After another US school shooting, 'Why?' is the wrong question to ask

There is just one explanation for why there are so many gun deaths in America. Everything else is noise

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Why? Again. Another school massacre in the US by a gunman armed with an automatic weapon. This time in Uvalde, Texas – a pleasant, rural town midway between San Antonio, America’s fastest-growing city, and the border with Mexico. Uvalde’s prior claim to fame was as the birthplace of film star Matthew McConaughey.

These events have become so common that the response to them has become ritualised. Politicians say something must be done, but nothing ever gets done. News media analysts seek patterns, as if knowing what caused a shooting, what the environment was where it occurred might allow planning to prevent another one.

People all over the US ask: “Why?”

But those looking for a pattern to answer “Why?” are deluding themselves.

The only pattern is the shootings themselves. They keep happening. Uvalde, which by chance I’ve been to while reporting on the midterm election in 2018, is in an empty quarter of vast cattle ranches and small towns with businesses catering to agricultural needs.

The town is entirely different from where the first massacre in this era of school shootings took place. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, 15 people were killed at Columbine High School, which was in an affluent suburb of Denver, Colorado. Sandy Hook, Connecticut, is in the exurbs of New York. In 2012, 26 people were killed in the elementary school there. Twenty of them were six and seven-year-old children. In 2018, Parkland, Florida, a part of the endless development of communities in that state, north of Miami, neither suburban nor exurban, created because there is land, sunshine, and people who want to live there. Seventeen were killed.

And that’s just the double-digit death tolls in schools. Shooters walk into schools and college campuses and try to commit mayhem with such regularity that it barely makes the local news, but the list fills up a Wikipedia page.

And, of course, school shootings are just a subset of mass shootings in the US. Two weeks ago at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, 10 African Americans were shot dead in a racist attack by a white supremacist. The attack mimicked a 2019 shooting at a WalMart store in El Paso, Texas, in which 23 people, including Mexican Americans, were killed by a white supremacist.

Last year according to FBI statistics, there were 61 “active shooter” attacks in which 103 people were killed.

The only pattern is the pattern. Americans own more guns – more than 300 million firearms are in private hands, nearly one for every man, woman and child in the country. And despite the fact that the US has more gun deaths than any other country in the world, after every incident of mass violence such as the Uvalde school massacre there is a spike in gun sales. One month after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, 2 million guns were sold.

What kind of guns? Any kind of guns, from military grade assault rifles to derringers.

It is not a surprise that some of these weapons, particularly assault weapons, find their way into the hands of troubled young men who use them. Broadcast news will be full of stories about the young man who committed the Uvalde atrocity. They will find out about his alienation, his difficulties at home, his being bullied at school, the hours he spent playing violent games on his computer. It is not news, really. No one would walk into an elementary school and open fire with an assault rifle who wasn’t in some way disturbed.

But still people will look for a pattern, a reason, an answer to “Why?”

The reason, the pattern, if there is one, lies in the hopeless divisions of American society. These divisions are exploited by politicians of one party, the Republicans, their donors who support the National Rifle Association – or the NRA – and their media supporters such as Fox News and on the fringe Alex Jones, who broadcasts conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook from his studio in Austin, Texas, a couple of hours drive from Uvalde.

People such as Jones regularly tell their large and credulous audience that school shootings are false flag operations staged by gun control advocates in the hope of creating a political climate for legislation to curb gun ownership. And the reason the government wants to curb your right to bear arms? Well, so they can impose their liberal agenda on you and you won’t be able to fight back.

If that seems crazy, it is. But American society has been more than a little crazy for a while now.

And on the sane side are the Republican politicians who know there are votes in playing on gun-owner fears that the government might take away their right to own military weapons.

Jones offered his endorsement to former president Donald Trump in 2016 and Mr Trump eagerly accepted. In 2015, Texas Governor Greg Abbott tweeted out his disappointment that his state was only number 2 in America for gun ownership. We should be number 1.

Everyone knows what needs to be done. Restrictions on the type of weapons that people can own. The standard for dealing with mass shootings was set in Britain. In the summer of 1987, a man went on a rampage in rural Hungerford, Berkshire, killing 16 people. Within a year, Parliament had passed a new law restricting the type of weapons and ammunition that could be in private hands. The more serious guns could be owned but had to be kept at gun clubs.

It didn’t stop the occasional incident, but after each one, including the Dunblane massacre at a primary school in Scotland in which 16 people were killed, the law is swiftly amended and restrictions on guns tightened.

That won’t happen in America. President Joe Biden vented his pain and frustration in remarks about Uvalde yesterday: “They have mental health problems, they have domestic disputes in other countries. They have people who are lost. But these kinds of mass shootings never happen with the kind of frequency that they happen in America. Why?”

Mr President, here is your answer: there are votes in exploiting divisions. Power comes from the barrel of the gun, or at least the vote of a gun-owner who is convinced he is going to lose the right to own a couple of M16 and AK47s for protection from his own government.

If you think my thesis is off: the NRA’s annual meeting is this weekend in Houston, Texas. Mr Trump is one of the keynote speakers. Listen closely to what is said, Mr President.

US President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Tuesday. EPA
Published: May 25, 2022, 12:20 PM
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