Deadly US gun malaise

ByTalal Wasif Qavi

A barrister


July 8, 2022

Gun violence in America is now rated as a malaise of epic order that has pulverised civilian life in the length and breadth of the country. Though the American societal order and media are divided over the issue but fact of the matter is that the death of innocent victims is widely rated to be more brutal than casualties suffered during wars. The simple fact that such atrocities are perpetrated by indigenous Americans on their compatriots is more horrendous than terrorism but the pity is that such killings are condoned in the name of liberty and freedom of rights. More worrying is the fact that American public representatives have been consistently unable to convince their people about taking robust action against the licence to kill. It may be noted that successive US administrations had vowed to tackle this issue but have singularly failed owing to the stubbornness of the lobbies favouring the right of the people to possess and carry arms.

The founding fathers of the American republic in the end of the 18th century raised no questions about ownership of guns by justifying this freedom by pointing out that the monopoly on guns by the monarchies of Europe and their armies was the very source of oppression that the American colonists were fighting. James Madison, the father of the US constitution, cited the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation but he and the other founders understood the issue was complex. The new states did not trust the nascent federal government and wanted their own laws and own arms. They recognised people needed to hunt and protect themselves against wild animals and thieves but some worried more private guns could just increase frontier lawlessness.

It was not that apprehensions were not expressed by many relevant quarters questioning whether private guns were essential to protect against tyranny or that local armed militia could not fulfill that role. They also expressed reservations about the possibility of militia becoming a source of local oppression. These objections brought about a compromise in 1791 that became the most parsed phrase in the US constitution, the second amendment guaranteeing gun rights: “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.” Over the following two centuries, guns became an essential part of American life and myth. The matter evokes bitter debate in the country as is borne out by a landmark Supreme Court decision expanded gun rights just weeks after a mass killing of 19 children in a Texas school that has exacerbated the debate with many quarters wondering why Americans are so wedded to the firearms used in such massacres with appalling frequency.

Most observers believe that the Americans have mixed up their historical traditions with a growing belief among consumers that they need guns for their personal safety. By the early 20th century, the increasingly urbanised United States was awash with firearms and experiencing notable levels of gun crime not seen in other countries. From 1900 to 1964, the country recorded more than 265,000 gun homicides, 330,000 suicides and 139,000 gun accidents. In reaction to a surge in organised crime violence, in 1934 the federal government banned machine guns and required guns to be registered and taxed. Individual states added their own controls, like bans on carrying guns in public, openly or concealed. The public was for such controls as polls in 1959, 60 per cent of Americans supported a complete ban on personal handguns.

The concerns about the issue received a fillip after the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King and there were calls of pushing for strenuous regulation in 1968 but gun-makers and the increasingly assertive National Rifle Association (NRA), citing the second amendment, prevented new legislation from doing more than implement an easily circumvented restriction on direct mail-order gun sales. Over the next two decades, the NRA built common cause with Republicans to insist that the second amendment was absolute in its protection of gun rights and that any regulation was an attack on Americans’ freedom. NRA devised specific strategy of creating and advertising a distinct gun-centric ideology and social identity for gun owners. Gun owners banded together around that ideology, forming a powerful voting bloc, especially in rural areas that Republicans sought to seize from Democrats. NRA also made common cause with the religious right, a group that believes in Christianity’s primacy in American culture and the constitution. Drawing on the New Christian Right’s belief in moral decay, distrust of the government, and belief in evil, the NRA leadership began to use more religiously coded language to elevate the second amendment above the restrictions of a secular government.

Yet the shift of focus to the second amendment did not help gun-makers, who saw flat sales due to the steep decline by the 1990s in hunting and shooting sports. That paved the way for Gun Culture 2.0 when the NRA and the gun industry began telling consumers that they needed personal firearms to protect themselves. Gun marketing increasingly showed people under attack from rioters and thieves and hyped the need for personal tactical equipment. Fifteen years ago, at the behest of the NRA, the firearms industry took a dark turn when it started marketing increasingly aggressive and militaristic guns and tactical gear. Meanwhile, many states answered worries about a perceived rise in crime by allowing people to carry guns in public without permits.

Over the past two decades — a period in which more than 200 million guns hit the US market — the country has shifted from Gun Culture 1.0, where guns were for sport and hunting, to Gun Culture 2.0 where many Americans see them as essential to protect their homes and families. That shift has been driven heavily by advertising by the nearly $20 billion gun industry that has tapped fears of crime and racial upheaval. It is pointed out that the recent mass murders are the byproduct of a gun industry business model designed to profit from increasing hatred, fear, and conspiracy. Yet in the wake of the May mass shootings of Black people at a supermarket in New York state and children and teachers at their school in Uvalde, Texas, a consensus emerged for US lawmakers to advance some modest new gun control measures.

The latest bitter contrast between the pro-gun and anti-gun lobbies came to fore yet again when the US Supreme Court ruled that Americans have a fundamental right to carry firearms in public. The 6-3 ruling strikes down a New York law that required a person to prove they had legitimate self-defence needs to receive a gun permit and will prevent states from restricting people carrying guns.
Despite a growing call for limits on firearms after two mass shootings in May stunned the country, the court sided with advocates who said the US constitution guarantees the right to own and carry guns. The ruling is the first by the court in a major second amendment — the constitutional amendment allowing Americans the right to bear arms — case in a decade and a victory for the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA). US President Joe Biden said he was deeply disappointed with the ruling stating that this ruling contradicts both common sense and the constitution, and should deeply trouble all Americans. TW


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