The first two months of this year already saw 17 shootings at schools in the United States, according to gun control activists at Everytown for Gun Safety. Not all of them made the national headlines because they weren’t as horrific as the latest incident in Parkland, Florida, where a 19-year-old shooter took the lives of 17 students and staff at the school he was attending.
In the past, U.S. President Donald Trump vowed not to infringe on the American’s right to bear arms in any way. However, the uproar after the shooting in Florida had him suggest he might be willing to support some restrictions after all, like banning bump stock. (The devices that convert semi-automatic rifles to fire at rates of fully automatic military-style assault rifles.) Or he might expand background checks for gun buyers.
However, most obeservers would agree that the prospects of turning the tide on America’s pervasive gun culture are slim - no matter who is sitting in the White House and how many more people get killed in mass shootings, or gun-related homicides or suicides.
You can blame gun fundamentalist for defying reason and clinging to the 2nd Amendment like it was the 11th Commandment. You can point a finger at gun lobbyists, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), who spends tons of money to ensure gun rights aren’t infringed upon, and gun sales stay lucrative.
However, real change won’t come about until gun-bearing Americans actually agree to give up their arms.
Though many Americans do support some gun control measures, it’s a concoction of cultural, psychological and political aspects of security that make fundamental change seem very unlikely. These dynamics have been subject to scholarly enquiry in political science and international relations theory. Along those lines, an explanation for America’s predicament could go something like this:
Firstly, the American federal government, its counterparts in individual states and respective law enforcement agencies never really possessed what is called the monopoly on violence. This concept is fundamental to the functioning of any nation state and pacified society. It means, people give up their right to legally threaten or exert violence, in exchange for the state’s vow to protect them from harm (and do them no harm itself).
However, for historical reasons some parts of America (also being the self-described ‘land of the free’) have a cultural leaning towards self-help and distrust of the state and its institutions. They don’t believe in relying on the state to effectively assure their security, or even see law enforcement agencies as a threat, and hence arm themselves individually. This has a corrosive effect on the authority of the state and its agencies.
In effect, some part of the social contract that glues together states and their societies is broken, or never really stuck, if some individuals don’t consent to surrender some of their (security related) freedoms and submit to the authority of the state. It doesn’t matter if they fear the state’s weakness (inability to protect from other people) or its strength (using its force to their own detriment).
Secondly, there’s a concept in international relations theory called the security dilemma, which tries to explain what causes insecurity to spiral out of control. This term, coined by the German scholar John H. Herz in 1951, claims that, as there are no superior authorities to the state in the international realm (also referred to as a state of anarchy), there is a latent lack of systemic security.
Because of this lack of security, and states being wary of each other, they start arming themselves, especially because they can never know what the intentions of the other states are. So, while State A might just be seeking to enhance its own security by arming itself, State B never knows if State A won’t use its acquired arsenal for offensive purposes. B then is feeling threatened and starts arming itself too.
In ralation to the situation in America, you could argue that because there already is a huge wealth of privately owned small arms and nobody knows who’s got a gun and when he or she will use it, many people seek to enhance their personal security situation by buying a gun themselves. This increases their individual feeling of safety but decreases overall security within wider society.
This is one point proponents of liberal gun laws often fail to acknowledge: In heavily armed societies, the likelihood of people turning their guns on each other increases with each weapon sold. And this is also why arming teachers to prevent mass shootings at schools, as also proposed by President Trump in the aftermath of the Florida shooting, is very unlikely to improve the overall level of security in the United States.