Gun violence in the US is killing the American dream

From incessant shootings to healthcare problems, much of American life right now falls short of the ideal

A woman with her children protests to demand gun reform laws on April 3, in Nashville, Tennessee. Getty Images via AFP
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Around the world, even those of us who have never been to the United States often believe that we really know this great country of 350 million people. We watch American TV shows and movies, communicate on Apple laptops and social media from Facebook and Twitter to WhatsApp and others. We keep up with important news about what the US President Joe Biden is doing or America’s impact on the war in Ukraine, international affairs and the world economy. The English language is often a common bond and the American way of life seems so familiar. But is it really?

For many years I was a subscriber to the Washington Post. I lived in Washington and I thought the newspaper – along with the New York Times – was indispensable. It kept me informed about the city where I lived, about US politics and the wider world. More recently, when I stopped travelling regularly to the US, I rarely saw the Post. But in the past week, I’ve been reading it like an old friend, catching up on American news that I would otherwise miss – news which shows how profoundly different life really is on the other side of the Atlantic.

One of the stories that caught my eye was about a family whose young daughter is diabetic. When the family changed health insurance providers the new provider refused to cover the $1300 a month necessary for the young girl’s medicine. The family desperately needs to find the money.

Then in Tennessee two Democrat politicians were thrown out of the House of Representatives for protesting about the ease with which people in their state gain access to guns. The two lawmakers happen to be black. A white lawmaker who also took part in the protest was not penalised in this way. The gun control row came after a shooting at a Christian school in Tennessee where three children, two teachers and another staff member were murdered. The teachers were friends of the wife of the Tennessee governor. The other victims were the school’s janitor and three nine year olds. The heavily armed shooter was a woman called Audrey Elizabeth Hale.

It was reported she “had purchased seven guns from five gun stores at some point before the shooting. Hale’s parents told police that Hale was being treated by a doctor for an “emotional disorder” and that they were aware of only one gun.” I’m quoting these stories because they remind me that the US, the place I called home for eight years, the country after my own that I most admire, seems very foreign indeed – and increasingly so. And just this week, another shooting took place in Kentucky. This time, the shooter, a bank employee, killed five people and wounded eight others while he livestreamed the attack on social media.

We have problems with crime in the UK, although shootings are thankfully very rare. It is difficult to imagine that a person with an “emotional disorder” could easily obtain one gun never mind being able to buy seven guns from five gun stores. I do not know where to find any gun store in the UK nor do I know anyone who owns seven guns. Yes, we also have problems with health care in Britain, but I do not know of anyone whose child would be refused medication.

I grew up to admire so much of the greatness of American life. I’m still in awe of the creativity, the energy, the genius and the beauty...

And while we have problems with politics and racism across Europe, there is nothing quite like what has been happening in the Tennessee legislature.

As one of the expelled Democrats, Representative Justin Jones said: “The nation was able to see we don’t have democracy in Tennessee.” All these stories probably don’t make the international news but one which did is – to European eyes – just as exceptional.

It’s the exceptionally divisive case of the former US President Donald Trump and his appearance in court in New York. More than 74 million Americans voted for Mr Trump in 2020 and possibly in November 2024 they may have the chance to do so again. As the world knows, after a five year investigation, Mr Trump is the first sitting or former US president ever to be indicted for criminal offences.

There are endless rumours that more charges in different jurisdictions may appear – and other rumours that this will actually help Mr Trump become the Republican candidate for the presidency. The assumption of many legal and political commentators is that the divisive criminal process will inevitably slip way into the presidential election campaign, although what impact that may have by election day is impossible to figure out.

I grew up to admire so much of the greatness of American life. I’m still in awe of the creativity, the energy, the genius and the beauty of this most diverse half-continent of a country. I was always inspired by the resonant speeches of Abraham Lincoln and the nation Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth.”

Even so, much of American life right now – from gun violence to searing political divisions and the most expensive health care system on earth which delivers some of the worst outcomes – makes it difficult to believe in what used to be called the American Dream. I haven’t seen the Dream appearing much in the news this week. But I have seen a few nightmares.

Published: April 12, 2023, 7:00 AM