It’s been 10 years since the horror of the Sandy Hook school shooting. The collective anger and outrage in its wake seemed genuine. Certainly the anguish of the victims’ parents was.
At the time, debates about gun control stayed in the news cycle for 27 days–an eternity for the distracted public whose relish for sensationalism is unbounded, and who wants fresh meat on a daily basis. Politicians who wanted to be seen to be on the right side of the debate paid lip service to the necessity for change in the laws.
At Parkland in 2018, the same thing happened. What at the time appeared to be a strong student anti-gun movement emerged and there was hope. That too proved to be a bitter disappointment; nothing significant came of it.
Data show that the American public supports change in the gun laws, principally bans on assault weapons and stronger background checks. Yet, indebted and beholden to the NRA and gun lobbyists, it is Congress who blocks any progress. Two days ago Uvalde became the new focus of a mass shooting and President Biden asked: “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?”
In a New York Times Newsletter, I read that it now takes only 3 days for the furor to die down. Yet the shootings we hear about are only the tip of the iceberg and they are usually the ones that are more sensational, either because they involve children or racial hatred (as in the supermarket shooting in Buffalo). “The country experiences a mass shooting nearly every day, and once every three weeks someone is shot on school property, according to data from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. The large majority of these shootings don’t get coverage in national media outlets, and after a day or two, the media moves on to the next story, politicians put gun control legislation on the back burner and Americans get apathetic about gun control.”
Statistically, no other nation comes close to America in the incidence of mass shootings.
Yet, as has been pointed out, “In every country, people get into arguments, hold racist views or suffer from mental health issues. But in the U.S., it is easier for those people to pick up a gun and shoot someone.”
So what is different about America? How can we account for such a huge gap between the US at 101 and the second-place France at only 8? What makes the possession of a weapon such an obsession? I believe that although mental illness cannot be underestimated as another factor, the greater part of the answer lies in the nation’s history.
America is a nation that was born out of violence—it fought a bloody revolution to break away from its mother country. Undoubtedly self-defense was at one point in its history a necessity for survival, yet this survivalist mentality is still alive today, and it’s feeding the rampant ownership of legal and illegal guns. If you ask gun supporters why they need a gun, most often the reply is that they need it to defend themselves against people who own guns. The rational flaw in this argument, that has been called the “self-defense self-delusion”, is stunning and it would be hard to think of a clearer example of a vicious cycle—a problem that fuels itself.
That self-defense is a delusion becomes painfully evident when you consider the number of school shootings that have occurred lately. Ramos, the Uvalde shooter, had no need to defend himself against 9 and 10 year olds.
The steely resistance to more stringent gun control legislation, the one that is ceaselessly invoked, is the sacred myth of the Second Amendment. We understand that this is rooted in history, but why do so many people still cling to it today, 250 years after its conception?
The sacrosanct adherence to the Second Amendment is almost totally based on ignorance about the Bill of Rights and on a biased or corrupted interpretation of the Founding Fathers’ intentions and motivations. The Founding Fathers had recently lived through the violence of oppression by what they considered to be “a foreign power,” and the British army was the visible and immediate instrument of that subjugation. They wanted at all costs to avoid the potential perils of an abusive standing army.
With the Second Amendment that they wrote into the Bill of Rights, the Founding Fathers expressed the intention that every citizen be a part-time soldier to protect the nation in the absence of an army. Indeed, as proof that they conceived the right to bear arms to be only in the service of the defense of the nation, the Founding Fathers placed many restrictions on who could and who could not participate in the militia and therefore own arms—the original form of “gun control” regulations. Given the original purpose of the Second Amendment, it follows logically that if you do have a standing army then the local citizenry need no longer serve as its militia and the Second Amendment becomes simply void of its purpose.
Over the years this original intention seems to have got lost along the way and the belief that the Founding Fathers meant for every citizen to have the unfettered right to bear arms for personal gratification has become entrenched. Yet many would be surprised to learn that, until 2008, the right of individual citizens to bear arms existed only within the context of participation in the militia. It was the Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller that officially changed that, and thereby handed the greatest gift imaginable to the proponents of individual or “personal” gun ownership.
Of course, there are many other factors that have influenced this gun culture in America. One worth mentioning is that of what is called “rugged individualism” as iconically embodied in the “Wild West” and pioneer lore. But once again examining the facts reveals some serious misconceptions about the West. There was more gun control in Dodge City than there is today in New York City. It will astound many of us to learn that “Tombstone had much more restrictive laws on carrying guns in public in the 1880s than it has today,” says Adam Winkler, a professor and specialist in American constitutional law at UCLA School of Law. “Today, you’re allowed to carry a gun without a license or permit on Tombstone streets. Back in the 1880s, you weren’t.” “People were allowed to own guns, and everyone did own guns [in the West], for the most part,” says Winkler. “Having a firearm to protect yourself in the lawless wilderness from wild animals, hostile native tribes, and outlaws was a wise idea. But when you came into town, you had to either check your guns if you were a visitor or keep your guns at home if you were a resident.”
Ironically, although Hollywood is the epicenter of liberal ideology and advocacy against gun control, the movie and television industry bears much of the responsibility for the glamorization of the gun culture. “Over and over we see the various incarnations of James Bond, Dirty Harry, Wyatt Earp and Luke Skywalker reminding us that guns are cool, efficient and oh so sexy.”
Famously, or perhaps infamously is a more appropriate word, Charlton Heston united the power of Hollywood to the greed of the National Rifle Association and the “Sacred” national myth of the Second Amendment and turned the NRA into the juggernaut that we know today. When Charlton Heston took over as the national spokesman for the NRA in 1998, the organization was on the point of dissolution. Thanks to Heston’s celebrity, and his many associations with the Bible and other heroic roles– let’s call it “the mythology of history”– his profile was larger-than-life. He became the most vocal and aggressive spokesman that the NRA had ever had. The infamous image of him holding up a rifle did more to energize the moribund organization than any other single event. Stunningly, it happened at a convention of the NRA that was held one week after the Columbine High School Massacre, where Heston performed his unforgettable move of holding up a rifle from the Davy Crockett era, saying he would give it up when it was pried “from my cold dead hands.” Heston’s leadership became the turning point for the declining organization that went on to become the most powerful lobby in Washington, and the principal obstacle to gun control.
We were shocked by Columbine, by Sandy Hook, by Parkland, and now by Uvalde. America targets children in the classroom, shoppers at the supermarket, worshipers in church. Is the Second Amendment more sacred than life itself?