Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. That’s the mantra of the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), which for decades has intimidated politicians in both parties into adopting an insanely lax gun ownership policy.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept the NRA talking point as mostly true. Guns don’t have a will so they don’t kill people without human intervention. But guns do kill people absent homicidal intent on anybody’s part. They go off accidentally and kill the owner or someone else in the wrong place at the wrong time. Kids that don’t know the difference between a toy pistol and a real gun shoot themselves, a sibling, or their best friend. Homeowners fearing an intruder kill a family member instead.
This sort of tragedy happens a lot in a country awash with guns—101 guns per 100 people in the population. Even on its face, the NRA mantra, while technically true, is misleading. The very pervasiveness of guns causes many unintended deaths.
But that’s not even the main reason the gun lobby’s line is pure sophistry. Guns may not kill people all on their own, but when people want to kill people, guns make it much easier to do it. And the kind of guns that were once banned in this country and still are in almost the entire world–military grade weapons that fire big bullets in rapid succession–(a ban that the NRA fiercely opposed and helped kill) make it possible to kill lots of people quickly and efficiently.
Guns are the only common thread that runs through the recurring carnage that has become virtually the new normal in this country.
Draw a map of the massacres in the last five years and you can’t discern a pattern. What do Aurora, Colorado, Sandy Hook Connecticut, San Bernardino, California, Charleston, South Carolina, Tucson, Arizona and Orlando Florida have in common? Not much, beyond the fact that they are all in the United States.
The motives too are as diverse as the places. Racial hatred. Homophobia. Hatred of the government. Killing for its own sake. Religious fanaticism.
The perpetrators are not all cut from the same cloth either. Wannabee jihadists directed by no one seeking martyrdom. Nut cases of every description. People who hate blacks, people who hate gays, people who hate Latinos, fired workers taking revenge on one and all in their former workplaces.
Authoritarian personalities are especially prone to be involved in such incidents but there are many more people with authoritarian personalities than mass killings. Authoritarian personalities mostly inflict their bent on their spouses, on their students, on people who fail to automatically defer to the authority of the police badge.
The targets don’t fit a clear pattern either. Israelis kill Palestinians and Palestinians kill Israelis. That is awful but it follows a clear, albeit destructive, logic. What is happening in this country is something different. The victims range from a member of Congress and her staff to people attending a movie or eating at McDonald’s.
The ridiculously easy access to guns, including very powerful ones made for warfare, is the one common denominator. A recent study, for instance, found that 91 percent of people on the government watch list succeeded in buying guns legally.
This shows the background check that a gun purchase requires is a bad joke. And the other 9 percent who are rejected can also easily buy a gun, either at gun shows, which have even laxer controls than gun shops, or on the huge black market that exists in a nation where there are more guns than people.
The bottom line is that in this nation anyone can buy a gun, including a military-style assault rifle. The consequences could not be more clear. In Sunday’s New York Times, General Stanley McChrystal, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote: “From 2001 to 2010, 119,246 Americans were murdered with guns, 18 times all American combat deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Those numbers are breathtaking. Yet there is no end in sight to the madness. As the general pointed out in the same article: “The tragedy in Orlando wasn’t even the only mass shooting; in Roswell, N.M., a man was charged on Sunday with shooting his wife and their four children to death on Saturday. The oldest was 14; the youngest was 3.” In addition, the mass murders in Orlando came immediately on the heels of the gun murder in the same city of a rising young pop star.
Gun murders are committed in every country, but the murder rate in the United States is stratospheric compared with the rates in other rich Western countries. Not incidentally, those countries have much tougher gun control.
That kind of gun control is virtually unthinkable in the United States. Many have made modest attempts to tighten access to guns only to be shot down by the NRA, Republicans in Congress, even the Supreme Court. Now, a group of veterans, which includes McChrystal, are lending their weight to bring some common sense to U.S. gun policy. I hope they succeed, but I doubt that even they will be able to move the needle significantly.
The late black militant H. Rap Brown once said that violence is as American a cherry pie. The NRA, a craven political class scared to the death of the gun lobby, our right-wing Supreme Court, and legions of gun huggers all over the country, are working hard to prove him right.