America’s guns

The massacre in Las Vegas that has left 58 dead and more than 500 injured, will inevitably reopen the Sisyphean debate on America’s obsession with firearms. With 4.4 per cent of the world’s population, the US contains more than 300 million private firearms, a staggering 42 per cent of all the guns on the planet. Yet despite an ever growing list of mass killings, political support for the current, overbroad interpretation of the second amendment remains intact.

It is hard to overstate the fervour of America’s gun rights subculture – a 2016 Harvard/Northeastern study found that just 3 per cent of US owners hold 50 per cent of the guns – and many of its fiercest advocates are ideologically convinced that gun ownership is an non-negotiable birthright of US citizens. Their tenacity in defending this right has given rise to such a vast arsenal of private weapons that even if the firearm industry were properly regulated and the nefarious NRA somehow brought to heel, in the US there would still be some 400,000 stolen guns available to potential shooters every year.

Every day, guns claim 92 American lives and nine days out of every ten there is a mass shooting (four or more fatalities, including the shooter). But heartrending as they are, mass shootings remain a relatively small part of overall problem of gun violence in the US. Two thirds of firearm-related fatalities are suicides and so, at least in part, attributable to social political and cultural problems that lie beyond the relatively modest scope of most of gun control legislation to date. Even so, the failure to achieve reforms has now persisted for so long that since 1970, guns have taken more American lives than have been lost in every military conflict combined, and they continue to claim another 30,000 lives each year.

Remarkably, support for gun rights has grown since the 1990s, despite dozens of  initiatives to tighten gun control in the wake of  massacres like those in Las Vegas, Columbine and Sandy Hook. Counterintuitively, massacres tend to polarize public opinion on the issue rather than clear the ground for a commonsense approach to gun control. Liberals want to move towards stricter regulation, conservatives double down on the argument that gun ownership offers the best defence from further violence. One indication of how far apart Americans stand on this issue can be gleaned from the 2016 election: nearly 80 per cent of Hillary Clinton’s voters approved of stricter regulation compared to less than ten per cent of Trump’s.

If anything can be learned from past failures to reform America’s gun laws it is perhaps that no single solution will succeed. Comparing the problem to the decades-long campaign to improve automobile safety – although, even today, cars still claim a startling number of lives – New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof notes that the US auto fatality rate per 100 million miles driven has been reduced by more than 95 per cent since 1921. There was no magic bullet that led to this; the rate gradually improved as seatbelts, airbags, better chassis designs, highway guardrails and road lights became the norm. Likewise, smart guns, more stringent background checks, and other elements of the raft of common sense proposals mooted, usually unsuccessfully, at moments like these, will eventually reduce the number of gun fatalities. In the meantime, the list of eponymous massacres keeps growing, as will the anguish and incomprehension of victims’ families and the incredulity of foreign observers.

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