NEW YORK – After the massacre of 28 people at a Connecticut school– 20 of them children – Americans are bitterly asking themselves what has gone wrong in their country. School and work place shootings have become almost as common as sports events. What can be done to halt this plague?
Not very much, at first glance. Americans love firearms: there are some 150 million in circulation. Half of all Americans own weapons. Welcome to Dodge City. In Puritanical America, it’s ok to show people being sawed in half and skinned alive on TV but illegal to show the nude human body.
Attacks on schools are not just an American problem: they have occurred in Europe, Canada, Pakistan, and, last week, China.
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution, enacted in 1791, guarantees: “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.” This basic right was reaffirmed by Supreme Court decisions in 2008 and 2010.
The right to bear arms was designed to enable citizen’s militias and to protect individuals against “tyranny.” The United States had just battled Britain for its independence and feared the rise of a home-grown monarchy.
America was not alone in arming its citizens. In Switzerland, the country of my youth, citizen soldiers keep their automatic weapons at home. As far as I know, there has been only one case in half a century of a Swiss running amok and using his military rifle against civilians.
Switzerland illustrates the claim by gun advocates that “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Some members of America’s mighty National Rifle Association, the leading advocate of gun ownership for hunting and self-defense, claim that the majority of gun killings are suicides, not assaults.
But the United States is not tranquil Switzerland. Nor is it the highly civilized Western Europe, where gun ownership is strictly limited. In many senses, the US remains the Wild West, a nation that is still rough and unfinished.
However, crime rates in the United States have dropped sharply over the past 20 years. The reason is uncertain and hotly debated. Gun advocates insist it is because citizens can carry arms and protect themselves. Some statistics indeed show drops in robbery and assaults in states where carrying weapons is legal.
While there are two sides to these arguments, no doubt exists that military-style semi-automatic and fully automatic arms – like AK-47 and M-16 assault rifles – have no place in a modern society. They only belong on battlefields.
Nor do such deadly weapons have any place in hunting, where single shot, high-powered rifles with scopes are more than enough to massacre helpless animals. It was noteworthy that Newtown, where the shooting occurred, banned hunting for the weekend. People suddenly felt a little of the terror that hunted animals experience.
America’s real problem is its pervasive culture of violence and the glorification of killing. Ultra-violent video games and comic books, grisly horror films, gory war movies, and endless police drama filled with gunplay infuse society. Add heavy, pro-war drumbeating and patriotic guff from the media and politicians.
Military TV stations (I watch them, too) promote a pornography of violence. America’s wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen have turned war and the killing of civilians into sanitized video games were “the bad guys” are effortlessly liquidated – or, to use a newly favored euphemism, “taken out.” Ever since 9/11, America has become profoundly militarized and addicted to macho propaganda about “special ops,” Navy Seals, and CIA black ops.
The principal consumers of all this violent pornography and the cult of killing are confused teenage boys and young men who are at a turbulent age when potent hormones addle the brain, and whose place in this world has not yet been found.
Young men cannot be banned, but weapons and ammunition can – provided enough Americans become outraged. President Obama vowed this weekend “these tragedies must end.” But will he expend the huge amount of political capital need to fight America’s powerful gun lobby and hunting industry, and its pistol-packing citizens for whom guns have become the latest fashion accessory?