Anyone raised outside the United States usually has a hard time understanding the gun culture that exists here. The obsession with the 2nd Amendment, the National Rifle Associations grip on Washington, the daily shootings and all too frequent mass killings in schools around the country can often make America a very difficult country for foreigners to stomach. I first came to the US in 1998 and remember watching the local news in amazement. The regularity with which guns were used in crime and the methods the police reacted with seemed more reminiscent of a Wild West movie than a modern, educated society.
After many years of living here, I have come to accept – but not fully understand – the gun culture in America. It is as much a part of the American identity as cups of tea are in Britain, or wine is in France. America was founded on the belief that every citizen should be able to protect itself from the government, and that means having access to guns. America’s entire identity is built on the concept of the ‘rugged individual’ – a self reliant, pioneering hero able to make his or her own way in life without interference from anyone else. It’s part of the uniqueness of this country, and it’s probably part of the reason why I like it so much. And part of why I often feel frustrated by it.
While I don’t agree with the right to bear arms, I have never really written much against it or urged the Left to get serious about gun control. It would be great if it did, but I believed there were more winnable and important issues to focus on – like poverty or foreign policy – topics that could be fought and won. I’ve lived through Columbine, Red Lake High School, the massacre in Virginia Tech, the shopping mall massacre in Omaha Nebraska, the Christmas massacre in Covina California, the siege killings in New York, the massacre in Forthood, Texas, the Batman killings in Aurora Colorado, and the shootings in the shopping mall in Oregon, and stayed relatively quiet about them. I would actually confess to not paying the stories a huge amount of attention, mostly because I like living in America and I don’t want to think too much about the dark side of its otherwise incredibly positive culture.
But the mass slaughter of children in Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown Connecticut was too much to ignore. The spectacle of 20 children all under the age of 10 dying in a haze of bullets from a high powered assault rifle, with a further 7 teachers dying mostly trying to protect their students, was probably the most disturbing thing I’ve seen while living in this country. The horrific event will go down as one worst massacre in modern US history – the only comparable one being the 1927 bombing of a school in Bath Township Michigan (45 people were killed, most of them between 7-14 years of age), and Virginia Tech (32 people dead).
Any loss of life is hard to stomach, but the execution of small children in an elementary school is, for lack of a better word, unbearable.
Mass killings like Sandyhook are not unique to America. In 1996, former scout leader Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane Primary school, Scotland, and shot 16 children their teacher before killing himself. Last year, Right wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 69 people at a youth Summer camp in Norway (and had organized an earlier bombing that killed another 8 people). But nowhere in the world do these horrendous massacres happen with such alarming frequency as they do in America.
There are many contributing factors to these killings – mental health being an obvious one. Adam Sanza, the killer at Sandy Hook was by all accounts a deeply disturbed young man with a possible personality disorder. Seung-Hui Cho, the student responsible for murdering 32 classmates at Virginia Tech also had a history of serious mental illness. Had both men been reached at an earlier stage and gotten appropriate care, it is likely the massacres would have been prevented. While everyone likes to throw terms like ‘evil’ around, the truth is that in many cases the killers were severely psychologically disturbed and not aware of what they were doing. Anyone who has experience with mental illness should understand that when someone is seriously unwell, they don’t understand the world the way you or I do.
No sane, well adjusted person walks into a school and shoots up a group of children.
America can, and must do better when it comes to preventative psychological care. The mental health care infrastructure in the US is an appalling state. It isn’t funded properly, focuses far too heavily on drugs to treat disorders rather than therapy, and is routinely subjected to meaningless re-organization and careless budget cuts. A Presidential commission reported back in 2003 that the system was broken and in dire need reform (from the NYTimes):
Mental health care in America is often inadequate and needs ”fundamental transformation,” a presidential commission reported yesterday.
The commission described the present system as a ”patchwork relic” of disjointed state and federal agencies that frequently stepped in the way of people who were seeking care instead of helping them. The panel said each state should draw up plans to treat the mentally ill.
The report called for a more streamlined system strongly focused on early diagnosis and treatment in patients’ own communities, a high expectation of recovery and methods for helping people with mental illnesses find work and housing.
Instead of reform, the system was subjected to vicious cuts, leaving millions of vulnerable Americans at serious risk. And as mental health issues soar the country is reaping the consequences of leaving those vulnerable Americans isolated from society. There have been four mass shootings during Obama’s Presidency, and who knows how many more lie ahead for the rest of his second term.
But while mental health issues play large role in these indiscriminate outbursts of violence, there is one defining difference between the massacres in America and the massacres around the world: Guns, and how easy it is to get them.
There are nearly 300 million firearms in America, and around 47% of the population own at least one gun. There is a shockingly lax approach to regulation around the country, where it is possible in many states to walk into a store, buy as many high powered weapons as you want, and in some cases carry them on the street without a license. There are roughly 87 gun related deaths a day in America – the equivalent of almost 23 Sandy Hooks a week. To put it in perspective, in the UK, there were 58 gun related deaths for the whole of 2011.
After the killings in Dunblane, UK lawmakers passed some of the toughest anti-gun legislation in the world – a ban on the private ownership of all handguns in Britain. There was also a firearm amnesty across the UK that resulted in the surrender of thousands of firearms and rounds of ammunition.
After Dunblane, there have been no mass shootings or killings in Britain.
The logic is clear, despite the protestations of the gun lobby and ardent advocates of the 2nd Amendment: Guns kill people, and the best way to stop these killings is to stop people getting guns.
If there is anything positive to come from the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school it must be about gun control in America. It would be impossible to get rid of all guns in America, or convince the nation to rewrite its constitution, but it is possible to seriously restrict access to firearms and gets millions of guns off the streets and out of the hands of anyone with psychological problems. Registration, stringent background checks and harsh punishment for anyone failing to comply with regulation would constitute some basic steps – not much to ask for what is clearly a serious public safety issue.
If there was ever a single event to change the nature of debate in this country, the brutal mass murdering of little children is it.
Surely there are no arguments left to have now.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.