United States President Barack Obama fired the latest salvo against Congress for its woeful ineptitude and lack of urgency in controlling the escalation of gun violence by once again exerting his executive authority to override it and mandate some common-sense measures to address the problem. His January 2 speech detailing the executive action was delivered in the wake of the massacre of 14 people by home-grown terrorists, armed with semi-automatic assault weaponry, in San Bernardino, California, on December 2. Two months before that, nine people were killed and seven wounded in a mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon. Obama’s passion for the cause was palpable, and the world saw the leader of the “most powerful nation on earth” shed tears at the horror of loss of life at the hands of violent criminals, mentally unstable citizens, terrorists and volatile xenophobic racists. Of course, Obama’s tears resulted in some contentious debate in the media, with conservatives deriding his attempt as a pathetic plea for support and liberals proclaiming the genuineness of his empathy. In terms of subjects that polarise a nation, the conservative assertion of the right to possess and carry a gun versus the liberal position of common-sense limitation on that right is the most divisive.
The statistics are grim. More Americans have died in gun violence in the past four years than the combined death toll of the last four major wars involving the U.S. The President said in his speech that every year more than 30,000 deaths occurred owing to the use of guns. Overall, gun deaths the world over went up from 128,000 in 1990 to 180,000 in 2013. The U.S. had the largest number of gun deaths per capita in the developed world during this period, which is no surprise as it has the largest number of guns, roughly about 300 million, not including the illegal war-like weaponry in use. Over 270 mass shootings have taken place in the U.S. in the past one year.
This begs the question of why a country that is hyper-vigilant and safety-conscious in all other aspects, from car safety to drug laws to children’s toys, is so vehemently opposed to legislating responsible measures to prevent guns from reaching undesirable elements in society. Ironically, although it is a severely partisan issue in Congress, the majority of the citizens polled insisted on rigorous background checks and supported more regulation in gun purchases.
The bedrock of the pervasiveness of this culture rests on the Second Amendment. Passed in 1791 as part of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, it states that the individual has the right to bear arms for his own protection and for the defence of the state in case the leader was a tyrannical overlord. However, this amendment does not explain the need for semi-automatic weapons that discharge thousands of rounds at the click of the trigger, far beyond the need for self-defence. Neither does it clarify how the National Rifle Association manages to wield extraordinary influence on the political outcome, to be able to hijack national interests and run afoul of even the interests of individual gun owners, who may support more gun control but remain voiceless in the face of a behemoth that sets and promotes the divisiveness of this issue in the national debate with a blatant disregard for the crippling socio-economic cost to the general public. It is a state of ubiquitous moral bankruptcy, deeply pathological and irrational.
To the Republicans and their cronies in the powerful gun lobby, the right to bear arms is so fundamental and cannot be infringed upon, that a Democratic attempt at curtailing it appears to be an affront to American exceptionalism. The subtext, then, is the motive of profit amassed by the triumvirate—the arms manufacturers, the defence industry and the gun dealers—all of whom have the backing of Congress. Corruption in business, no doubt, goes hand in hand with corruption in politics. The bottom line is that violence sells.
It is time now to set aside the bitter rancour arising out of a deliberate, misguided push towards the sustenance of a culture that promotes the use of guns. The political leadership has got to work together across the aisle to transform the executive action into actionable legislation: pass expanded background checks for all gun purchasers, across all retailers, online and otherwise, making them more streamlined so that information can be shared across State boundaries. Mental health treatment will have to become a priority and advanced technology gear itself to the two-fold aim of designing guns that cannot discharge accidentally and that can be easily traced if stolen.
It is equally critical to crack down on illegal warlike weaponry in the underground market. For instance, Canada, through stricter gun control measures now, has reduced the number of deaths caused by firing guns. In India, too, the laws that control the possession of weapons are stringent. One has to wait for many months to have a gun licence renewed owing to elaborate procedures involving police verification and background checks undertaken periodically. Getting a new licence is even more arduous. This is true of most nations, developed and developing.
Yet, the most developed country in the world is numb to this irrational crisis of gun violence. It is a cultural fact that violence permeates U.S. society, hungry as it is for instant pleasure in the form of daily news, movies and serials that glorify war, intrigue and murder. Violence and mass shootings can only be a reflection of a milieu swamped by fear, bigotry, racism, and the glaring imbalances in wealth and power. It is difficult to conceive of States heading towards legislation allowing concealed weapons on the campuses in a “civilised” world. Texas, one hears, has already passed a “Campus Carry Bill” along with an “Open Carry Bill” that permit registered gun owners to carry their weapons openly in universities, a scenario reminiscent of the “wild west” era of machismo one thought was the subject of Hollywood films.
It is possible that violence and lawlessness across the globe perpetuated by U.S. foreign policy is being replicated at home, as a form of military ethics that filters down to the sociocultural ethos, prompting the use of techniques of surveillance, command and war machinery. In truth, it is the military that manipulates the entire range of social production from commodities to culture and social behaviour.
The Second Amendment is, no doubt, fundamental to the U.S. Constitution. But the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is equally quintessential to the Constitution and the American nation. Care has to be taken not to valorise one to the disregard of the other, thereby ensuring that the general public can learn to live equitably with both the exercise of rights and the restraint and responsibility that must accompany that exercise. It is time to abjure a right instituted in the 18th century based on the needs of the fledgling nation of that time and step into the 21st century, truly honour the values of a democracy and its racial diversity, establish economic parity, and facilitate the realisation of a dream of a world where guns become redundant because peace is so much more worthwhile. It will all depend on the efforts of civil society to effectively mobilise and pressure an averse political elite to initiate meaningful reforms.