America's gun obsession is a cultural disease

Despite a long-running national debate, the problem is only growing worse

Assault weapons have grown in popularity in the US since the expiration of a ban on them in 2004. AFP
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It’s difficult to find the words that adequately describe most Americans’ feelings on first learning of the massacre of 19 children and two teachers in Texas last week. There was shock, fear, even nausea and then disgust at the realisation that this nightmare the country experienced too many times before was playing out again.

As expected, the next day’s papers were filled with graphs and charts showing how many mass shootings America has had (an average of one a day); how many school massacres it’s had in the past few decades (dozens); how many gun homicides (50 a day); and how many guns are owned by US civilians (more than 400,000,000). Bottom line: Americans own more guns and have a higher per capita murder rate and mass causality events annually – by far – than any other developed country on Earth.

No matter how many times they are told this and how many outrages they endure, Americans know in their hearts that nothing will be done. And so, they are resigned to live with fear, knowing the nightmare will return.

Let’s face it: the US, in this sense, is a troubled country. Its debate on gun violence can best be described as pathetic. Republicans and some Democrats fearful of getting in the crosshairs of the “gun lobby” refuse to take any action. They refuse to allow even limited controls on guns, arguing that the unfettered right to own weapons is sacred. The solution to gun violence, they argue, is more guns.

Having seen legislation to ban assault weapons or place limits on gun purchases routinely defeated, Democrats have either given up trying or been reduced to offering weak proposals. The result: Each new tragedy gives birth to short-lived horror, a bit of finger-pointing, a half-hearted attempt to pass some limited reforms and then failure.

The reality is deeper than policies or legislation. It is not just that America’s stockpile of guns is too sophisticated or that it have too many of them. The root problem is its sick "gun culture".

My generation grew up playing "cowboys and Indians" or "cops and robbers". If we didn't have cap pistols or toy rifles, we simply improvised with a pointed finger, a thumb trigger and "pow, pow, you're dead". My grandchildren do not play these games. Instead, they act out more fanciful tales of fantasy futuristic heroes, all possessing more potent weapons. But they will also make do, when needed, with sticks or fingers morphing them into weapons possessed of all sorts of destructive powers. And the video games they play and movies they watch are largely based on killing – so much so that it has become normalised.

A shooting at a Texas elementary school in May left 19 children and two teachers dead. Reuters
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If we didn't have cap pistols or toy rifles, we simply improvised with a pointed finger

From cradle to grave, Americans are fed a steady diet of guns and violence. From cartoons, westerns or cop shows to video games and Quentin Tarantino's "bullet and blood fests", guns and shooting and killing are ingrained into America’s "deep culture". Like home-made apple pie, guns have become part of what America is as a nation.

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

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."

Bart's fixation with the weapon is pathological, and it leads ultimately to his demise. When I see the look on the faces of gun enthusiasts lining up to make what they fear may be their last purchase before "Democrats take our guns away", 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 it.

We know all this. And yet there continues to be a pathological obsession not only with owning weapons, but also with blocking any reasonable controls on their ownership. The modus operandi of this lobby is simple and direct. They allow no discussion, no compromise, no concessions and no wavering or weakness. And they mask their deadly advocacy with the US Constitution, arguing that what is at stake is the very survival of America's freedoms. In the process, they further inflame the passions of their adherents.

In the end, Americans have a "gun crazy" culture, armed to the teeth, with some believing that they are the true patriots defending liberty against tyranny. When we add to this mix all of the resentments and pressures that gave birth to the Tea Party and Trumpism (including a not-so-subtle appeal to race), we are left with a dangerous and volatile brew.

Americans will see more angry debate. They may pass some weak and ineffective legislation. And then they’ll move on to another issue that will distract them until the next massacre occurs. And another one will occur, because until there is a prolonged and serious national discussion about the country’s troubled obsession with guns and purge ourselves of this pathology, it will only be skirting around the edges of an issue that is killing its people.

Published: May 30, 2022, 2:00 PM
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