America’s gun violence is not unique
Yet again the United States is reflecting on its persistent problems with gun violence following a mass shooting at a suburban movie theatre near Denver, Colorado. The shootings took place at the premier of the new Batman movie, and some members of the audience mistook the gunman’s body armour, gas mask, and the canister lobbed into the auditorium, as part of an elaborate prank. The gunman reportedly fired randomly into a crowd leaving 12 dead and 36 wounded.
It is too early to know much about the gunman’s motives but his crime bears striking resemblances to the 1999 Columbine high school massacre. There, two students killed twelve of their peers, and a teacher, before taking their own lives. The Columbine killers planned to blow up their school and leave “a lasting impression on the world.” They intended to use a decoy explosion, and armed themselves with dozens of portable explosives (pipe bombs, Molotov cocktails). They wore body armour and made provision for harnesses that would carry extra ammunition and explosives, even special knives for hand-to-hand combat.
After the Columbine massacre, there was much speculation as to the killers’ motives. Goth culture was blamed, the students’ psychological problems (depression, anger management) and their prescription medications. There were even suggestions that violent video games – which both enjoyed – had played a role. Less attention was paid to the fact that both students had shown academic promise and had suffered bullying. The following year, a US Secret Service study of 37 premeditated school shootings found that bullying had played a major role in more than two-thirds of the attacks.
In recent decades America has been rightly criticized for its unwillingness to revisit the current, overbroad interpretation of its Second Amendment. In its original context, America’s Bill of Rights speaks of the maintenance of “a well regulated militia” as the rationale for not infringing “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” In our time, however, this has become an inviolable guarantee of the every citizen’s right to buy guns. Neither of the two main parties has seriously pursued stricter gun legislation, largely from fear of the well-funded gun lobby. Today America’s gun culture is so entrenched that not even the twenty mass shootings that take place each year, including occasional massacres like the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, can lessen the gun lobby’s hold over Washington.
Yet, taken as a whole, the United States can seem relatively safe in terms of its homicide rate. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime global data, America’s 5 homicides per 100,000 citizens remains well below most Caribbean countries: Barbados (11.3), Guyana (18.4), Jamaica (52.1), Saint Kitts and Nevis (38.2), and Trinidad and Tobago (35.2). The US rate appears positively benign next to El Salvador (66), Guatemala (41.4) and Honduras (82.1). The comparison breaks down, however, when the US is compared with Canada where the murder rate is just 1.8.
Although New York talks itself up as the world’s safest big city, it has a murder rate four times greater than that of Toronto. That said, there are worrying signs that this gap may closing. In 2012 gun crime in Toronto has risen a third over the previous year and the city has suffered a spate of gun violence in recent weeks. In June a shootout at a popular downtown mall left one man dead and several bystanders wounded – another victim subsequently died from his injuries. (The alleged shooter was a Guyanese immigrant.) A fortnight later, amidst crowds gathered to watch a Euro2012 football match in the city’s Little Italy, a man was shot execution style in an ice-cream parlour. Further non-fatal gun violence ensued before a recent gang-related shootout in Scarborough that left two dead and 23 wounded.
In the aftermath of the Toronto shootings there has been a lot of discussion about what underlies the rise of gang violence and gun crime in the city. In a noticeable contrast to American analyses of the problem, Ontarians have talked about how best to remove guns from the street and to provide viable alternatives to gang life (more funding for at-risk neighbourhoods, education, community building) and how to tighten gun regulations. There has been surprisingly frank discussion of the police force’s troubled relationship with ethnic communities – a common problem in all big cities – and the alarming rate at which minorities leave school without qualifications or marketable skills.
It remains to be seen whether Toronto can build on these initiatives, but they do seem a much better alternative to the wild speculation and embattled rhetoric that often follows similar incidents in the United States. Gun violence may have become an inescapable fact of modern city life, but it can still be responded to intelligently and pragmatically instead of degenerating into another dogmatic and highly polarized political debate over the right to bear arms.