After yet another school shooting, America needs a national epiphany on gun control
Last week there was yet another high-school shooting in the US; another round of senseless killings; and another set of families who are planning funerals instead of the upcoming Thanksgiving holidays. Three teenagers at Saugus High School in California, including the shooter Nathaniel Berhow, are dead.
Berhow was 16 years old and by all accounts, smart and polite. He was a student of psychology, a boy scout who mentored younger students and a cross-country runner. Local police still do not know Berhow’s motive or why he had six other weapons at home. His mother, who dropped him off at school on Thursday morning, had no idea her son had a semi-automatic handgun in his backpack – or that he would unleash it on five students, killing two and wounding the others before using the last bullet on himself.
The shootings took place against the backdrop of a tense week of impeachment proceedings of US President Donald Trump. These events seem utterly unrelated – and yet they are not. The political polarisation of America has never been so stark. Democrats and Republicans are divided over Mr Trump and are tearing each other to pieces over crucial policies regarding taxation, gun control and abortion rights.
The number of mass shootings in the US this year is averaging more than days: as of November 15, the 319th day of the year, there have been 366 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
Gun control is one of the most heated debates in America. Those who defend the right to carry arms cite their constitutional right to self defence. They talk of coup d’etats, home invasions and tyrannical governments that need to be regulated by individuals.
The opposition to gun control in the US is fierce, even if everyone knows that if guns were more regulated, there would be fewer incidents like the one last week in Santa Clarita, California. Even the roll call of sorrow over the past few decades is not enough to convince them: Parkwood, Sandy Hook, Santa Fe, Texas, Columbine.
There have been more mass shootings in the US this year alone than days: as of November 15, the 319th day of the year, there have been 366 mass shootings
The names of places where children were slaughtered – and I am not even listing the incidents at churches, synagogues and public places – are now embedded in American history. Listening to the testimonies of parents who have lost children in school shootings is heartbreaking, and yet their advocacy has done nothing to make gun control tighter.
When I heard the news of Santa Clarita, I realised with shock that most of the victims of Columbine, the mass shooting in 1999, one of the worst in US history, would now be in their mid-30s, had their lives not been cut short. We have had two decades to examine gun control in the US and to implement higher standards so teenagers and adults aren’t able to get their hands on deadly weapons. Yet we have gone no further down the road to making the country safer.
Individual motives vary in these shootings. The shooters at Columbine were severely bullied by their classmates – which is no excuse – while the shooter in Santa Clarita had recently lost his father who often took him hunting. But the common denominator is that all of these shooters were able to access weapons and that could have been prevented. Instead of having lockdown drills at schools, we should be looking at how to change the culture of guns entirely.
So where does our gun culture come from? The Second Amendment, which was passed by Congress in 1789, states: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
The private right to own a firearm – for protection, for hunting or for enjoyment – has remained central to the national ethos of the US.
But it needs to be looked at in context. That amendment was created at a time when pioneers needed guns to protect their land. The country was young and had recently undergone a revolution against Great Britain, which was largely fought by homegrown American militias and later aided by the French.
Because of the Second Amendment, Americans living in most states today have little trouble buying a gun. In 36 states there are no legal requirements for gun registration, no permit needed and no licence necessary to purchase and own a firearm such as a rifle, shotgun or handgun. It is easy to buy a gun online or at a gun show.
What will it take to curb this gun culture? Stricter background checks and a ban on automatic weapons, for a start. But the National Rifle Association is far too powerful, far too linked to the Republican Party and has too much money to ever concede.
After the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in which 27 people died, the Senate blocked the drive for gun control and stricter background checks. That is how powerful the NRA is.
For the many people who thought the massacre at Sandy Hook would fundamentally change the nation’s gun politics, the loss felt unbearable. According to the New York Times, the NRA spent $500,000 in one day alone on an advertising campaign criticising “Obama’s gun ban”.
Former US President Barack Obama had fought hard for gun control and made it one of his priorities. He was devastated by the Senate’s decision and called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington”.
We must reverse that shame. There must be some soul-searching nationwide for a solution.
Arming teachers – which some right-wing television pundits suggest – is not an option. There has to be a national epiphany. According to a recent study in The American Journal of Medicine, the firearms homicide rate is 25 times higher in the US than in other high-income nations. Compared to other nations that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, all of which have considerably stricter gun regulations, the US is by far the leader in gun homicides.
The data is shocking. About 38,000 people die a year from gunshot wounds. It is the number one cause of premature death in the US.
The entire incident in Santa Clarita last week took 16 seconds. In that time, Berhow shot five students at random before saving the last bullet for himself. Imagine a different scenario: that a semi-automatic handgun could not have been made available to the shooter. His frustration, his angst, whatever motivated him in that one moment, could have been averted. Perhaps he would have channelled his rage another way; perhaps he would have thrown a punch at a friend or talked to a teacher, or gone for a run.
Whatever might have happened did not. Now there are the dead. Three young lives are cut down; never to grow up, never to even graduate from high school.
Janine di Giovanni is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria
Updated: November 17, 2019 05:27 PM