Politicise This Tragedy
On Friday the United States was shaken by the news of the killing of 20 children and seven adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. It is a shocking fact that there have been 31 mass murders in the USA since the 1999 Columbine massacre, but perhaps none that have hit quite as hard as this massacre of predominantly 6- and 7-year-olds in an elementary school.
It is of course crude and insensitive to ‘rank’ tragedies, but it could be said what happened in Newtown was ‘worse’ than Columbine; not for the age or number of victims, or the nature of the massacre, but for the simple fact that it happened in a post-Columbine world. Every mass shooting now is not just a tragic loss of life, but an indictment of a society that has seen what can happen when disturbed people are given such free access to firearms, and yet has done nothing to change it.
Despite this, the early reaction from the White House was as it has been after every major tragedy of this sort in recent memory: one of condolence, not of action. Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted that ‘today is not the day to talk about gun control‘, and the message was clear – to keep to prayers and tributes and not ‘politicise the tragedy’. But the question must be asked; if today is not the day to talk about gun control, when will it be that day?
The gun lobby will deny that there will ever be such a day. They claim that guns had nothing to do with it, or lament the fact that there were no ‘law-abiding citizens’ with concealed weapons to stop the killer. Most of all, they repeat their mantra that ’guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ and insist again and again that it was ‘just one crazy guy’ and we should just mourn the dead and move on.
The problem with this argument, however, is how hard it is to reconcile with the chilling picture above, showing more than 60 mass murders that have taken place in the United States in the last 30 years. The problem is shown by the list of tragedies in 2012 alone: Newtown, Aurora, Oakland, Oak Creek; 13 in total. It is shown by the other incidents that but for fortune or divine intervention could have become massacres, such as the man who, three days before Aurora, walked into a bar in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with an assault rifle and opened fire, injuring 17. The problem, speaking plainly, is that it is not true.
So gun apologists blame social and societal issues: violent media, a lack of traditional values, no prayer in public schools. These arguments are often alluring. They confirm biases and provide scapegoats. But the American pundit needs only to look across the pond to see how they are mistaken, because almost all of these factors are exactly the same in Britain.
We listen to the same music, watch the same films and play the same video games. We are ‘godless heathens’, angry teenagers and divided families. We have racial tensions, class divides and disturbed individuals. Just like you. The one thing we don’t have is your guns. And with that we don’t have your murder rate. There were 51 gun deaths in Britain in 2011.
Even when taking population into account, the American murder rate is more than 120 times that of Britain, and to attempt to claim that their respective stance on gun control is not even a factor in this disparity borders on the absurd.
The ‘right to bear arms’ is so inextricably engrained in the American psyche that the idea of a British-style blanket ban is unthinkable. But that is not to say that nothing can be done. Below is a picture of a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle similar to the ones believed to have been used by the perpetrators both of Friday’s Newtown massacre and the Aurora cinema shooting in July.
It is a weapon designed for a battlefield, and yet this gun and many others like it are perfectly legal in the United States. They are often purchased at gun shows or online, where a loophole in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System means that these weapons can be purchased by anyone of age without a background check of any sort. If a rifle is for hunting and a handgun is for self defence, this semi-automatic is unavoidably an instrument of mass murder.
An assault weapons ban and the closure of this loophole are not only necessary, not only morally required, but also entirely achievable; but perhaps only in the wake of a tragedy such as this one. The American commitment not only to firearms but to individual liberty and scepticism of their government can serve to obscure the true nature of these weapons. It is in tragedies such as the massacre in Newtown that remind us what they are really for.
In an emotional press conference on Friday in which he was seen wiping away tears, Barack Obama said that he reacted to the news of the massacre ‘not as a President, but as anybody else would – as a parent‘. Well it is time to react as a President. Politicise this tragedy and act to stop it happening again. The 27 men, women and young children slaughtered in Newtown deserve at least that as a legacy.