The young woman helping me with a story about poverty in Oklahoma last year, not a socially unaware or politically conservative person, didn’t blink when I happened to ask if she owned a gun. Where she lives, it might take police 40 minutes to arrive in case of trouble. She had three, including one under the mattress. It helped me grasp America and its relationship to firearms.
Parts of Oklahoma can feel like the Wild West, even if it’s meth labs that are the cause of most trouble nowadays, not brothels or whisky-drenched saloons. The sheriff isn’t always close at hand. Who’s to say I wouldn’t want a gun living out there?
It is what the Second Amendment, the sacred passages that the National Rifle Association will defend to the death, is about. It creates a constitutional presumption that it’s OK for people to own weapons, whether small pistols or assault rifles. Take that right away and how are people meant to stay safe?
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, trying for a second time to get on the Republican presidential ticket, followed this logic when he said the best response to last week’s mass shooting in a cinema in Louisiana that left three dead including the shooter, is to allow people to pack heat at the movies. As well as cup-holders in the seats, why not have Glock-holders?
“Gun-free zones are a bad idea,” he said, meaning places like classrooms and churches. “You allow the citizens of this country, who have appropriately trained, appropriately backgrounded, know how to handle and use firearms, to carry them. I believe that, with all my heart, that if you have the citizens who are well trained, and particularly in these places that are considered to be gun-free zones, that we can stop that type of activity.”
But Mr Perry’s logic makes sense only if we accept that America really is still the Wild West and that the Second Amendment has any place in a modern, civilised society.
You cannot assume that everyone with guns would “know how to handle them”. Give me a gun and likely I’d shoot off my toes. Under no circumstances let me take one to the cinema. As for giving guns to teachers. Well, you know.
The other, possibly more useful, response to the newest rash of shootings – Lafayette, Chattanooga, Charleston – have been calls for the better enforcement of laws that are meant to stop people with histories of mental disturbance from buying guns in the first place. But even that looks like a red herring. It allows us to believe that if mental illness didn’t exist, all these shootings would stop.
“Most people who suffer from mental illness are not violent,” Dr Renee Binder, president of the American Psychiatric Association, noted this week.
If America were to lock up everyone who was considered mentally ill, “you might think you were safe,” she went on. “But you are not.”
President Barack Obama said last week that stalled efforts on gun control was the greatest frustration of his presidency. New statistics show, meanwhile, that the production of new guns has more than doubled since he became President, reaching 10.8 million units in 2013. There were more than 200 mass shootings in the first six months of this year, the vast majority happening within family units.
The only way to stop this cycle is to get guns out of the system. Make fewer of them and stop people – all people, except possibly hunters in rural areas – from buying them. Yet, too many Americans remain unwilling to take that trail. Because having a gun under the mattress still feels normal and necessary.