather different story. According to the international Small Arms Survey, American gun ownership rates are positively unparalleled. Americans don’t just have more firepower that anyone else – 270 million privately held firearms – they have the highest gun ownership per capita rate in the world, with about nine guns for every ten Americans. Coming in second place is, wait for it, Yemen. That’s right, the country at the heel of the Arabian Peninsula that is a synonym for poverty, political unrest, an on-going separatist Shia insurgency, a flourishing al-Qaeda branch, and, just for good measure, the still-lingering after-effects of a brutal 1994 civil war. Not to mention a national narcotic habit of using Qat.

Moreover, the US is way ahead of any other OECD country in the per capita rate for gun ownership. Israel has 7.3 privately owned weapons for every hundred people, but the US rate is twelve times that. And Israel’s rate is twelve times larger than Japan’s. Continuing in this vein, the ten nations with the highest per capita gun ownership rates include Yemen, Serbia and Iraq, as well as Switzerland, Finland and Sweden. That of course argues for a position that gun ownership by itself is not the only determinant for horrific national kill rates. There must be something else at work here. Nevertheless, America’s gun-related murder rate is the highest in the developed world, excluding Mexico, where there is an on-going drug war, after all. If nothing else, at least one public policy effort might try to aim for lowering the number, ease of access and ubiquity of firearms in the hands of the nation’s citizens to lower that kill rate.

Not surprisingly, given this latest tragedy, the debate about firearm access is suddenly back on the front burner again – and some have found themselves astoundingly wrong-footed about it. For example, Texas Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert said on television on Sunday that having more guns, rather than fewer, would help protect citizens in future situations like the most recent school shooting. Gohmert insisted on Fox News, “Every mass killing of more than three people in recent history has been in a place where guns were prohibited. They choose this place, they know no one will be armed.” Gohmert went on, arguing that if the Connecticut school principal, Dawn Hochsprung, had had a gun in her office, the situation would have come out differently. “I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office locked up and so when she heard gunshots … she takes his head off before he can hurt those kids.”

Meanwhile, former Arkansas governor, fundamentalist preacher and former presidential candidate in the Republican Party four years ago, Mike Huckabee, insisted it was all the fault of a godless government. Huckabee’s pronouncement was that because religion had been driven from public schools, he was not surprised the children in America’s schools no longer had their usual divine protection. One has to ask: What, exactly, are these people smoking?

In quick response, however, Peter Wehner, writing in the magazine, “Commentary”, a usually reliable bulwark of support for Republican candidates and neo-con values, has already said, “For Huckabee to assume Lanza went on his rampage because ‘God has been removed from our schools’ is witless. A diseased and twisted mind would not be dissuaded from carrying out a massacre by a generic prayer said at the beginning of the school day.” Wehner adds that Huckabee’s reasoning is something he has labelled “theodicy” – asking why the lack of prayer in schools is any more of an offence than indifference to the plight of the poor.

Instead, Wehner argues that Huckabee is callously making use of “a heart-breaking and inexplicable mass killing to push his conservative social agenda. Now as it happens, I’m somewhat (though not entirely) sympathetic to the conservative social agenda. But to use this incident, even before the bodies were removed from the school, to argue that if only we had let God in ‘on the front end’ we wouldn’t now need him ‘on the back end’ borders on being grotesque…. Mr. Huckabee may have thought he was defending God in what he said. In fact, in a moment of overwhelming grief and sorrow–one that called for some measure of grace, humility, and wisdom (which President Obama showed in his beautiful and moving tribute) – Huckabee offered an explanation I found flippant and offensive. And my guess is I’m not the only one.”

And just maybe, he isn’t. Veteran Republican campaign aide and former Romney strategist, Mark DeMoss, has called for a serious national conversation on gun control, adding the US can no longer continue “doing nothing” after the elementary school shooting left dozens dead. DeMoss told Politico that placing some limits on guns doesn’t have to conflict with constitutional liberties. “I’m a conservative and a Republican, and I believe in the Constitution and all of the amendments. But the reality is, there are restrictions on lots of our freedoms. We cherish the freedom of speech, but it doesn’t give you the right to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. I have trouble defending a position that says there should be no restrictions on any guns or ammunition, and this slippery slope argument that if you allow the slightest bit of [gun] control, then that’s the start of taking away all our freedoms.”

If the strong public opinions of people like Wehner and DeMoss – plus others – can finally lead to the break-up of the hegemony of the National Rifle Association on almost all gun control legislation, just possibly Americans will be able to look back at this latest senseless massacre as the turning point in public opinion and the unexpected evolution of backbones in some previously supine politicians on this national disgrace. DM

Read more:
Romney Adviser breaks ranks on guns on Politico
Gohmert: Time for ‘open-minded’ conversation on guns on Politico
What we know about the Connecticut school shooting on AP
Debate on Gun Control Is Revived, Amid a Trend Toward Fewer Restrictions on New York Times
Contentions – The Newtown Massacre and Mike Huckabee’s Offense on Commentary Magazine
Newtown school shooter’s mother collected guns, was loath to let people inside home on Washington Post
What makes America’s gun culture totally unique in the world, in four charts on Washington Post
CRS Annotated Constitution

Photo: A mother embraces her daughter as they stand near a makeshift memorial close to Sandy Hook Elementary School for the victims of a school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut Sunday December 16, 2012. Twelve girls, eight boys and six adult women were killed in the shooting on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. REUTERS/Mike Segar


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