America’s debate about the right of its citizens
to bear arms will be turned up to full volume following the Newtown school massacre, but the quality of
sound is unlikely to change.
The angry confrontation of America’s opposing ‘cultures’
on the gun issue, which erupts anew after every multiple shooting, resembles
the action of some of the weapons used: a blinding flash, a sharp sound and
then a long, pregnant silence.
Each side claims to be the one with exclusive access
to reason, but the advocates of gun rights are far more united in their resolve
than their opponents. They are also more
vocal and infinitely more effective in propagating their point of view, particularly
adept at coining catchy slogans that appeal to the national neurosis about what
Americans have long been persuaded is a vital component of their fundamental
One of the National Rifle Association’s favourite battle
cries has become familiar through sheer repetition: “Guns don’t kill people,
people kill people”. Another popular gun
lobby catchphrase – which has duly caught on – is that “an armed society is a
polite society”. The idea that guns
encourage respect rather than fear would be laughable anywhere but in the United States – and perhaps a few republics in
Africa and Eastern Europe.
These sound-bites may be intellectually nonsensical,
but they are sentimentally effective and, backed by constant devotional
evocation of the Constitution’s second amendment, they have shifted the center
of the debate to the gun lobby’s side of the battleground. It may be true that a majority of Americans publicly
abhor gun worship, but it takes little persuasion to recruit them to the view
that no government should be telling them that they don’t have the right to
The quieter voices of reason referred to earlier tend
to sound high-minded, too philosophically complex. One might add impractical, at least for the
purposes of the electioneering skills needed for what is essentially a political
America, in short, is confused, or at best
ambivalent. Everything seems clear for a
while after each shocking incident involving firearms, at least to those who
believe that guns must somehow be controlled.
Even the NRA goes to ground – as it has done following Newtown.
But before long the national ambivalence will reassert itself and the
debate begin anew, opinion as divided as ever.
It’s probable that even among the parents of the
children shot in Newtown
some were, at least before the attack, NRA sympathizers. And if they no longer are, that doesn’t
represent an intellectual conversion but an (understandably) emotional one. Newtown’s
council, it transpires, has recently been engaged in a fierce public argument
about the use of guns near human dwellings.
Neither the agencies of government nor the courts are
of any help in resolving the broader issues of gun control. Both houses of Congress are divided – cynics
would say between those politicians whose campaigns were endorsed, or financed,
by the NRA, and those whose campaigns were opposed by the gun lobby. It’s fair to say that if there was a
political will to change the law it would have happened. Only one state (Illinois) has a law barring the carrying of weapons
outside the home or business, and even that one is at risk, a federal appeals
court last month having declared it to be unconstitutional.
Gun sales meanwhile are said to be rising, with
high-calibre automatic weapons leading the way.
If that is true, what is it that ordinary Americans – meaning supposedly
sensible, law-abiding, working Americans – are afraid of?
If it’s gun-wielding household intruders, it flies in
the face of statistics that show a decline in armed robberies. Is it the potential threat posed by dark-skinned
immigrants, desperate for work and status?
Some right-wing advocates of draconian immigration measures, including
the deportment of illegal aliens, think so.
It’s obviously no longer the Communists; the once dreaded ‘reds under the
beds’ have been sent packing along with their international sponsor, the Soviet
Union. Could it be the government
itself? Well there’s a plot for Hollywood’s next
One theory is that a despotic government would promote
gun worship because it encourages individualism and divides the citizenry that
might rise against it. That seems a
little far-fetched, even by quaint American definitions of freedom.
Exactly what kind of freedom does the proliferation of
guns confer? None, says Firmin
DeBrabander, a professor of philosophy at a Maryland college, writing in the New York Times. “Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into
extreme individualism. It fosters
society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power – and one another – and
in the aftermath of shooting such as Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite the opposite.”
He’s right, in my view, but no national psyche can be altered
overnight. Even gradually may be a
stretch. The mindset of many honest,
God-fearing Americans, whether openly expressed or secretly nurtured, is that personal
firearms are necessary for self-protection, even if the precise nature of the menace
has yet to be identified.
The American obsession with guns may puzzle the rest
of the civilized world, but Americans won’t care about that. They are not to blame; it was all the fault
of those rampaging red-coats sent by Bad King George. Yes, I know that was 200 years ago, but America is a
young country with a truncated history.
Newtown may turn out to be a watershed event in
that history, but sadly there is every reason to doubt it.