AMERICA’S gun massacres, like that in Oregon last week, are not about gun control or mental illness. They are about hard cash and political careers, writes Bette Browne
The inescapable fact is that the multibillion-dollar gun industry, championed by the National Rifle Association and backed by powerful political forces, has become one of the greatest commercial success stories in US history.
Its products, however, like those of the tobacco industry, can and do kill men, women, and children. And the statistics are truly frightening.
Last Tuesday, an 11-year-old boy in Tennessee was charged with first-degree murder as a juvenile for shooting dead an eight-year-old girl in a row over a puppy that she refused to let him see, according to police. He apparently used his father’s gun.
Every day this year there has been at least one mass shooting in the United States — the precise figures show that in 294 mass shootings, a total of 378 people have been killed.
After the Oregon killings, President Barack Obama made the comparison with terrorist attacks: “If you look at the number of Americans killed since 9/11 by terrorism, it’s less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it’s in the tens of thousands.”
The figures support his assertion. A total of 153,144 people were killed in gun violence between 2001 and 2013, compared with 3,046 killed in terrorist attacks between 2001 to 2014, which includes the 9/11 attacks. That breaks down to almost 12,000 people a year or four times the number killed on 9/11, after which the US launched two wars.
But there will be no war on guns in the US because this is not about the statistics of death. It is about the statistics of money and the statistics of power.
The key statistic is that there are enough guns in America for every man, woman and child in the 300m population. In 2013, there were roughly 357m firearms in the country. All of which means the gun industry has become a money-spinning machine par excellence. So it protects itself with an army of lobbyists and sympathetic politicians and when threatened it obliterates its opponents.
I have seen this happen during my years in the US when any attempt, no matter how feeble, to rein in gun ownership and introduce controls and background checks ended many political careers, particularly during Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Yet, there was also a time in the US when the tobacco companies also reigned supreme and blamed weak-minded smokers rather than addictive cigarettes for contributing to cancer deaths.
In 1994, I saw the heads of the major US tobacco companies raise their hands in Congress and give sworn testimony that they did not believe that nicotine was addictive. The image of the seven CEOs testifying before Congress left an indelible impression on a sceptical American public and became an issue in the presidential election two years later.
Gun-control advocates suggest the same could happen in the 2016 election and that now is the time to take on the gun industry. But if the comments by Republican candidates like Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, and the silence of some Democrats after the Oregon shootings are anything to go by, the chances of this happening may be slim.
Bush, for example, cautioned against introducing gun-control measures, simply saying after the massacre, “Stuff happens”.
Some professed shock at his comments but they shouldn’t have been that surprised unless their heads were buried deep in sand. After all, Bush is merely saying what he is expected to say.
You don’t get a grade A+ rating from the NRA for nothing.
Picture: AP Photo/John Locher
Indeed, in a speech at the National Rifle Association convention this year he boasted about his gun-rights rating from the organisation going back to his time as governor of Florida.
Another speaker at the convention was retired US army Lt Col Dave Grossman, an expert in what he called “killology”, a chilling term he himself coined to describe his study of the psychological effects on the human psyche of killing in combat and the violence of school and other shootings in America.
Grossman, 58, who has taught psychology at America’s elite West Point military academy, likes to tell Americans that the way to stop gun massacres is to give “good guys” more guns.
He also blames the pernicious effects of violent video games for the increase in fatal shootings. Guns themselves and easy access to them, he maintains, are not the real problem. Some see him as exploiting America’s gun culture but others sit up and take notice when he speaks, as his audience did at the convention at which the organisation geared up for the 2016 presidential election.
The organisation says it not only advocates the right to keep and bear arms, but “actively champions gun safety, education and training”. Referring to the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, in which 20-year-old Adam Lanza gunned down 20 school children, most as young as six, along with six of their teachers, Grossman said: “Sandy Hook is just the beginning. We’re raising a generation of mass killers.”
The way to handle this, he says, is to put armed police and other such “good guys with guns” in schools and encourage everyone to arm themselves. Or, to put it another way, the solution to gun violence in America is more guns.
Many schools around the country are already following this advice, though it hasn’t stopped such tragedies — there have been 135 school shootings since Sandy Hook, or 45 each year since then.
Columbine High School in Colorado had an armed guard during the shootings there in 1999. In 2007, Virginia Tech, where 32 students and faculty members were gunned down, had its own campus police force. In neither case did these “good guys” stop the shooters.
Nevertheless, the good guys are increasingly being armed. Since the Columbine killings, the federal government has spent at least $811m (€714m) to help school districts hire security guards, according to Mother Jones magazine.
That sum doesn’t include spending at the state and local level. According to the trade magazine Campus Safety, about 90% of American school systems have made security enhancements since Sandy Hook.
Companies are marketing “bulletproof” backpacks and other defensive gear for children. A Massachusetts school tested an “active-shooter detection system” that costs as much as $100,000 and uses technology also deployed in war zones.
One research company projected that by 2017, school security systems will be a $5bn-a-year industry in the US. Indeed, the more people who arm themselves, the more such spending will boost the burgeoning coffers of the US gun industry, which is already worth $12bn a year, according to 2015 figures from market researcher IBISWorld.
The NRA, together with its affiliates, has annual revenue estimated at $250m. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which groups 48 gun-control advocacy organisations across the US, firmly rejects the notion that more guns is the solution.
“If the NRA philosophy of more guns worked, America would have the lowest gun-death rate and murder rate of any democracy or high-income nation in the world. The opposite is basically true,” the coalition’s director of communications, Ladd Everett, told me.
He also dismissed Grossman’s views and was critical of his appearance at the NRA convention. “I think it was telling that he was invited to speak at the NRA convention given how heinous his message is. I think there is a segment of folks who respond to his message — the shoot first culture — and that’s something we should be deeply concerned about and about the fact that the NRA has the resources and tools to actively promote these types of views to a lot of Americans.”
Richard Martinez, whose son Christopher was among six students killed in a shooting last year near the University of California Santa Barbara, also sees the issue quite differently from Grossman and has called the suggestion of more guns in America a solution from the 18th Century.
“You ask the gun extremists what to do to reduce gun violence and they say more guns,” Martinez said. “More guns on the streets, campuses, and playgrounds. That’s a solution from the 18th century, not the 21st century.”
Martinez, like Grossman, has strong law enforcement credentials. But in his case he is fighting for more gun-control laws. As a military police officer in the US army before becoming a criminal-defence lawyer, he said he understands guns.
“I have friends who are in the NRA. I grew up on a farm. I hunted. I killed animals. But assault rifles and semiautomatic weapons? There is no need for those except in war.”
Killings in wars and on the streets of America is something that Grossman has been studying, writing about (he’s published three books) and lecturing on for a number of years.
Grossman retired from the US army in 1998 and later founded what he called the Killology Research Group. Its stated aim is “to help educate law enforcement officers and soldiers on how to improve outcomes in lethal encounters”.
I vividly remember one such “lethal encounter” when I was working as a reporter in the US on the morning of April 19, 1995, as news broke of a blast at a federal government building in Oklahoma City. A total of 168 people lost their lives in what was at the time the largest act of domestic terrorism in the nation’s history.
On another April morning, exactly four years later, I was also on duty when two teenage students gunned down 12 fellow students and a teacher in the Columbine school massacre.
In an address to grieving citizens after Columbine, President Bill Clinton cited in part the work of Col Grossman and his theories on the negative effects of violent video games.
“Former lieutenant colonel and psychologist, Prof David Grossman, has said that these games teach young people to kill with all the precision of a military training programme, but none of the character training that goes along with it.
“For children who get the right training at home and who have the ability to distinguish between real and unreal consequences, they’re still games. But for children who are especially vulnerable to the lure of violence, they can be far more.”
But Clinton also believed that a tougher issue was lax gun laws and the easy availability of lethal weapons, especially to those who were mentally ill or had criminal records. A few years earlier he had introduced an assault weapons ban but many members of Congress from his own Democratic party who helped to pass it subsequently lost their seats in midterm elections.
So, after Columbine, the US Congress was already running scared and another bill failed to pass that would have closed the gun show loophole that allows unlicensed dealers to sell guns without background checks. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Clinton spelled out why he believed Congress had been cowed into submission.
“The NRA can muster an enormous percentage of the vote — maybe 15%, even 20% in some districts, because for those people guns are a primary voting issue. So if you’ve got a race where you’re ahead 60 to 30, but in your 60%, gun control is a primary voting issue for 10% of the people, and in their 30 it’s a primary voting issue for 20% of their people — the truth is, you’re a net loser by 10%. That’s what happens in Congress and state legislatures. They’re genuinely afraid.”
Less than a year after that interview, 9/11 convulsed the nation and a bunker mentality set in. In such a climate it was easier for the NRA to sell its message of more guns. By the time the Sandy Hook massacre happened in 2012, it was far tougher for Congress to contemplate gun-control measures even though the killings had numbed the nation.
The battle started well enough, with vows to finally take on the gun lobby. The Obama administration introduced a proposal that would have banned assault rifles. But it failed, even in a then Democratic-controlled Senate, along with efforts to ban high-capacity magazine clips and expand background checks. So now, three years later in 2015, gun violence has surged.
“We’re the only developed country on Earth where this happens,” President Barack Obama acknowledged after his failed efforts.
“And it happens now once a week. And it’s a one-day story. There’s no place else like this.”
It was an extraordinary statement for the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy and seemed for all the world like the US leader was hoisting the white flag of surrender.
But after the June massacre of nine African-Americans in a South Carolina church, the president seemed ready to confront the issue again: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”
After last week’s Oregon massacre he again urged Congress to act. But this time he went a step further and publicly named the enemy within, lashing out at the NRA.
“There is a gun for roughly every man woman and child in America… How can you with a straight face make an argument that more guns make us safer? This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America.”
All of which raises the question of how America has become so enfeebled and so unable to protect its people from the menace of gun violence? The answer is simple. It’s primarily to do with power and money, wrapped in the protective mantle of Constitutional rights.
But that could yet change in the 2016 election, according to Ladd Everett’s Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which believes gun-control is likely to become an election issue. For the NRA, it already has.
Among those who spoke at the NRA convention, along with Col Grossman, were a number of Republicans seeking their party’s nomination in the White House race against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal called the NRA America’s “most effective civil rights group”, while Texas senator Ted Cruz and former Florida governor Bush, following the lead of NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, also attacked Hillary Clinton on gun control.
“We will stand and we will fight with everything we’re got and in 2016, by God, we will elect our next great president of the United States of America and it will not be Hillary Rodham Clinton,” LaPierre said in his keynote speech. “We’re onto her. She’s been coming after us for ecades. Hillary Clinton hasn’t met a gun-control bill she couldn’t support.”
But Democrats also like guns so Clinton seems to walk a fine line in her support for tighter gun control. She pledged this week, however, to introduce tough gun-control measures, by executive order if necessary, if she’s elected president.
But Clinton will also be painfully aware of the losses her party’s lawmakers suffered after backing gun-control measures during her husband’s presidency.
The best that can realistically be hoped for is that background checks will be introduced.
Such legislation is a priority for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. At present about 40% of gun sales are made without any background check — giving convicted felons, the dangerously mentally ill, racists and others unchecked access to firearms.
Nearly 80% of the perpetrators in 62 mass shootings studied by Mother Jones magazine had obtained their weapons legally. Acute paranoia, delusions, and depression were rampant among them, with at least 36 of the shooters killing themselves on or near the scene. Seven others died in police shootouts.
The introduction of legislation on background checks seems a limited ambition, indeed, but it is one that may be achievable — given the right political climate in 2016. “If you poll Americans on the top priority of our movement, which is background checks on gun sales, even in deeply red [Republican] states you will get upwards of 80 to 85% of people saying yes there should be background checks on every gun sale,” Everett told me.
But why then was it so difficult for Obama to make progress? “It has to do with how well the NRA has organised at the grassroots level. They are also tied intimately to the gun industry and therefore have a huge war chest to spend during election cycles. They spent something like $37m in the last election cycle [2014 midterm elections].”
But Everett also highlighted an issue that rarely gets voiced in American politics yet is responsible in large part for many of the country’s problems, including the lack of comprehensive gun-control laws. It’s political inequality and it essentially means that voters with the most money and political clout are the ones who get listened to most in the halls of Congress.
Everett says when it comes to guns that the NRA is a big beneficiary of such inequality.
“I think the NRA benefits greatly from the distortion of political equality in this country — things like money and politics, gerrymandering of legislative districts and voter suppression laws.”
So he is realistic about expectations even if Clinton does wind up in the White House. “There are limits to presidential power and there is the separation of powers — between the judiciary, White House and Congress — so he or she can’t do everything. It also depends on what Congress itself is going to look like after the 2016 general elections.”
To punch the point home, the coalition released a video telling American voters their choice of lawmaker is directly linked to such tragedies as those in Sandy Hook and South Carolina and Oregon.
“You did not buy the guns. You did not load the bullets. You did not empty the chamber. But you voted. You voted for politicians who refuse to support common sense gun control. Gun control is in our hands.”
So, in the end, it comes down to a choice for Americans between more guns or more backbone — plus the candidates they choose to send to Congress and the White House in 2016.
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