‘Somehow, this has become routine,’ Barack Obama said wearily of the Oregon school shooting in October. ‘The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up becoming routine… We have become numb to this.’ The President of the United States was reduced to reacting to gun violence with exhaustion where once there was shock and horror. Gun violence is an astonishingly common occurrence in the States, yet gun laws seem to be becoming ever more lenient. With over 150 school-related shootings occurring since the infamous Columbine massacre alone, how many more ‘lone wolves’ are going to immortalise themselves in breaking news headlines before pro-gun preachers realise that their hobby is not worth the ever-rising death toll?
Guns have been a part of the American identity since the American Revolution. The Second Amendment states that the right of the people to bear arms is ‘necessary to the security of a free state.’ This revolutionary rhetoric, however, is often left out of the pro-gun arguments in favour of framing domestic gun ownership as a constitutional right. Politicians who oppose guns are accused of being un-constitutional and anti-American, while vocally pro-gun politicians are likely to receive hefty funding from the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is one of the most influential lobbying groups in American politics. Gun-positive politics are not merely a hangover from the American Revolution, they are actively encouraged by the capitalist enterprises that benefit from them.
The country is no longer defending its borders from the British Monarchy, but border anxieties remain a contentious part of the gun debate. The current refugee crisis has inspired racially and religiously motivated fears that accepting refugees into America is akin to holding the door open for terrorists. Texas, one of several states refusing refugees, has listed the availability of guns as one of the reasons that refugees supposedly pose a threat to Americans. One Texas state legislator, Tony Dale, used far-fetched hypothesis and anecdote to argue the point, ‘can you imagine a scenario were [sic] a refugees [sic] is admitted to the United States… obtains a driver’s license and purchases a weapon and executes an attack?” This is the same politician who vehemently defends the right to bear arms, celebrated his own NRA certificate on social media, and even opposes background checks for firearms holders.
“The extraordinary lenience of American firearm laws only gives every misogynistic extremist, white supremacist, or religious fundamentalist the ability to air their grievances with gunfire”
The widespread availability and normalisation of guns in American culture maintains and encourages an atmosphere of fear – and not only for those who oppose guns. What, exactly, is the difference between a Syrian who legally obtains a gun in the US and uses it to kill someone and an American who does the same? If guns are a potential threat to the life and liberty of others in the hands of one person, they are a potential threat in the hands of all people. Conservative Americans need to decide if their ‘constitutional right’ is worth the lives of gun victims inside the border and lives of the refugees turned away from it.
The NRA’s power over the political discourse on gun control and the mass media’s inconsistent reporting of terror attacks allow the public to divorce their reactions to violence from their feelings towards gun control. American journalists will frame attacks such as the San Bernardino shooting, which occurred last week, as America and freedom itself coming under attack from outside forces (in this case, Islamic extremism). Such narratives can be used to justify easy access to guns, the argument being that Americans must be able to protect themselves and their country from these imminent threats.
However, when the shooter does not fit so easily into popular preconceptions of ‘a terrorist’ – if they are white, Christian, and born-and-bred American – the conservative media is quick to characterise the shooter a mentally disturbed loner. By using language that isolates these ‘loners’ from society, it is then possible to isolate their actions from any wider social issues. If someone is not called a terrorist, they do not represent any wider threat to American lives or values in the same way abstract conceptualisations of terror groups do. As a result, journalists and politicians alike are relived from having to re-work their definition of terrorism to include potentially anyone with access to weaponry and a fucked-up motive.
“What, exactly, is the difference between a Syrian who legally obtains a gun in the US and uses it to kill someone and an American who does the same?”
Unfortunately, home-grown terrorism in the States is not merely a hypothetical possibility, but a reality, regardless of whether it is acknowledged in the press. In her response to the Planned Parenthood shootings on the 27th November, the President of the company’s Rocky Mountain branches wrote, “extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country”. This statement speaks not only to the attack on Planned Parenthood, but the numerous violent crimes committed across the United States in a twisted vision of greater good. Dylann Roof was hoping to start a ‘race war’ when he massacred nine people at a Charleston church in June. Elliot Rodger, the 2014 Isla Vista gunman, went on his deadly rampage in the name of bringing ‘retribution’ to the women of the world he felt had slighted him. The extraordinary lenience of American firearm laws only gives every misogynistic extremist, white supremacist, or religious fundamentalist the ability to air their grievances with gunfire.
The gun lobbyist rhetoric is wearing thin. If it is deemed acceptable to reject refugees because of the actions of their fellow countrymen, then the argument that violent gunmen do not reflect the wider gun-carrying community begins to crumble. As debates on international terrorism are taking centre stage in public conversation, home-grown terrorism needs to be recognised as an equally concerning threat. No American citizen deserves to become the next statistic simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and no refugee deserves to be turned away because their religion or skin colour somehow makes them more likely to become a terrorist than any one of the NRA’s five million members. Liberty has always been considered an integral part of the American identity, but it’s time to address how that liberty is defined and ‘defended’. The right to carry a deadly weapon, no matter how mentally stable and law-abiding you think you are, should not be considered more important than others’ right to live.
Image: Ak Rockefeller