No one does bloody tragedy better than America. Over and over. Columbine High School. Virginia Tech. Tucson, Arizona, supermarket. Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre. Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh temple. And now, a primary school in Connecticut. Heartless though it may seem to say it, but the aftermath of the latest massacre on December 14 might almost have been scripted, cast and shot in Hollywood. Cue grieving Newtown, the picture postcard little suburb, which has featured in the top 10 of the eponymous book Best Places to Raise Your Family’. Cut to an unashamedly teary Barack Obama and his moving roll call of the 20 dead little children. Slice in the American broadcast media’s soft-focus photographs of the victims and CNN’s funeral parlour theme music while its correspondents visibly emote hard in a poor imitation of former President Clinton’s famously empathetic “I-feel-your-pain” routine. Finally, ramp up the horror with the gruesome resistance to gun control so often heard across the US from those who defiantly cherish Americans’ 221-year-old constitutional right to bear arms: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
It sounds bloodcurdlingly cold after the Newtown shooting, which is just the latest in a series of high-profile gun crimes in American schools and colleges. Clearly, America, The Blockbuster might be a riveting movie, soaked as it is with blood and tears. If it weren’t a complex, organic lived reality.
But then the reality of America’s relationship with guns is often intensely contradictory. Within days of 20-year-old gunman Adam Lanza’s still-unexplained rampage in the Newtown school, two alternative snapshots of gun-toting America hove into view. In Oakland and San Francisco on the west coast, police were overwhelmed by larger-than-expected numbers of people peaceably handing over their firearms in exchange for $200 at the gun-buyback events intermittently scheduled nationwide.
Meanwhile, independent arms dealers across the country, but especially in Connecticut (scene of the massacre), California and North Carolina, reported an unprecedented surge in sales the weekend after the Newtown shooting. In a particularly grisly footnote, one Robert Caselnova, whose gun shop is less than 10 minutes driving distance from the grieving school, recorded multiple requests for AR-15 style rifles, the kind used by Lanza to silence his victims and claim a notorious place in history.
Which is the real America? Will the real America please stand up?
Perhaps it can’t, weighed down as it is by contradictions. This is a country with a fiercely reaffirmed right to bear arms, an estimated 300 million firearms in circulation and a population of 311,591,917 as of July 2011, according to US Census Bureau figures. This may appear to translate into nearly one weapon for every citizen but that is not strictly true. In fact, says a 2011 study by Chicago University’s National Opinion Research Centre, a declining number of American households own guns — down from almost 50% in 1973 to just over 32% in 2010. The report also said that the number of American gun owners had gone down almost 10% over the same period. By some estimates, 20% of gun owners now own 65% of all the guns in America. It may not be unreasonable to picture them as somewhat like Nancy Lanza, the Newtown shooter’s murdered mother, who had multiple weapons, all perfectly legal and carefully licensed, but also had the rare misfortune for them to be heartbreakingly employed in the mass murder of six-year-olds learning the three Rs. at school.
America’s contradictory realities go further, reaching into every aspect of life. How else to explain the fact that the local Walmart in a little town in Maryland, barely three hours from Washington, always has racks and racks of guns to sell, but no wine because the authorities believe temperance to be more important to the public weal than disarmament? How to rationalise the name, Honeymooners Gun Shop, near the same town?
The simple answer, of course, is that one can’t. This is an abstemious country paradoxically in hock to a fatal addiction, namely a passion for the narcissistic rush that comes with weaponised strength. This is probably best represented by the politically powerful National Rifle Association’s popular bumper sticker, which argues that only an armed citizenry can prevent tyranny. “To conquer a nation you must first disarm its citizens,” it says, a 10-word summary of the aspirational do-or-die frontier spirit that still surges in American hearts.
Tragically, this is why Americans have long continued to regard gun control as a diminution of freedom rather than an extension of it — or at least, an extension of the right to live and let live. Though the UK, Japan and Australia managed to push through tough weapons legislation after mass shooting incidents, there is no certainty that Newtown will provoke similar meaningful change in the US. Robert Spitzer, author of The Politics of Gun Control, agrees, pointing out the institutional barriers to nationwide gun control in the US because most gun legislation is set by states rather than the federal government.
Right now, the dismal possibility that there will be other Newtowns may be discerned in the gun rights’ lobby’s aggressive spin on the shooting. They say it isn’t guns that need to be limited but the evil and mentally ill tendencies of people like Lanza. Red-blooded conservatives suggest that America and the world should stop trying to understand “craziness”. They urge that schoolteachers be armed because that will mean fewer dead children when the next putative mass murderer appears at the classroom door. But there is no acknowledgement of a basic truth — that fewer guns always mean fewer deaths. Period.
There may be sequels to the blockbuster.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a senior journalist based in the US. The views expressed by the author are personal.