The U.S. and its Guns

Written by  //  December 17, 2012  //  National Politics  //  4 Comments

Children aged six and seven, moviegoers enjoying a quiet night out, Sikhs praying at an Oak Creek Gurdwara, workers in a Milwaukee spa, college students at Auburn University, shoppers at an Oregon mall—innocents left cold and dead in just the last few months by the brutality of wicked gunfire. None of these were ordinary murders; they were murders aided and abetted by the laws of the land, by a regressive reading of an archaic constitutional right,[1] and by a perverted, barbaric culture. View it whichever way you want—fervidly or through dispassionate eyes—and the answer is still self-evident: guns have to go. Only, what seems like a no-brainer is apparently a matter of complex policy, too thorny to be discussed on the backdrop of the terrible tragedy that befell Newtown, Connecticut on Friday.

President Obama in his press conference, a short while after the Newtown massacre, was understandably emotional and visibly moved. Yet, as David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker’s website, what is needed now is more than just raw emotion and mere words, and for the president to act Presidential. Admittedly, viewing the issue in black and white as “guns versus no guns”—as it should be in an ideal world—is impractical from a political perspective. But as mass slaughters transpire like a metronome, with stunning regularity, the least one would expect is a dialogue towards gun control. No longer is there any justification in putting this discussion off on the grounds that it is disrespectful to the departed.

Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, might not be the most likable of politicians. But as John Cassidy rightly points out, Bloomberg, more than any other political figure, has once again called the issue like it is. In response to a question on specific steps that Obama can take given the various limitations (constitutional impediments, a conservative Congress and so forth), Bloomberg had this to say:

“Well, there’s a number of things that the President can do and a number of things that Congress can do. And there are a number of things that you and I can do as voters. What the President can do is number one through executive action, he can order his agencies to enforce the laws more aggressively. I think there’s something like 77,000 people who have been accused of lying when they have applied for a gun permit. We’ve only prosecuted 77 of them.

The President can introduce legislation even if it doesn’t get passed. The President campaigned back in 2008 on a bill that would prohibit assault weapons. We’ve got to really question whether military style weapons with big magazines belong in the streets of America in this day and age. Nobody questions the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. But I don’t think the founding fathers had the idea that every man, woman, and child could carry an assault weapon.

And I think the President through his leadership could get a bill like that through Congress. But at least he’s got to try. And that’s his job.”

It is easy of course to view this series of mass slaughters as an issue that transcends gun control. Defenders of the present gun control laws, which allow Americans to own semi-automatic guns, such as the ones that Adam Lanza used at the elementary school in Newtown, argue that it is not the guns that kill people, but the people who wield them; that guns protect people more than they kill; and that owning firearms to defend oneself is far too ingrained in American culture to evoke reconsideration. All of these arguments are inherently fallacious and are an affront to a civilized society. In a small provincial village in China, a few hours before Lanza’s attack in Connecticut, Min Yingjun, a deranged man, went on a rampage in an elementary school, slashing twenty-two children and one adult with a knife. Unlike the Newtown massacre, all of them survived. It wasn’t, therefore, as much Lanza’s troubled upbringing that killed the children of Sandy Hook elementary school, as some might be, I shudder to say, happy to point out, as the semiautomatic guns that he fired away with disdain.

The argument that guns are a part of a deep-rooted ethos and that to impose control on possession of firearms would only add to a rancor that would have the U.S. “politically frozen and culturally inflamed,” as Dan Baum writes in a piece for Harper’s Magazine, is of equal moral curiousness. There is of course no denying the basic premise of the argument that guns are a part of American culture—but to not question that culture is reprehensible, and places the U.S. on thin ice as it continues to lay claim to a supposed—illusory—moral high ground.

Since the United Kingdom banned private ownership of handguns and semiautomatics, following the Dunblane attacks in March, 1996, there has been a substantial decline in the country of deaths through firearms. In Australia, likewise, a law banning the possession of semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns, was passed in 1996 following a massacre in Tasmania that left 35 dead. The law, as studies show, has been a marked success: in the decade after the law was introduced, “firearm homicide rate fell by 59 percent, and the firearm suicide rate fell by 65 percent…without a parallel increase in non-firearm homicides and suicides.”

What is curious to the U.S., therefore, is not that it has a specifically high number of people capable of indulging in the most heinous of attacks, but that it continues to take pride in a malevolent culture that encourages people to own a semiautomatic Sig Sauer or a Glock—the weapons that Lanza apparently used on Friday. It must be pointed out that the logistics of implementing a gun control law in a country where there are nearly as many preexisting private guns as there are people would be a huge challenge, but amid this madness, one needs to start somewhere. Banning guns would not make these massacres go away, but that’s hardly an argument against the need for such legislation.


[1] Read the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and see if it can be interpreted as granting a license to Americans to hold semi-automatic guns: “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.”

About the Author

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a journalist currently living and writing in New York. Suhrith grew up in Chennai, India and studied law at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. He practiced as an attorney for two years before giving up the law for journalism. He is presently studying for his masters at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find him on Twitter (@suhrith) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/suhrithparthasarathy)

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4 Comments on "The U.S. and its Guns"

  1. rajasekaran k December 18, 2012 at 4:12 pm ·

    I know little about American Constitution,but I don’t care.What upsets me is one mad man can eliminate umpteenth number of lives in a trice with a gun.this happens more often than not and something must be done to root out this evil instead of wagging eloquence about the right of the American to have gun.if this issue is not addressed urgently,then the consequences would be more disastrous.you are right in saying that it is an affront to a civilized society.hope Obama would act to end this massacre of innocence.

  2. Suhrith Parthasarathy December 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm ·

    Thank you for the comment. The other problem is the general disdain shown toward domestic attacks — incidents such as the one at the Connecticut school do not even get categorized as acts of terror. In the post 9-11 decade there have been 30 deaths from instances of international terrorism in the US, while the toll from mass shootings by non-ideological killers, I believe, is more than 30 times higher (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/comment/2012/08/the-real-terrorist-threat-in-america.html). If this isn’t the time to counter threats from within the country, I’m not sure what is.

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