Since the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999—where two heavily-armed students engaged in a spree of violence that left 13 dead and almost double that injured, before then turning their weapons on themselves—there have been more than 200 school shootings on American soil. Not all of these were mass shootings like the most recent tragedy (17 dead, 14 hospitalised) at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Indeed some involved no casualties at all. Yet this is nevertheless a uniquely American affliction, that plagues no other western democracy.
What for millions of concerned citizens makes this endemic problem all that more difficult to swallow is that it has a single, self-evident cause: Gun ownership laws so lax they border on the wilfully negligent. As each new year brings yet more mass shootings and even more wrecked lives, polls show a consistent majority of the US voting public are in favour of tougher firearm controls, especially those who live in the major urban centres most affected by gun crime. However while there’s an obvious and popular solution to this recurring national nightmare, no meaningful reform has occurred and as a result the body count continues to rise.
In turn, and every bit as infuriatingly, the main impediment to change is as obvious as the cause of the problem itself: America’s powerful pro-gun lobby, the National Rifle Association in particular. Simply put, the NRA’s influence on US politics is toxic, on the Republican Party above all. Large campaign donations buy conservative politicians loyalty. It is very much a case of whoever pays the piper calls the tune. With a nod to their masters, these poor excuses for public representatives then respond to each fresh atrocity with banal prays and jaw-droppingly counter-productive calls for further deregulation. The problem, they claim, is not that the bad guys have guns, but that the good guys don’t!
This unwillingness to deal with the matter head on—this dangerously warped logic which blames mass shootings on everything from graphic video games to individual pathologies while nevertheless refusing to address the sacred cow of irresponsibly permissive gun laws—is truly astounding in its absurdity. It’s a reflection of a deeply deficient political culture, where all too often emotion trumps rational discussion and intellectual consistency. After all, those most snugly in the gun lobby’s pocket are in many instances the very same people who post 9/11 were among the biggest champions of tightening security at airports and other high-risk locations.
Nevertheless, spurred on by survivors and relatives of the latest shooting in Parkland, who in an act of great courage have channelled their private grief into public appeals for action, it appears that America has reached an important crossroads. Things have come to a head. People are saying no more. And most strikingly, it’s the nation’s young who are telling their supposed elders and betters to grow up and put a stop to this continued insanity. They are organising protests and meetings, boycotts and campaigns. It is a nascent movement fuelled by anger, but driven by hope. Hope, that is, that real change is possible.
Of course, any optimism must be tempered by the fact that there have been false starts before, perhaps most notably after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where a lone gunman killed 26 people (20 of whom had not even reached their eighth birthday). However this time something feels different. When, faced with increasing public pressure, even major corporate players like Walmart, Dick’s and Delta are cutting ties with the NRA and/or engaging in self-regulation you can’t help but feel that something is in the air. That something, finally, is about to change.
Not that the US will abolish the 2nd Amendment. That will never happen. The right to bear arms is as deeply ingrained in the American psyche as baseball, warm apple pie and police harassment of coloured folk. Instead, the choice is between sanity or continued carnage. Between, that is, preventing disturbed teenagers from legally purchasing what can only be termed weapons of war—(semi-)automatic firearms with extended magazines designed not for hunting or protection but for effortless destruction—or the ridiculous spectacle of arming teachers in the hope that in addition to teaching the three Rs they can also prevent acts of mass murder.
Ironically, a hawkish US president who received a whopping $30 million in campaign donations from the NRA has greater scope to introduce tougher controls than his predecessor, whose attempts at reform post-Sandy Hook were severely hampered by an NRA-led campaign of disinformation regarding his underling motives re: the 2nd Amendment. Initial signs were that Trump was lukewarm towards meaningful change. However he’s since done something of a 180 and is now calling for more stringent regulations while simultaneously bemoaning the NRA’s undue influence on lawmakers. Quite what the underlying political long game is remains unclear, assuming Trump has one that is. A desire to one-up Obama perhaps?
Attempts to read the such an erratic and unpredictable president aside, what’s clear in all this is that a great deal hangs in the balance, America’s international reputation included. As the world looks on, the hope is that that great democracy across the Atlantic will choose to tread the sensible path of increased legal restraints on firearm ownership. Else we will doubtless face the depressing reality of yet more young lives being needlessly sacrificed on the altar of the American right’s maniacally reckless pro-gun ideology.
Indeed, when it comes to gun control and the mountain of evidence in favour of it, not the least of which being the US’s exceptionalism in respect of recurrent mass shootings, you have to ask: If not now, then when? And at what further cost?