Americans and Guns

Another week, another horrific mass shooting in my adoptive country. And so, again, America grieves, while my British friends shake their heads in disbelief, asking:with Americans and guns?

Another week, another horrific mass shooting in my adoptive country. And so, again, America grieves, while my British friends shake their heads in disbelief, asking: what is it with Americans and guns?

Now, I don't lay claim to any kind of scholarly expertise in American gun culture, but I have lived for the past eight years in Georgia, one of the states with the most lenient gun laws in the country; a state that, in 2014, enacted a piece of legislation known as the "guns everywhere law", which allows firearms to be carried freely in - amongst most other places - government offices, airports, places of worship and school classrooms. On that basis, I have a few thoughts on what it is with Americans and guns.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the first thing to say is that not all Americans feel the same way about the issue; there are numerous anti-gun campaign organisations here. But, as we all know, there is an opposite end to that spectrum. The motivations for the fervent gun-love professed by many Americans, which is not generally regarded as especially niche or eccentric, at least here in the South, seem to be primarily symbolic and sentimental. Some see guns as representing the country's pioneer history, a patriotic symbol of resistance to oppression. They cite (often with a good deal of poetic licence) the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which gives citizens the right to bear arms so they need never be tyrannized again. It can be about class and politics too, with an overt love of firearms a defiant gesture against the big government liberals, a howl for the sanctity of personal freedom, a cry of pride from the rural hunters aimed at the ears of the city-dwelling, soft-skinned educational and professional elites. It's this distinction, or some version of it - this idea of 'two Americas' - that underpins so much of the antagonistic political discourse in this country today.

And it can be personal. The father quietly teaches the son to handle and respect a weapon; the first gun as a rite of passage; hunting trips as a bonding experience enjoyed across a lifetime. Guns as masculinity.

And finally, of course, there are reasons of fear, which have a wider reach. You don't have to be any sort of gun-lover to want to protect yourself or your family, and to wonder whether, in a country overrun with weapons, that requires you to take up arms yourself, however reluctantly. Between the enthusiasts and the anti-gun campaigners, there's a pragmatic space where gun ownership can reasonably seem like a real-world solution to a real-world problem.

So there's pride and patriotism and family and fear, and what's really important to understand is that these feelings are all propped up by a whole industry with a vested interest in perpetuating them. The NRA and the gun manufacturers run a fantastically successful PR operation, so powerful that they manage to whitewash all the facts and figures and maintain a grip on public opinion that prevents the kind of widespread outcry that might actually force legislators into making meaningful change. For as long as public support maintains the awesome power of the gun lobby, only relatively minor adjustments - what politicians like to refer to as "common sense gun safety measures", like universal background checks or tighter restrictions on military-style semi-automatic weapons - seem even theoretically possible. The kind of radical legislation that might bring America anywhere close to a British-style minimal firearms culture feels several worlds away.

Solving America's gun problem simply cannot be impossible, but it would, I fear, require a truly profound change of hearts and minds. Advocates for gun control would need somehow to roar louder than the behemoth pro-gun lobby to convince people that free access to firearms really does cause more death, and that, whatever their reasons for wanting to hold on to their weapons, the loss of all these innocent lives is too high a price to pay. And that might be the easy part. Statistically, it's highly questionable that owning or carrying a gun makes anyone safer but, in the face of fear, we may need more than statistics. In order to shift public opinion, we would have to persuade individuals that, while they may feel safer - may even, it's conceivable, in their particular case, be safer - with a gun than without one, overall we are all less safe with the gun laws that we have in this country, and if we're any sort of society, that's what ought to matter to us most. Ultimately, real change on one inflammatory subject in America may depend on confronting another: the individual versus the collective, the question of the greater good. It may come down to empathy. And if it turns out that Americans simply don't have enough, that'll be one more tragedy.


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