By: Sam Herriman
I first became aware of the Umpqua Community College mass shooting through Facebook, via the video of President Barack Obama’s statement – named ‘Obama Thinks Gun Control Should be Politicised’ or something similar – that a friend had linked. Even though I was unaware of the shooting I watched the video anyway, only half listening.
It’s an Obama speech I’d heard the permutations of many times before – after Sandy Hook, after Charleston, after the Auroroa Cinema – but there was something different about this one. There was a steely edge to the resignation, a barely contained fury to the 44th President’s words. Making significant changes to the gun control laws loomed as perhaps his biggest challenge during his presidency, and as his eight years in office wind down to close it’s looking more and more likely it’s one battle he’s going to lose.
As Australians, it is difficult to fathom and bizarre to contemplate the US gun culture, ourselves having implemented sweeping gun control reform following the horrific Port Arthur massacre in 1996. The reforms have seemingly been effective, with only one ‘spree shooting’ in the years since, a shooting at Monash University in 2002 resulting in two deaths. In the aftermath, gun control was further tightened, with restrictions placed on magazine limits and barrel size.
For a large portion of Australians it makes sense. Unless you are actively involved in hunting, extermination, security, sport or other assorted activities what is the purpose of owning a gun? The relatively clear chronology and cause-effect of our gun control laws has resulted in Australia being name dropped by the US and in particular Obama on multiple occasions as an example of functional reform.
Yet there is still very little acquiescence from the gun lobby’s to the President’s appeal, and indeed a vast number of Americans continue to protest any changes to the existing gun laws whilst advocating for the removal of ‘gun free zones’ and decreased restrictions on gun ownership more broadly. To me (and to many in the international community) this appears to be a completely irrational reaction. To someone like me (who has very little knowledge of firearms) it’s troll logic – people are using guns to kill people, so let’s give everyone a gun.
What makes this different, then, is that the reverence with which firearms are given on a national scale is entirely unique to the US, at least in the Western world. The large number of people who advocate for gun ownership – so-called ‘responsible gun owners’ feel the devastation of repeated massacres and shootings just as much as everyone else. No doubt they would feel the pangs of sorrow as their beloved instrument is used to wreak destruction ad heartache. These are honest, good-hearted people. Yet they leap so aggressively to defend their rights.
Why is there such an attachment to guns? Why is there a pervading sense that gun ownership equates to freedom, liberty and safety? Perhaps most importantly, what is it about the United States that has cultivated this perverse obsession with guns?
It sometimes beggars belief to think that the modern United States of America as we know it has really only existed for a little under 250 years, such is its cultural, military and political dominance. Colonised with a red-blooded pioneer spirit, agrarian sensibilities and the perpetual optimism that accompanied the discovery of the New World, the history of the United States pre-Columbus has been steeped in bloodshed, war and destruction – as well as renewal and rebirth.
The restless Europeans encountered a stoic native population when they arrived at the New World, but the colonists – armed with the finest rifles on offer – quickly suppressed any hopes held by the indigenous population of driving out their invaders. From there, firearms became inseparable from the ideal of the New World, that fantastical land of liberty, hope and opportunity.
More practically, firearms were a necessary (and useful) tool for the colonialists to create a sustainable society in a land where they started with literally nothing. Imagine being one of those original settlers, where your personal gun was able to provide not only a regular source of food (if you were skilled enough) but a sense of security against a peculiar, inferiorly armed and seemingly savage populace. After the dogs all died of scurvy, the gun promptly became man’s best friend, a sensibility that has endured to this day as an integral part of the American spirit.
Wars, battles, skirmishes and massacres litter the annals of American history , with perhaps the two most significant – the War of Independence and the Civil War – laying the foundation for much of modern America.
For us in Australia – and even in other Commonwealth nations Canada and New Zealand – our path to independence was relatively stress (and blood) free. We all transitioned smoothly from living under the British Empire to sovereign rule, perhaps part of the natural consequences of colonisation. The United States, on the other hand, hurried the process along after protesting the implementation of taxation to pay the soldier’s salary after the Seven Years War, in which the English forced the French out of North America. What really stuck in the Yank’s gullet though was their lack of representation in British parliament, resulting in the rather wordy slogan ‘No Taxation Without Representation.’
Thus began the nearly nine year war for independence, resulting in a federated United States of America, a shiny new constitution and nearly 25,000 dead as a direct result of conflict. It is no wonder, then, that a country that fought so tenaciously for its freedom from (albeit very mild in the context of things) oppression, would see the simple rifle as an enduring symbol of liberty. It was the gun that delivered freedom.
It was the long and bloody war for freedom that brought about the ratification of the United States Bill of Rights, those sacred ten amendments to the constitution that are regarded as the pinnacle of liberty, even though one of them is about the living arrangements of soldiers.
The oft-quoted and most controversial of those amendments if of course number two, which states that ‘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.’ These are the words everyone points to when they want to defend their right to own and carry a gun. It’s hard to believe that one sentence written by a white guy 225 years ago still dominates a significant portion of the political discourse in the predominant global superpower.
In 1865 Confederate sympathiser, slavery fan and famed actor John Wilkes Booth snuck into the back on the President’s box at the Ford’s Theatre and shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. Another three presidents have since been assassinated by guns, with numerous more unsuccessful attempts. Lincoln’s assassination was significant in a number of ways, but most significantly it subconsciously implanted in the minds of every American the power of a simple gun.
Lincoln’s assassination reverberated throughout the States, and JFK’s assassination at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald reverberated around the world. These are landmark events in modern history, and both of them were caused by men who simply had the will and the means to fire a gun. If such power can be wielded for bad, is it then possible that the same instrument can be used for history-altering good?
(As an aside, both William McKinley and Andrew Garfield were assassinated by Leon Czolgosz and Chales Guiteau respectively, but neither had the personality or historical significance for their deaths to enter the mainstream consciousness.)
Gun ownership as a means for self-defence is the most common argument in favour of continued or increased gun ownership. Such a belief, however, assumes that everyone who has the ability to acquire a firearm is or will be a responsible gun owner. This is a somewhat paradoxical assumption, as the need for a self-defence firearm is made void if indeed every gun owner used and stored their weapon in a responsible manner.
There has been an increased focus by the Republicans and gun lobbies on mental health care, prevention and education as a way of curbing the rampant levels of gun violence. They are absolutely right, but it’s also naïve to think irresponsible gun use is solely the domain of the mentally ill. Take for example the ridiculous number of toddlers shooting guns, not to mention the ease with which anyone can obtain a gun. I’ve visited the US for a grand total of ten days, yet I saw more guns on a Wal-Mart shelf than anywhere else in my life.
It’s difficult to understand why many Americans cling to guns as a symbol of freedom, security and liberty in a global society that is gradually moving further and further away from violence as a means to an end. Perhaps it is the sense of individualism ascribed to each citizen by the land of opportunity, or perhaps it is a relic typical of a nostalgic pining for a colonial past. Whatever the case, it’s becoming increasingly hard to imagine a time when even the mildest of gun control measures are implemented in a gun-crazy state.