Those who live by the gun: Sandy Hook and the crisis of American culture

A vigil for the victims (Image: AP Photo)

Columbine. Virginia Tech. Tucson. This year alone, the Colorado cinema shootings and the attack on a Wisconsin Sikh temple, and now the Sandy Hook tragedy, one of the most brutal school shootings in US history. It is almost inevitable that the old gun control debate would be revived in the wake of this latest disaster, but also necessary. The situation cannot be ignored, and the arguments of the gun lobby have to be taken on and confronted once and for all if we are to take anything meaningful from events in Newtown, Connecticut yesterday. But yet the scalpel must go deeper than gun restrictions alone. For America’s own sake, an analysis and excoriation of all aspects of its public life and civil society are necessary, from the mainstream normalisation of violence, the fear embedded in its politics, and the stratification and retrenched inequality that is endemic to the nation in stark contrast with its self-assessment as ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave.’ No doubt there are many who will believe this type of discourse is just too soon, that we should allow time for the burying of the bodies, the mourning of the dead, the laying of this latest horror to rest- indeed it was only in the middle of last night by American time that the grim task of identifying the dead was completed, and confusion reigned over who the killer actually was for most of the evening. But shootings are political, whether we like it or not, and it would be a disservice to the dead to not use what has happened as a launch point for a wider discussion, so that no more have to suffer in circumstances that could be preventable. As the slogan used by gun control protesters in Washington D.C. last night, ‘Today is the day.’

Thus, let’s take a step back to how gun rights become enshrined in the rhetoric of American politics. The land-holding colonist in seventeenth-century Virginia, for instance, carried his musket to shoot game, but more primarily, to defend against Indians in the perceived absence of a British Army willing to do so. In fact, gun politics was brutally racist and reactionary- in 1676 a rebellion broke in Virginia that began with the rebels storming into the surrounding country and indiscriminately murdering Indians in cold blood, and by the hundred. The rationale for gun ownership was not born in open revolt against the British state in 1775 (and even if it was, that would still make it utterly irrelevant today, for in the unlikely chance that US citizens had to defend themselves against an occupying force, they have the world’s most funded standing army and would be competing against mechanised warfare) and even when it was enshrined, the Second Amendment is open to interpretation, a strong suggestion that the intent of the authors was to preserve the right to bear arms as part of a ‘well-regulated militia.’ This of course is something that collapses a few years later in Shays’ Rebellion, where an insurrection against taxes is put down by a private army, leading to the later promise of states to promise armed force for use in other states in response to slave revolts. This may seem a little off the point, but it is important to understand that gun ownership is a cause of the Right because its origins are in the gradual genocide of an indigenous people, and also the politics of fear that causes Americans to simultaneously accept foreign wars and attacks on their civil liberties in the name of terrorism prevention, whilst continuing to cling sentimentally to their firearms.

There is no logic to the gun ownership argument whatsoever. The majority of household shootings involve the victim’s own weapon. Carrying a firearm puts an individual more, not less, at risk. It also paves the way for vigilante justice based on social prejudices, a la Trayvon Martin (although interestingly, when a woman discharged her weapon into the ceiling to deter an abusive partner with a history of violence, she was indicted by the same judge that acquitted Trayvon’s shooter.) Returning to schools- firstly, do we want children growing up to be surrounded by armed security? Even if they were, would it even help in such situations? Unless we were to provide state-funded firearms training for all – something conservatives would no doubt oppose on financial grounds- many of these theorised armed teachers would not be trained. Assuming for a moment that they were, any situation involving the discharge of a firearm in a densely populated area is frightening even to professional soldiers. There is confusion, shock, and a huge number of vulnerable and innocent people- in this case children- in the area, and a firefight resulting in even more of a bloodbath is easily conceivable. Undoubtedly, some criminals would attempt to obtain guns whether legal or otherwise (indeed Connecticut gun laws are reasonably tight by US standards), but this is not so much an issue of acquisition as normalisation. In Britain, the first recourse for a criminal is not to acquire a gun. Yes, guns and gun crime exist, but massacres involving firearms are relatively rare and in the case of the successful Snowdrop campaign after Dunblane, usually resolve in affirmative action. The availability of high-powered armament is another issue- it is not to detract from the horror of Derrick Bird’s killing spree in Northern England some time ago to suggest that if he had access to a full assault rifle (capped at 250,000 in the US by George W Bush) or even a semi-automatic/selective fire weapon, he would have been able to commit a great deal more damage. On a sidenote, the proliferation of weapons directly causes the creeping militarisation of police forces. The police deployed against protests in Anaheim and Oakland for instance are virtually indistinguishable from a military force. The US has a murder rate from guns some forty-four times that of England and Wales. Since 1968, when Martin Luther King was gunned down for believing that African-Americans should have equal rights to the white population, an estimated million more people have been killed by gunfire in the United States. To suggest that gun proliferation is benign is nonsensical in the face of reality, and the moneymaking machine of the NRA and similar organisations demonstrate a complete lack of regard for the life and limb of victims when they embark upon their campaigns which seem limited mostly to an argument of ‘guns for guns’ sake.’

Restricting the issue to a debate about gun control, however necessary gun control might be in the context of the United States, however, is to be dangerously disingenuous. The example of Switzerland, where gun ownership is mandatory and murder-by-gunfire rates are low, necessitates a discussion not limited to weapons alone. Ironically, those conservatives that proclaim the need for an armed citizenry as a deterrent against state repression are responsible for backing a state and civil society that is brutally repressive and tied inextricably to a tiny minority that forms the seemingly untouchable kingdom of Corporate America. The American state’s disregard for life is one on easily on par with school shooters. On an almost weekly basis, drone strikes kill civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The US has attacked more nations than any other in the world, and spent in one year around sixty-seven times the GDP of Cambodia on its military, which it fetishises to the point of advocating unquestioning obedience. The level of jingoistic nationalism in the US is virtually unmatched, and articulates itself through the American state’s legally sanctioned murders over the centuries, from the Native Americans through the use of napalm in Vietnam and the backing of brutal dictatorships to the regular use of extrajudicial assassinations today. Killing is routine, and the same is true of civil society- gun massacres, whilst they provoke a grief that is transient for most but those directly involved, seem almost accepted. None of the murder rampages in recent years has broken the intransigency of American politicians. Violence has become almost a shibboleth; one needs only look at politicians such as Todd Akin’s casual acceptance of rape. There is a culture of bullying in many US schools that breeds social exclusion, a culture that all too often is ignored or worse greeted with calls to ‘man up’ and ‘take it.’ American popular culture reflects the rigid stratification of school life, the social hierarchies that seem far more entrenched than at other schools- not everywhere, but in many places. The psychological consequences of this are brushed away under the carpet. This goes alongside endemic and structural racism, as well as widespread sexism and homophobia based on rigid and fundamentalist interpretations of scripture.

This is not to attack all Americans, or to claim that they are somehow inherently violent, small-minded and prejudiced – in fact, an evidentiary glance proves that the real silent majority of Americans are progressive, forward-thinking and tolerant- but to say that these qualities are the manifestation of a mainstream culture endorsed and protected by the structures of power and influence within the American state. Not only this, but there is a recurring theme of psychological disturbance afflicting the killers involved in massacres, including Sandy Hook. Is it too much to suggest that ending the crippling, profit-driven healthcare system and replacing it with a well-funded, socialised one along with a frank and public discussion about mental health might prevent future Adam Lanzas or Dylan Klebolds, and that this might be a more valuable long-term investment than attacking Marilyn Manson, as many did in the aftermath of Columbine? A sort of psychosis is enforced on lower-class Americans due to the nature of their system itself- the ardence with which the American Dream of self-made success is forced down their throats with an evangelical level of passion that comes into sharp conflict with the realities of life. The realities are slums on par with the developing world sitting side-by-side with obscene wealth, and crushing poverty alongside the highest infant mortality rate in an OECD country. The American ruling class’ terror at anything they deem ‘socialist’ (and their definition of socialism seems to lump together moderate healthcare reforms with Stalinist gulags) has led to an utter refusal to care for those who need it, replaced with patronising epithets about hard work. American schools are underfunded, teachers are underpaid, and in some notable cases there is an absence of textbooks and basic resources whilst expensive televisions in the dining halls display corporate advertisements. The prison population, meanwhile, is legion. American parties have neglected their citizenry appallingly, and allowed swamps of social and economic exclusion to grow and proliferate along with firearms- not a good combination by any stretch of the imagination.

In short, understanding Sandy Hook requires more than just an isolated look at the events of the tragedy itself. There are a plethora of contributing factors and causes behind the shocking regularity of mass shootings in the United States. They are all factors that should be examined, picked apart, discussed and resolved. The outrage in Newtown yesterday cannot be allowed to fade into the landscape of public memory after a week’s mourning, but taken up, championed, and turned into an opportunity for American civil society to reflect on what it is and what it can be, leaving no stone unturned. That is now one of the best things we can do to commemorate those whose lives were snatched from them by a lone killer in a Connecticut school.

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