In a Class of Their Own

My Facebook timeline is cluttered with news stories from around the world. The American outlets I follow – Politico, the New York Times, the Washington Post and a few others – post plenty of diverse content daily, discussing a variety of topics from congressional elections to dramatic snowstorms. But one thing appears again and again. Whether it’s breaking news on a single, stunning event or coverage of yet another attempt at reform, one message is constantly beamed from government departments, town halls, and schoolyards of that country to my own page here in France: my, do Americans love their guns.

This side of the pond is certainly not free of its own ideological battlegrounds, most of which will be familiar to followers of American politics. Indeed, these issues are the most political of all: immigration; government surveillance; overseas military interventions; austerity; and so on. The voices on opposite sides of the aisle are no less passionate, the debates equally packed with ardor – and vitriol. One issue that is conspicuously absent from the debate, however, is guns. America’s love of guns appears crude, confusing, backward. As a staunch believer in the freedom of the individual I find it indefensible when others speak of the ‘need’ of a person; who is a person, or government, to decide what another ‘needs’? And yet, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting on 14 February, I found myself asking why Americans need access to semi-automatic rifles, why there are a lot more gun shops than McDonald’s outlets, why background checks take just minutes. It’s simply not like this anywhere else.

In the last 15 years, Europe, excluding Russia, has suffered 148 deaths in mass shootings (those with more than two dead). Over the same period America, with half the population, lost 326 people in mass shootings. Of course, not all gun violence is perpetrated by people targeting multiple victims. America’s overall violent gun death rate in 2016 was 32 times higher than in Germany, and 55 times greater than Britain’s. These countries have their own issues. Gun deaths is not one of them. Protected by strong legislation, gun sales face tough restriction, and those seeking to own guns must jump through a number of bureaucratic loops designed to keep the public safe. Correlation does not always imply causation, but here, it would not be a leap to say that European restrictions on guns are likely to have prevented a high rate of gun violence. Is it poor laws or simply the proliferation of guns that has led to America’s staggering problem? It is difficult to isolate a factor, but we can conclude that, at this scale at least, America is a grand outlier among the world’s developed countries.

Ever since Charlton Heston, then president of the National Rifle Association, declared 18 years ago that Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore would have to take his guns from ‘his cold, dead hands’[AS4] , triumphantly raising a rifle over his head to raucous cheers, this sort of sentiment appears to have been steadily maintained in the minds of the American public. Gun massacres have shocked and been forgotten, thoughts and prayers offered at a mechanical rate, six-year-olds have died, and America’s great love for these things prevails. Much of American gun legislation is left to the states to decide. This can be used to highlight either the strengths or the failings of the federal system and the great extent of the devolution of power that the US government practices, but beyond this it remains clear that they could do with some improvement.

Every country has a problem that others find incomprehensible, twisted, backwards. With America, it’s guns. The rest of us can’t understand. Perhaps we never will; any path to change is nicely obscured by irrationality, noise, an obstinate refusal to view things differently. “Never the time and the place and the loved one all together!” Robert Browning once lamented. If your love is weapons, however, surely there has never been a better place and time for you than America, today, now.

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