In recent weeks the US has seen two high-profile mass shootings. One gained immense media attention due to the bizarre misogynist ideology of the killer, Elliot Rodger, and the other hit the media due to the fact that the killer was stopped by one of his fellow students before he could do any worse damage. But the sad fact is that these killings aren’t even out of the ordinary for the US. Over the Easter weekend 40 people were shot and 9 killed in separate incidents across Chicago. While gun violence is gradually dropping in the US, it still has the second highest gun violence in the developed world (after Mexico). So why is this the case? It’s a lot more complex than you might think…
The first reason though, is fairly simple – the US has a lot of guns. The country has the highest ratio of guns to people in the world, with 0.89 guns for every American. Distance second is taken by Yemen, a country with an extremely active al-Qaeda group, little enforcement of gun laws and a history of civil war. Thanks to open carry laws, Americans are also allowed to take their guns most places. But obviously the number of guns isn’t necessarily the most important thing, though it does add a lot to gun culture (more on that later). Switzerland has more guns per capita than Iraq. What is also important is that people can get handguns easily (which have the sole purpose of killing people) as well as incredibly deadly weapons like M-16 rifles.
But a much bigger problem in the US is who can get guns. In most developed countries there are extremely strict rules on who can own a gun. Owning a weapon in the Netherlands means taking a strenuous safety course, and you can lose your licence for even the smallest of crimes (such as driving drunk ). In the US though, background checks before you buy a weapon are easy to get around, and at a gun show people can buy firearms from each other without any background check whatsoever. I think everyone can agree that someone with a mental condition like bipolar disorder who is at a high risk of suicide should never own a firearm. This also means that psychopathic narcissists like Elliot Rodger can buy guns, which means when they snap the effects are that much worse.
The surprising thing is that many Americans do actually support some increased background checks, or bans on certain types of weapons. The problem is that these laws will never get passed in Congress. Even after a 20 year old with mental issues killed 27 people at a primary school in 2012, a bill that would have tightened background checks failed to pass the Senate, with only 4 Republicans voting for it. Thanks to hugely powerful gun lobbies like the NRA, the main message politicians hear is that gun control loses votes. Even Democrats are afraid to be too vocal about gun control, fearing the NRA will spend thousands to get them out of office. Just like on healthcare, immigration and environmental protection, America’s political system is hopelessly deadlocked on gun control (an article for another day).
But in the end, all these things I’ve mentioned are just symptoms of the real issue – gun culture. The United States is a country which through its unique history has ended up considering owning a deadly weapon a right. Guns are a real part of culture, and taking them away is like taking away a European’s healthcare – it provokes a gut reaction of anger. Standing outside their culture looking in, it is almost impossible to see matters as they do, and that means solutions we see as common sense are completely rejected by many Americans. And when organisations like the NRA advocate giving teachers guns to deal with school shootings, in Europe we actually begin to question their sanity. But then Americans who believe in their right to carry weapons question the sanity of the unarmed police in England. As I said when talking about gay rights in Russia, cultural change is not something that can be forced or promoted from outside that culture. And to be honest, if a primary school shooting can’t change your mind about guns, I doubt much can. For the time being, gun culture in the United States will remain a powerful force behind the deaths of thousands.