UNITED STATES

Gun culture: Is it so deeply rooted in the American psyche that it cannot be altered?

By J Brooks Spector 20 April 2021

Brandon Wexler helps a customer look at weapons at WEX Gunworks on 24 March 2021 in Delray Beach, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

America is simultaneously facing two crises that are killing its citizens. The first is significantly fuelled by the too-easy access to high-powered firearms, while the second comes from a too-easy reliance upon lethal force by the police to stop a suspected criminal. But will anything really be done about either?

J Brooks Spector

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. – The US Constitution, Second Amendment

Patrolman Jim Malone: “You want to get Capone? Here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife? You pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital? You send one of his to the morgue!” – from the film, The Untouchables

To watch America from a distance can be an exciting adventure, but it can also be an excruciating exercise in frustration and pain. Now, especially, it is the pain that is being inflicted, coming simultaneously from two different directions, with the single biggest common element being the use of firearms to settle the score. Or, to be sure, very occasionally, the lethal use of a knee and full body weight in lieu of a firearm, as in the case of now-former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin.

On the one hand, there is an epidemic of multiple-victim shootings erupting across the country, frequently carried out by people who are armed with legally obtained, semi-automatic assault rifles. Unbelievably, for the past number of weeks, such events have been occurring nationally at the rate of about one a day on average. 

Simultaneously, lethal police violence continues apace, frequently (but not only or not always) targeting younger black men. Such incidents often evolve out of seemingly routine police checks of vehicles for minor traffic infractions, or civilian complaints about noise, a minor disturbance, or a modest criminal complaint, but in which the situation soon ramps up to lethal use of a police firearm. Such occurrences have led to black fathers publicly talking about “the conversation” (about dealing with police) that they feel forced to have with teenage sons across the US. 

And so, some crucial questions must be raised. Do these acts all have something in common and is this carnage based on something deep within the American character? Has this propensity been moulded by history and custom? Is it something seemingly sanctioned by law in some way? Or is it a lethal combination of all of these – plus still other factors at play here as well? 

Worse, the question of where these two catastrophes are headed must also be posed. Surely one feels pressed to believe these killings cannot continue at this gruesome pace for much longer, and with this roll call of death, without something very deep breaking apart within the American soul. 

Is there anything that can be done to stem these currents? Or are Americans simply condemned to offer a deep existential sigh about this; to give a sad shrug of the shoulders and a shudder; to count the bodies and to then offer a whispered, “O tempora, o mores.” This, before America moves on to address other more pertinent – or at least easier to solve – problems at home or abroad? Or, perhaps Americans must just wait until rage overwhelms everything else?

Some things are indisputable about these two streams of death. In the first case, there are now significantly more firearms in private hands than there are actual people in America. And that probably leaves out some illicitly obtained by criminals. 

The assertion of a near-absolute right for the personal possession of lethality has been blessed by an extraordinarily broad interpretation of precisely one half of one sentence in the country’s basic constitutional order – a dependent clause in the Second Amendment to the Constitution (see above). This has persisted for over 200 years, despite the fact such broad citizen ownership of firearms is increasingly incompatible with the nation’s current, largely urban circumstances. 

A file photograph showing guns on display at a press conference announcing the bust of a gun trafficking ring at Police Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 27 October 2015. EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT

But this original value was built on the foundation of the nation’s then-recent revolutionary experience. Then, an armed citizenry, joined in volunteer state militias together with a very small national army, were ultimately successful in stopping Britain’s “hi-tech” foreign army, bent on destroying the new nation before it was born. 

Of course what the Constitution’s drafters really meant was keeping the respective states’ militias (otherwise now known as the National Guard) separate from any national standing army. But that nicety now eludes the country’s most zealous gun fanatics – and most Republican senators and congressmen and women as well. And their stubborn opposition to anything like changes in law by Congress as traducing the Second Amendment makes bringing down the wave of firearms engulfing the nation extremely difficult.

But while it is true the number of weapons in the country exceeds the size of its population, it is also true the majority of those weapons are apparently owned by a minority of the population. Accordingly, it is misleading to say all Americans crave gun ownership. And in fact, a majority of the nation now clearly supports tighter restrictions and requirements for ownership and purchase of weapons. 

Pew Research Center data, in fact, points to growing support for such measures, except by Republican voters. As the Pew Research Center reported some 18 months ago, before the current flare-up of mass killings, “Despite deep partisan divisions on the issue, there has been a modest rise in support for stricter gun laws in the United States since 2017, a new Pew Research Center survey has found.

“In addition, while opinion on most gun policies has changed little in recent years, somewhat more Americans favour banning high capacity ammunition magazines today (71%) than did so two years ago (65%).

“Overall, the share of Americans who say gun laws in the US should be made stricter has increased from 52% in 2017 to 60% this year, according to a survey conducted in September. The share of those saying gun laws should be less strict has dropped from 18% in 2017 to 11% today.” Before the current killings, remember.

Obviously, not all gun owners are crazed madmen just itching to kill their office buddies over a disagreement about using the new printer. Some gun owners are genuine antique weapons collectors; some people still hunt, and some just admire the technology and craftsmanship of well-made weapons. Others compete in skeet or target shooting, or even training for competitive biathlon events like the Olympics. 

But for others, well, they have absorbed the conspiracy theory, cultish, cracked-brain idea the nation is about to be overrun by alien forces or home-grown tyranny, and that, soon enough, they will need to rally to the defence of freedom and liberty with their caches of rifles, assault weapons and stored supplies of ammunition. And some, let’s just say it and get it out here, are mentally unstable, or are would-be criminals seeking a competitive edge over rivals or future victims.

For some critics of the American cult of the weapon, the key factor has been service in or glorification of the military. That becomes the defining sine qua non for a craving for and the use of guns, and, through that, onto gun-connected crimes and mass, anti-social violence. 

Movies in the vein of classics like The Deer Hunter or Taxi Driver have made it an easy, cheap shot to draw a bright connecting line between the damages of military service and the itch to kill. But reality is different. A majority of Americans who have actually served in the military have never fired a weapon at another person, not even in combat. They are therefore unlikely to carry out some (non-existent) combat rage if they become armed as civilians.

Moreover, thinking historically, of the more than 12 million servicemen and women during World War 2, or the smaller but still large numbers deployed in the Korean, Vietnam, Gulf and Iraq conflicts, a truly minuscule number of those individuals ever turned toward carrying out mass violence with firearms. Among all the veterans this writer has ever known from any of those conflicts, few were ever even slightly enthusiastic about holding a weapon again. 

Men carrying guns gather with hundreds of others at a ‘Hazardous Liberty! Defend the Constitution!’ rally to protest the stay-at-home order, at the Capitol building on April 19, 2020 in Olympia, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

(In my own modest military experience, basic training was the first time I had ever handled a rifle, pretty much like most of my training cohort. Subsequently, it has never occurred to me to rush off and purchase an arsenal to use when times were stressful or alien hordes were poised to come over our garden wall. The State Department once sent us for weapons training while serving in Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, but nobody could ever explain how we would make use of this armoury and so the weapons were eventually locked away, to be forgotten.)

In fact, as far as police, government officials, sociologists and psychologists can determine, concerning the many multiple killings, there are a multiplicity of anti-social motives – deep, unresolvable grievances about work or former work circumstances, real or imagined personal slights, racial, religious, and ethnic animosities – or much deeper mental health issues with the perpetrators. The one commonality for all of them is, of course, that the killers had easy access to lethal hardware. 

Among the 50 states and the national government, the US actually has a varied tapestry of firearms regulations and controls, despite howls from Second Amendment purists. Still, one cannot just go out and buy a ready-to-attack-your-enemies-with tank, fully automatic rifles and machine guns, ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons, after all, regardless of one’s feelings about an imminent apocalypse. In some states, there are waiting periods before a firearms purchase can be concluded while a police check for previous violent crimes is completed. 

Various states have what are known as red flag laws, where a private individual can contact police to request they confiscate a weapon from a close relative who is giving clear evidence of intent to harm others or him or herself with a firearm. The police usually must gain permission from a judge to keep the weapon permanently, but the laws often have loopholes or inadequate oversight. 

There are chilling examples of individuals whose firearms were confiscated by police in a jurisdiction under one of those red flag laws, including the most recent tragedy in Indianapolis, only for it to be discovered later that the shooter had legally obtained two assault rifles, shortly before engaging in a multiple killing spree. In this most recent case, it has been hard to determine who was at fault, but, regardless, the effect has been horrific.

While there are also federal restrictions on the private ownership of fully automatic weapons, it remains fairly easy to obtain kits that will transform a semi-automatic weapon into one functionally nearly the same as a rapid fire automatic weapon. Moreover, there is virtually no regulation in most jurisdictions over the sale of weapons at privately organised gun shows (often held in large venues not unlike giant swap meets or antique fairs) or for the purchase of so-called ghost weapons. 

Ghost weapons are sold through the mail as kits that require assembly and so are not officially considered to be weapons at all under current law. Then, too, the power of 3-D printers is only beginning to be felt on this question, as individuals can produce parts to assemble in accordance with software instructions that are available. 

So far at least, any comprehensive efforts on weapons control have generally been spectacularly unsuccessful, given several Second Amendment interpretations by courts, and also significantly due to the political clout of the National Rifle Association (NRA). 

The NRA has been described as the most powerful lobbying group in America. One irony is that the NRA actually began many years earlier as a body set up to instil training in weapons safety and marksmanship among young adults, and it only gradually morphed into a powerful rightwing lobbying stalwart aligned with other currents in the conservative universe. 

At its peak, the NRA dispensed its largesse for aboveboard campaign financing to political candidates it favoured. It spent additional funds on mass media/mass mailing issue campaigns, not directly tied to candidates, but clearly intended to demonstrate where its sympathies lay in state and federal electoral campaigns. 

Over time, the NRA developed such a fearsome reputation it was a rare candidate – especially among Republicans – or Democrats in key swing districts – prepared to buck the NRA on almost any aspect of firearms regulation. Now it is under increasing threat as a result of the personal profiteering and related scandals concerning the salary and benefits for its longtime leader, Wayne LaPierre, and his close associates, and the organisation itself is now effectively bankrupt and spending lots of time in court. 

But it still has millions of dues-paying members and significant political influence with similarly minded politicians. Over time, its influence has been so profound that a preponderance of Republican officials have been elected whose views on gun control parallel those of the NRA’s official positions. 

As The New York Times noted on 20 April, “Since those gun owners are the least likely to support restrictions, the NRA.’s dominance has helped harden opposition to nearly all gun control. A Gallup poll this year found that seven in 10 Republicans said they were satisfied with the nation’s gun laws. This starkly separates them even from independents, 56% of whom said they were not happy with the country’s gun restrictions – let alone Democrats, who are nearly unanimous in their desire for stricter regulations.” 

In response to the torrent of multiple homicides now being recorded, the Biden administration has taken several modest steps by executive order regarding restrictions on ghost guns and similar measures, but it is proposing nothing that requires congressional action. Various proposals have passed in the House of Representatives, but they almost certainly will remain blocked in the Senate. 

Still, even though the NRA’s influence has been slipping, as noted above, congressional Republicans and their voters continue to be opposed to any major changes, despite the epidemic of multiple killings. 

The shibboleth of the Second Amendment’s all-encompassing prohibition remains strong. What conceivable horror would reverse this? It seems nothing is yet on the horizon that would do the job, sadly. Perhaps it could be the murder of a classroom’s worth of elementary school children by a deranged shooter. Oops, that already happened, and nothing really changed.

Meanwhile, the Derek Chauvin trial has now reached the stage of the jury’s deliberations, following the prosecution and defence’s final arguments. And without let-up, police shootings continue, seemingly without any brake on them. It is hard to understand precisely why this continues. It is not as if there has been the issuance of a national order mandating pre-emptive use of lethal force by American policemen and women, the moment they feel threatened, or in the face of a solitary black military officer driving his car after dark. 

Realistically, such a conscious effort would be virtually impossible to achieve, given the fact there are nearly 18,000 separate, locally or individual state-controlled police forces and no national police force, contrary to most nations. 

For some critics, the core argument is an ingrained sense of racism towards minorities as a crucial motivating factor. Still, in data collected over more than half a decade by The Washington Post, the kill figure has remained roughly the same, year-on-year, at around a thousand deaths a year at the hands of police. And in racial terms, that total has broken roughly half and half, white versus black/brown/Latino.

Reporting on various studies, and digging deeper into the data, Daily Maverick noted last year, “While people already in police custody do not die in racially skewed numbers, the frequency of street-side interrogations and frisking is skewed racially, giving many African Americans the very real sense they are a kind of subject population of citizens who are under continuing suspicion, with the possibility of worse to come, should they interact with the police. Resentment derives from a combination of unequal power dynamics and race, acting in combination to build anger. 

“In the demonstrations and protests taking place now, however, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on the economy, anger has also tapped into the deeper well of resentment over continuing, pervasive disparities in black/white education, wealth, incomes, employment and other socio-economic circumstances. This has come to the surface, despite the implicit promises of the civil rights revolution and the ameliorative economic efforts that came with it.”

Last year, we also wrote, “The Washington Post then reported, 8 June, on yet another study, noting that killings by police have remained constant across the country for half a decade, despite often-announced police reforms. It noted that, following protests in many cities in 2015, that year, The Washington Post began tallying how many people were shot and killed by police. By the end of 2015, officers had fatally shot nearly 1,000 people, twice as many as ever documented in one year by the federal government.

eA file photograph showing guns on display at a press conference announcing the bust of a gun trafficking ring at Police Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 27 October 2015. EPA/ANDREW GOMBERT

[As the paper reported] “With the issue flaring in city after city, some officials vowed to reform how police use force. The next year, however, police nationwide again shot and killed nearly 1,000 people. Then they fatally shot about the same number in 2017 – and have done so for every year after that, according to The Post’s ongoing count. Since 2015, police have shot and killed 5,400 people.

“This toll has proven impervious to waves of protests, such as those now flooding American streets in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The number killed has remained steady despite fluctuating crime rates, changeovers in big-city police leadership and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform….

“It is difficult to explain why we haven’t seen significant fluctuations in the shootings from year to year,” former Charlotte police chief Darrel Stephens said. “There’s been significant investments that have been made in de-escalation training. There’s been a lot of work.”

The paper reported: “The overwhelming majority of people killed are armed. Nearly half of all people fatally shot by police are white. Most of these shootings draw little or no attention beyond a news story.

“In the midst of such concerns, the newest demand articulated by protestors (and, increasingly by some academics and a few politicians as well) is what is called defunding the police”. While this can sound like an outrageously implausible idea – abolishing the police? – some protest rallies have now vocally taken up this idea of literally abolishing police forces as we know them, and spreading their budgets elsewhere. In the hands of more reality-grounded enthusiasts, however, it is actually becoming an argument for a deeply rethought through police sector.”

However, despite these realisations on the part of many police leaders across the nation, any sort of federal government-led effort towards change remains in neutral gear, rather than one of those power gears. As The Washington Post’s Power Up newsletter reported on 20 April, “Congress rolled out dueling plans that have since stalled: Senate Republicans introduced a narrower bill that fell far short of advancing. House Democrats passed the ‘George Floyd Policing Act’ which they reintroduced this Congress and passed last month. President Biden has praised the House legislation that ‘would ban chokeholds, end racial and religious profiling, establish a national database to track police misconduct and prohibit certain no-knock warrants…’”

Increasingly, more than anything else, what is taking hold is a growing us-versus-them attitude pitting police against the people they judge to be potential criminals, as well as the sense on the part of the police that they are besieged forces of public order coping with barbarians at the gates. 

The fact that such lethal police confrontations are increasingly visible on video and then broadcast on television and via online media, often showing poor police practice, does nothing to allay citizen anger about such deaths. 

Now, add this to the increasing militarisation of many police forces with surplus or purposely ordered military-style equipment, and there is the sense on the part of some citizens that the police are more the centurions of a distant government than the guardians of public order in service to that citizenry.

Or, as the Power Up newsletter also noted, given the impending verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, “Minneapolis is on edge and the nation is watching closely as jurors yesterday began deliberating in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. But here in Washington, Congress has yet to approve any significant policing overhaul since the death last May of George Floyd. And D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser directly pleaded yesterday with acting Army secretary John E. Whitley to station 250 active armed troops in the nation’s capital in anticipation of the verdict. 

“The demonstrations and unrest that erupted across the country in the wake of Floyd’s death spurred some police reform at the state and local level. Former president Donald Trump took executive action last June to provide new federal funding incentives for local police departments to improve training in the use of force and bolster a national database to track misconduct.” But any big wave of reform seems distant, even now. 

As hard as it may be, the country must find ways out of its twinned crises. There are the mass killers with too-easy access to powerful weaponry who find their grudges and grievances can only be addressed through yet one more multiple homicide incident, even as gun ownership remains far easier to achieve than a licence to operate a motor vehicle or become a hairdresser. 

And on the other side of the ledger, there is a sense that too often, in too many jurisdictions, the police are the law – that they can shoot to kill in the face of any provocation, and that the scales are weighed against a young black man on the way to the store for a lottery ticket with a taillight out in his car. 

The black father having “the conversation” with his teenage son about dealing with police continues. Some things must change, but who will do it? Or, as we asked at the outset, is the gun culture so deeply rooted in the American psyche that it cannot be altered? DM

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  • The other wrinkle is the border crisis where people are fleeing poverty and violence in South American countries. Violence fueled by guns that have come from America. Explain that one to NRA.

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