One of the grimmer small events of recent American life occurred just as 2014 was ending. A mother had her two-year old toddler perched in a shopping cart at an Idaho Wal-Mart. He reached into her purse, specially made for carrying a concealed firearm (and a Christmas gift from her husband), found his mother’s pistol in it, pulled it out, and shot and killed her. And she wasn’t the only victim of a child who came upon a loaded weapon. Between 2007 and 2011, at least 62 children 14 or younger died in similarly nightmarish accidents with loaded weapons.
Nor was this specific incident an anomaly. In fact, if you are an American, you are statistically in less danger of dying from a terrorist attack in this country than from a toddler shooting you. And by the way, you’re 2,059 times more likely to die by your own hand with a weapon of your choosing than in a terrorist attack anywhere on Earth. You’re also more than nine times as likely to be killed by a police officer as by a terrorist.
And remind me, how many American taxpayer dollars have gone into “security” from terrorism and how many into security from weaponry? You know the answer to that. In fact, guns of just about every variety seem to circulate ever more freely in this country as the populace up-armors itself in yet more ways. Think of it as a kind of arms race. Emboldened by the National Rifle Association (NRA), Americans are ever more weaponized. There were an estimated 300-310 million guns in the U.S. in 2009 (a figure that has undoubtedly risen), and up to four million Americans now own assault rifles — one popular weapon of choice, by the way, for mass killers. In the meantime, the percentage of Americans who favor a ban on handguns (25%) has fallen to an all-time low.
As for “carrying,” it’s now legal in every state in America and allowed in ever more situations as well. In the last year, for instance, Idaho, where that mother died, became the seventh state to green-light the carrying of concealed guns on college campuses. To put all this in perspective, less than two decades ago, fewer than a million concealed weapons were being legally carried in the U.S.; now, more than one million people are permitted to carry such weapons in Florida alone. In twenty-first-century America, the “right to bear arms” has been extended in every direction, while there has also been a “sharp rise” in mass killings.
Meanwhile — since what’s an arms race without a second party? — the police, mainlining into the Pentagon, have been up-armoring at a staggering pace. It’s no longer an oddity for American police officers to be armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers as if in a foreign war zone or to arrive on the scene with a mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle previously used in our distant wars. And by the way, while much anger has been displayed, by the police in particular, over the recent murders of two patrolmen in Brooklyn by a disturbed man carrying a Taurus semiautomatic handgun, that anger seems not to extend to his ability to arm himself or to the pawnshop filled with weaponry that originally sold the gun (but not to him).
One mistake you shouldn’t make, however, is to imagine that Americans consider the right to bear arms universal. Just consider, for example, the CIA’s “signature drone strikes” in Pakistan and elsewhere. Over the last two presidencies, the Agency has gained the “right” to drone-kill young men of military age bearing arms — in societies where arms-bearing, as here, is the norm — about whom nothing specific is known except that they seem to be in the wrong place at the right time. The NRA, curiously enough, has chosen not to defend them.
If, to a visitor from Mars or even (as TomDispatch regular Ann Jones points out) Europe, all this might seem like the definition of madness, it’s also increasingly the definition of a way of life in this country. What was once the “tool” of law enforcement types, the military, and hunters is now the equivalent of an iPhone, a talisman of connection and social order. It’s something that just about anyone can put in a pocket, a purse, or simply strap on in the full light of day in a land where all of us, even toddlers, seem to be heading for the O.K. Corral. Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, has seen her share of carnage and experienced her share of stress. Today, however, she considers another kind of stress, the pressure to explain to others a country whose citizens don’t even notice how inexplicable they are becoming.