Why United States takes its guns to school
Because a history of mental illness and violent tendencies is no barrier to getting a weapon capable of murder.
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Last week, the United States had yet another school shooting, as 17 children were slaughtered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida by a 19-year-old with a long history of troubled behaviour. Of course, in the United States, a history of mental illness and violent tendencies is no barrier to getting a weapon capable of murder, so we have such tragedies.
Indeed, under Donald Trump, the government has actually loosened restrictions on gun purchases by citizens with mental illnesses.
Yet, while the United States’ gun culture doesn’t fit into any medical definition of mental illness, it is clear the US has a pathological relationship with guns. I didn’t always think United States’ gun culture was so sick. It often takes leaving home to truly understand a place, and I only fully appreciated the depth of United States’ obsession with guns after spending a year in England in my mid-20s. During that time, a shooter killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, then the United States’ record for the worst shooting in a single day. Sadly, in the United States’ tradition of excess and violence, we have since broken that record. And broken it several times.
17 children were slaughtered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Photo: Reuters
The shooting dominated the news, and it served as a topic of conservation for several days in the house. I explained the American conservative reaction to my housemates, and they were utterly incapable of understanding it. When I explained to many in my country school that shootings are a sign that gun laws are too loose and that instead we need better laws to protect people, they didn’t simply disagree. They seemed unable to understand how anyone could ever come to that conclusion. To them, it wasn’t a reasonable argument they disagreed with.
Rather, they saw it as completely irrational, the logic of a lunatic. This was my first time having a sustained conversation outside the United States about my country’s gun policies, and I was seeing it through new eyes. Although I always disagreed with the notion that more guns means more safety, for me, it always had a coherence. The reaction of my roommates made me question that. It made me realise just how unhinged the United States’ gun culture is, how divorced it is from fact and reason, and how hard it can be to truly gain that perspective from within the country.
The United States’ veneration of guns is dogmatic, hard-wired into our culture. The weapon is venerated in our movies, and we even sell it at pharmacies. We are one of the three countries in the world where gun rights are enshrined in the Constitution, and the only one of those countries where it is unrestricted.
This devotion to the second amendment and its right to bear arms has all the trappings of religious dogma, a belief in a worldview that cannot be changed by empirical reality. In one particularly moving essay, Gary Willis compares our love of guns to the worship of Moloch described in the bible, a deity whose followers sacrificed their children in devotion to their God.
Perhaps, no greater sign of gun rights dogmatism, of the complete opposition to the empirical reality found by those who oppose modest gun control is the fact that, starting in 1996, the Congress forbade the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from studying the link between guns and public health.
The CDC is the main government public health institution, and somehow they are forbidden from studying a tool that kills more than 30,000 Americans a year. Literally, more than one per cent of Americans die of gun violence, yet the national government refuses to invest in studying this.
It is no coincidence that the same side of American politics that irrationally refuses to acknowledge a link between guns and gun violence shows a similar incoherence with global warming — an unwillingness to engage in discussion about the deepening crisis.
Sure, 17 children are dead but don’t comment on the tool of violence, lest you politicise the event. Yes, Houston is submerged under a biblical flood but don’t link it to the scientific consensus.
Often, after these shootings, politicians say we need a renewed focus on treating mental illness, as if that is the variable that is the problem rather than the simple fact that the country has too many of these weapons of death.
There are literally as many guns in this country as there are people. People are people, and mental illness will always exist. Semiautomatic weapons however do not always exist, and they definitely don’t need to be sold to the public. Yet, until my country begins to accept the reality, to recognise that just as surely as the sun rises in the east, letting people collect innumerable and immensely powerful guns will result in death, we are destined to suffer more deaths. That’s reality.
There has been one glimmer of hope this weekend. In the wake of the shooting, survivors of the attack have been engaged in a massive scale of public activism over gun control. On Saturday, at a rally, Emma Gonzales, a survivor of the shooting, gave a speech that quickly went viral. At the end, she led a call and response where the crowd chanted “we call BS” on the idea that gun policy can’t lead to a decrease in gun deaths. In the age of fake news and delusion, when obvious facts are ignored with deadly consequences, it was inspiring to see students so clearly and boldly state to their older leaders that they will actively oppose their obvious lies.
There is a simplicity and clarity to their call that is undeniable, and it gives me hope that perhaps more American politicians and voters, too, will begin to acknowledge the reality.