Monday, February 26, 2024

America under the gun

In America, two mass shootings in May killed 31 people. The issue of firearms control is now firmly back in the public opinion spotlight. Guns in America are a health issue, a political issue and a wedge issue for the antagonism between right and left theories of what a democracy should be

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By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

Around the world, people may wonder why mass shootings happen every 12 days in the US as if on a schedule. They happen because there are nearly 4,00,00,000 old and new guns in the USA, which are as easy to purchase with ammunition as a Big Mac with fries. Reactions to shootings vary widely. Those who support the right to own and carry guns are outraged by the incompetence of the local Uvalde, Texas, police officers who ignored mass shooter training guidelines in the latest school shooting. “It is the monsters, not the guns,” a law-abiding gun owner told me, practically shouting, adding,” The cops were cowards.”

Social media response spreads and amplifies all sides of the gun controversy. It reaches a new peak, perhaps because the imagined images of executed children are so powerful. Also, it is the start of election season, so whether it is guns, abortion, inflation, or immigration, people are primed to be passionate. 

The first widely reported school shooting was in Stockton, California in 1989. Since then, there have been 13 more, including Columbine High and Sandy Hook, Parkland High in Florida. These names are more familiar to this generation than the great battles of World War II. The pain and puzzlement from each morphing into the following news inspired nightmare. 

A retired lawyer born and raised in Uvalde describes it as having a complex history. Neil Meyer says the love of guns overwhelms any notion of common-sense regulations. A minority white ruling class places its right-wing Republican ideology above the safety of its most vulnerable citizens, the impoverished and children, most of whom are Hispanic. 

The Robb Elementary School serves an area that is heavily Hispanic. The shooter is described as a teenager with a troubled school history. He apparently argued with his grandmother about failing to graduate from high school, then shot and wounded her before heading to the elementary school.

At 11:35 two school safety officers failed to stop him as he entered through a door propped open. Other local police arrived and decided not to confront the shooter, in contravention of their training for such incidents.

At 12:15 members of a federal Border Patrol Tactical Unit arrived with shields. Apparently, the local senior policeman in charge felt it was a barricade situation and not a shoot-the-hostages scenario. So the cops waited. 

At 12:50 the Border Patrol officers obtained a key to unlock the classroom door and planned their attack. Finally, 78 minutes after the killer entered the elementary school, the federal tactical unit entered the classroom and shouted to distract the gunman, who managed to shoot one more child before dying in a 27-bullet hail of gunfire. 

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw reviewed the results, saying: “It was the wrong decision by police officers to wait and not immediately breach a classroom door. It was the wrong decision. Period.” Heroism initially suggested by Texas governor Gregg Abbott was obviously misplaced. Minutes before McCraw’s comment, the Uvalde police chief, in a ‘what was he thinking moment of insensitivity’, issued a statement expressing thanks that his “officers did not sustain any life-threatening injuries” during the massacre. 

America can be a land of contradictions. You have to be 21 years old to purchase cigarettes or beer legally. Why then can an 18-year-old purchase a semi-automatic assault rifle from a licensed arms dealer and ammunition for its large-capacity magazines? A mandated federal background check initiated by the dealer can be approved within minutes from the government database since items that would disqualify the purchase are not likely to exist for a teenager. Failing to get a background check is not a roadblock because gun sales arranged online between individual sellers and willing buyers are not subject to the background check. Statistically, the USA has nearly 40,00,00,000 guns or about 120 guns for every person. Collectors and sportsmen own many. Outside of terrorist attacks, the strict regulations, especially for military-style weapons, mean most Asian and European nations experience few mass shootings. 

A teenager with racist intent had a week earlier purchased on his 18th birthday an assault rifle to kill ten African-Americans in a Buffalo, NY grocery store. The week before, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled California’s age-21 requirement for buying automatic weapons violated the Second Amendment. The 2-1 decision claimed, “America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army. Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.”

Thinking like this is the absurdity of a judicial belief in “originalism” to understand the Constitutional intent. Supreme Court justices just used similar logic in a leaked draft of a proposed ruling against the legal right to abortions. The two judges who decided this California case were both appointees of President Donald Trump and Senate Republican efforts to put conservative Federalist Society-approved judges into any federal court with a vacancy.

Best statistical estimates today note that with 5% of the world’s population, the USA accounts for 30% of the mass shootings. India has had mass shootings, but almost all are related to religious conflicts or terrorists. The worst was the Mumbai terror attack of 26/11 by Pakistani militants killing 175 people, including nine attackers, with more than 300 wounded. After mass shootings in the past three decades in Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, political and social reactions swiftly limited private ownership, bought back weapons and required licensing of rifles and handguns. India’s rules require a purchaser to get a license by demonstrating the firearm is for self-defense because of danger to their life. 

In the USA, this is seemingly impossible, despite the horror of most citizens in this situation. Federal regulations are lax, while most states, especially the smaller rural states, have little or no rules for gun ownership. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is an indulgent contributor to politicians who will fight any regulation. Investigative journalist Upton Sinclair in the first 60 years of the 20th century, revealed how arms manufacturers bribed politicians. 

Many, but not all, states have enacted laws raising the minimum purchase age to 21. However, there is no federal minimum age for ownership of long guns, meaning it is legal to give one to a minor in more than half the country. Trey Laborde, a local Uvalde rancher, brought his gun to a fund-raiser for relatives of victims of the shooting, where he was helping to smoke meat. He opposes calls to take away people’s guns, believing “all these teachers should be armed”. Yet, he wants limits on gun access. “I don’t think that anybody should be able to buy a gun unless they’re 25,” he said.

Recently given an assault rifle as a gift by his father-in-law, he said: “I don’t think they should be sold, Nobody hunts with those types of rifles.”

Modest steps to reduce gun violence include expanding the federal background check legislation to require unlicensed sellers to meet their buyers at a gun dealer. Columnist Nicholas Kristoff suggested that the gun dealer then run a background check just as for sales directly from the dealer’s store. About 99% of Americans live within 10 miles of a gun dealer—so getting the background done is easy and convenient. 

Fast food franchises are a ubiquitous aspect of the US landscape, but there are nearly 59,000 unique gun dealers across the country, four times as many as are McDonald’s and nearly twice as many as US post offices. Gun owners are already accustomed to this process because they do it every time they buy a gun from a dealer.

More than half of Americans want serious reforms. A vast majority, including 69% of NRA members, support universal background checks. Politicians, mindful of angry voters and NRA financial support, oppose all but tiny, incremental tweaks here and there. If grade-school children are vulnerable to mass murderers, what’s the point of representative government? The lack of political courage is a manifestation of wanting to stay in power at any cost.

Guns in America are a health issue, a political issue, and a wedge issue for the antagonism between right and left theories of what a democracy should be. Texas Republicans have called for improving school security and mental health counselling without acknowledging the state ranks at the bottom of all states in spending in these categories.

In The New Yorker magazine, Jessica Winters writes: “Politicians are routinely criticized for their hypocrisy and empty gestures—their thoughts and prayers.” But, if only for the sake of rhetorical hygiene, we should go a step further. Republicans, as we know, get what they want. It is their best feature. If the leaders of this political movement felt real offense to murdering children, they would never simply accept their deaths as the unfortunate cost of honouring the Founding Fathers’right to take up muskets against hypothetical government tyranny. They would act. If America were not afraid to know itself, we could more readily accept that gun-rights advocates are enthralled with violent sorrow. This is the America they envisaged. It is what they worked so hard for. Their thoughts and prayers have been answered. 

Immediately after the shooting, President Joe Biden spoke on national TV saying: “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?… It’s time to turn this pain into action. For every parent, for every citizen in this country, we have to make it clear to every elected official in this country that it’s time to act.” He later flew to Uvalde to comfort the grieving families, but it seemed that even the president carries little weight when it comes to gun law reforms and the political clout of the NRA.  

But it was Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors basketball team, whose father was murdered by terrorists in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1984, who best expressed the  nation’s outrage. At his post-game press conference, he said: “I’am not going to talk about basketball…. Any basketball questions  don’t matter…children were killed 400 miles from here. In the last ten days we’ve had elderly Black people killed in a supermarket in Buffalo, we’ve had Asian churchgoers killed in Southern California. When are we gonna do something. We are being held hostage by 50 senators in Washington who refuse to even put it to a vote despite what we, the American people, want because they want to hold onto their power. It’s pathetic. I’ve had enough.” His team won their playoff series advancing to the National Basketball finals.

If Kerr was emphatic, those attending the NRA annual meeting in Houston the same week the Uvalde killings took place, were equally confident in their convictions. Yes, they were appalled and angry at what happened in Uvalde, Texas. But almost all of them quickly blamed the atrocity on many things, just not on the AR-15 assault weapons. The existence of “evil” ranks high for the cause, along with family breakdowns, mental illness, and violent video games.

The standard phrase was “better school security”. Not surprisingly, this was the focus of the former president. Donald Trump spoke in a flat monotone calling for “impenetrable security at every school all across our land…schools should be the single hardest target.” He adopted a more strident tone when criticizing President Biden for increased military spending, but not more money for school safety. The thunderous applause for Trump reflected his four years of consistent rage-inspired gatherings, not just the Houston performance.

The aggressive posturing of the NRA increased in the Trump presidency, but scandal around its leader, Wayne LaPierre, intensified, especially around his high living style. In a lawsuit in New York, the judge in the case said if proven would “tell a grim story of greed, self-dealing, and lax financial oversight at the highest levels of the National Rifle Association.” The NY Attorney General ordered the NRA dissolved, but in the same case, the judge ruled that it was not within her authority. The NRA says it is moving to Texas at some point and shrinking its Washington operation. 

The hard-core NRA conservatives who trust Trump acknowledge the toxic masculinity that weapons confer on them. No matter how many school children die will cause them to change their minds on gun reform. Unfettered gun rights are fundamental to their social and political identity.

LaPierre, the NRA’s embattled leader, opened the convention by calling out “the evil” of the attack in Uvalde. Then he quickly pivoted to attack mode—the federal government could not “legislate against evil,” and said Biden’s gun control proposals would restrict “the fundamental human right of law-abiding Americans to defend themselves.”

For every child killed in a mass shooting, there is a back story of their family while growing up. These deaths have a lasting impact on the entire extended family. The psychological impact on the survivors cannot be ignored. There are 19 stories like this one. 

This is about Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, 10, who had three brothers. As the only girl, she was special to her mother, who remembers how her 15-year-old brother would become “embarrased and shy” when Maite hugged him and called him “my gordo.” 

Ana Rodriguez said her daughter was focused, ambitious and determined, working to get her grades back up after they slipped during the pandemic and winning an academic award on the morning of the Uvalde school shooting. 

Maite taught herself to sew using YouTube videos and made pillows as gifts for her mother, stepfather and younger brother. “I want the world to know she was my absolute best friend,” Rodriguez said. “She was my sweet girl.”

Two teachers died. The husband of one died from a heart attack two days later, leaving four orphan children. 

The most tragic irony is that the same week as the Uvalde massacre, the NRA held its annual conference—in Texas. As The Economist noted: “That the Uvalde atrocity and the NRA’s gathering will occur in the same state, in the same week, is a symbol of America’s divisions and dysfunction.”

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels 

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