A sick obsession at the heart of deadly US gun violence

Until Americans have a prolonged and serious discussion about their sick love affair with guns, the country will skirt an issue that is killing it.

Powered by automated translation

The United States has a cockeyed national debate on gun violence in which some, motivated by political expediency, dodge core issues, while others, driven by political ideology, misdirect the discussion.

President Barack Obama has offered small, but eminently supportable reforms. And Congress should pass an assault-weapon ban and require universal background checks for gun buyers. But these measures will not solve the problem. Nor will bizarre proposals from gun advocates that US schools be turned into maximum-security facilities with armed guards and kindergarten teachers carrying concealed weapons.

No, the problem is neither that guns are too sophisticated for our own good nor that Americans don't have enough of them. The problem is simpler and deeper. It is the gun culture and guns, period.

My generation grew up playing "cowboys and Indians" or "cops and robbers". If we didn't have cap pistols or toy rifles, we improvised with a pointed finger, a thumb trigger and "pow, pow, you're dead". My grandsons do not play these games. Instead they act out more fanciful tales of space invaders and futuristic heroes, all possessing more potent weapons. But they will also make do, when necessary, with sticks or fingers morphing them into weapons, possessed of all sorts of magical and destructive powers.

From cradle to grave, Americans are fed a steady diet of guns and violence. From cartoons, Westerns, and cop shows, to video games and Quentin Tarantino's bullets-and-blood fests, guns and shooting are ingrained into the culture. Like "Mom and apple pie", guns have become part of the United States as a nation.

There is a scene in the film noir cult classic Gun Crazy where the film's main character, the young teenager Bart, stares longingly into a store window. The object of his desire is a six-shooter pistol. Unable to resist its call, he shatters the glass and tries to steal the weapon, only to be arrested.

The next scene has Bart standing before a judge trying to explain his obsession with guns. He tells the court: "I feel good when I'm shooting them. I feel awful good inside, like I'm somebody."

Gun Crazy Bart's fixation with the weapon is pathological and ultimately leads to his demise. When I see the look on the faces of enthusiasts lining up to buy guns, I think of Bart. When I watch them sensually cradling their assault weapons or zoned out at the shooting range, I think of Bart, knowing that nothing good can come of this obsession.

Last week, Mr Obama signed a series of executive orders, remarking on the tragedy of lives lost and his resolve to address this curse. Especially sobering was his observation that in the month since the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, more than 900 Americans had been shot to death.

About 900 Americans have been murdered every month for years; 10,000 a year, or 100,000 in the last decade. When suicide by gun and accidental gun deaths are added in, the total is more than 30,000 deaths annually.

There are almost 3 million guns in circulation in the county, enough to arm four out of five Americans. Almost one half of all households have firearms, and these households are twice as likely to suffer from gun violence. While we should be concerned about assault weapons, more than two thirds of all gun murders are committed with handguns - and there hasn't been a serious debate about handguns in years.

And yet there continues to be a pathological obsession not only with owning weapons, but with blocking any reasonable controls. Gun lobbyists, for example, defeated an effort in Virginia that would have restricted residents to purchasing just one gun per month.

The gun lobbies' strategy is simple: allow no discussion, no compromise, no concessions and tolerate no sign of weakness. They mask their deadly advocacy with the US constitution, arguing that what is at stake is the survival of America's freedoms. In the process, they further inflame the passions of their adherents.

The United States has become a gun-crazy culture, armed to the teeth, with some believing that they are the true patriots defending liberty against tyranny. Added are all the resentments and pressures that gave birth to the Tea Party (including a not-so-subtle appeal to racism), and it is a dangerous and volatile brew.

All this was evident after Mr Obama spoke last week. His opponents responded using harsh and, at times, nearly hysterical and violent rhetoric. Despite their rants, the executive orders will stand and new laws banning assault weapons and more will be proposed and debated. But until Americans have a prolonged and serious discussion about this sick love affair with guns, and purge this pathological obsession, the country will skirt an issue that is killing us.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa