Another year, another devastating gun massacre in America. On Monday morning 34 year old Aaron Alexis walked calmly into the Navy Yard military facility in downtown Washington DC, and shot dead twelve people before being shot himself by police.
It is a painfully familiar tale, only the public reaction to Monday’s tragic events as they unfolded was characterised more by stoic resignation than feigned shock and horror. Monday’s massacre appears to be part of a new norm; at the most conservative estimate, it was the seventeenth mass shooting to take place in the US since a similar gun rampage at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut claimed the lives of twenty schoolchildren less than a year ago. Each tragic incident seems only to raise the bar of what will shock, to desensitise the American public to the horror and senselessness of gun violence.
It may be that the apparently sacrosanct ‘right to bear arms’ is one of those instances of real cultural impasse between the US and much of Western Europe – one of those unfathomable, peculiarly American perversities that continues to mystify those outside its borders. The shooting in Washington DC has admittedly elicited anger and hand-wringing from politicians and lawmakers, and revived the dormant debate about implementing tougher gun control measures across the US. Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns have already commented that the U.S. has reached a 'tipping point' on firearms. But it is a more subdued anger, lacking the ferocity and determination for change that followed the Sandy Hook shootings. Any real political will to expand firearm regulations will inevitably become entangled in the quagmire of gun lobbying, constitutional interpretation and the same inane arguments against gun control.
There will be those who argue the dubious efficacy of gun control measures. They may point out, understandably, that the firearm regulation in the District of Columbia, where the Washington Navy Yard is situated, is actually far stricter than in most states. The gun laws allow firearms to be possessed at home only by those over the age of 21 who register their weapon with police, take a written exam and online safety course, and consent to background checks and fingerprinting. Yet the day before the shooting Aaron Alexis was still able to legally acquire a six-round 12-gauge shotgun from a suburban store in neighbouring Virginia, despite a history of mental illness and a criminal record in Texas. The fact that he was able to go on a gun rampage in DC in spite of these laws should not lead to the conclusion that gun control doesn’t work. It should instead lead us to the conclusion that token gun control measures that vary from state to state don’t go far enough. Instead of firearm regulation being the exclusive preserve of state legislatures, tougher federal legislation is needed.
The ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ mantra of the National Rifle Association and frequently cited defence of the gun industry is an argument of unsurpassed inanity. It obviously, or at least usually, takes a person to discharge the gun (the same could be said of a bomb or nuclear missile), but in the words of Eddie Izzard, ‘I think the guns helps’. Guns are simply more deadly than any other legally available weapon; they facilitate murder, particularly mass murder, with so much more ease and immediacy than a knife or a baseball bat. It is possible, of course, to kill people with a round cheese carton and some sticky back plastic, but it is far easier to use a specialist tool designed for the purpose of killing.
Of course there are those for whom the effectiveness of gun control in stemming gun violence is almost an irrelevance; those who object to gun control in principle and cleave instead to the vainglorious fantasy that guns are the key to their freedom and independence. That if the American government, with the largest arsenal of nuclear weaponry in the world and the most powerful military in human history, were to suddenly ‘turn’ on its own citizens, their own AK-47 would protect them against tyranny.
The fact remains that the USA has a homicide rate greater than France, Germany, the UK, Spain and Italy combined, and 68 per cent of those homicides every year are firearm homicides. In the last 50 years, 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings worldwide occurred in the United States, and of the 11 deadliest shootings in US history, five have happened since 2007. The US firearm homicide rate is approximately 20 times the average of all other countries of comparable economic development. Shooting deaths in the US are projected to exceed automobile deaths by 2015.
That America has a huge problem of gun violence, and this problem is intimately and inextricably associated with its almost uniquely relaxed laws concerning firearm ownership, is beyond dispute and beyond argument. The existing gun laws are woefully inadequate, quixotic and ludicrously lenient, and the arguments against tighter legislation vary from the inane to the insane. With every fresh tragedy, the public capacity for shock and horror is numbed and the political will to change these laws is deadened. Meaningful action to curb the epidemic of gun violence in the US has never been more critical.