Before media coverage of the San Bernardino shootings turned into a post-mortem of an alleged terrorist attack, they seemed depressingly familiar to US television viewers — “just another day in the United States of America” in the words of one BBC newsman. Sadly, that grim remark is borne out by the statistics on US gun crime. Not only have there been more than 380 mass shootings this year but, on average, firearms claim one American life every 16 minutes. As Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notes, during the last four years the toll of gun deaths within the US has surpassed the number of soldiers killed in America’s last four major wars.
Outsiders who try to make sense of America’s obsessive attachment to guns often look to the frontier mentality at the heart of the culture, a longstanding devotion to the right to bear arms, or deep-seated traditions of resisting potential tyranny. There is truth in all of this, but it is also easy to overlook the fact that most US gun owners support tighter regulation of firearms, and would happily restrict their ownership and usage to responsible adults. Instead, a heavily politicized gun lobby has been able to use its considerable influence to block gun control legislation for decades, preventing basic reforms that would have made it much harder for paranoid or mentally ill loners — or domestic terrorists who would be clearly labelled as such were they non-white, or non-Christian – to acquire the weapons used in several of the bloodiest incidents.
Part of the reason why gun reform has been so difficult is that guns still seem to reassure more Americans than they threaten. After every mass killing there is no shortage of people who argue that the death toll would have been smaller if victims had been able to shoot back with their own firearms. This specious line of reasoning has repeatedly allowed the National Rifle Association to head off Congressional efforts to tighten the rules around gun purchases. Their success at stifling debate has been so complete that it has reshaped public perception of gun crime to the point at which mass shootings are still reported as though they were surprising, one-off events, rather than the inevitable outcome of making firearms easily accessible to almost anyone who can pay for them.
One obvious flaw in the unquestioning defence of the right to bear arms is that two thirds of US gun deaths are self-inflicted. There is ample evidence, from several countries, that when access to firearms is tightened, national suicide rates dip sharply. America’s gun lobbyists usually ignore this point altogether, while maintaining, disingenuously, that guns help to make citizens safer. Clearly they don’t. Yet, Americans continue to buy this argument and to acquire firearms in record numbers, apparently in the hope that they will provide a little extra security in an uncertain world.
What might other countries learn from America’s longstanding problems with gun violence? More than anything else, perhaps, that firearms are like a genie that can’t be returned to its bottle. The NRA insists that guns don’t kill people, that people kill people. That is true. But easy access to firearms, and an uncritical embrace of an aggressive gun-toting culture tends to produce a large number of people who readily use guns to kill others. So while the latest mass shooting may be part of a sinister terrorist plot, hundreds of other shootings in the US this year probably wouldn’t have happened if sensible gun control laws were in place.