The mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, which killed a total of 17 teachers and educators, has reset a familiar and disturbing cycle in the United States. The gyre of this American phenomenon is spinning once again — the grief of survivors, the ideological finger-pointing, the cries for gun reform, the homegrown conspiracies.
The outrage has returned, but the shock and disbelief are long gone. This is simply another bloody chapter in the fatal romance between America and her firearms. The prospects of meaningful reform will remain grim.
It’s not a matter of understanding the scope of this issue. There are enough statistics to numb, if not drown, the average American citizen. There are 270 million guns in this country. With only 5 percent of the global population, America suffers a third of the world’s mass shootings. During the last three decades, in the 25 industrialized nations where mass shootings have occurred, the United States had nearly double the amount of shootings of the other 24 countries combined.
The occurrence rate of mass shootings is also quickening. Just 20 years ago, America averaged one per 200 days. That figure is down to 64 days between mass shootings. Between Orlando, Sutherland Springs and Las Vegas, three of the top five most deadly massacres have occurred in the last two years.
In the days following the Florida shooting — just as in the days following the Las Vegas and Sandy Hook massacres — citizens marched through the streets and clustered on the steps of state legislative houses demanding reform. Many of their advocated aims — their “common sense” policies — have nearly 90 percent support among the American populace.
So, the question remains eternal for Americans — why has meaningful gun reform eluded the United States?
The Dunblane and Port Arthur massacres turned gun reform into a national initiative in the UK and Australia, respectively. Why hasn’t a similar movement succeeded in this nation? If slaughtered school children and church shootings aren’t enough to spur change, does America have a tipping point at all?
Easily “bought” politicians are blamed. The powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) is vilified. The failure of America’s mental health system is trumpeted. Outrage and grief seems to always recede until another tragedy erupts. Nothing will change until America has a navel-gazing moment, a quiet reckoning with how we’ve interpreted our history, molded our core identity and created our national myths.
The United States is one of only three current nations that maintains a Constitutional right to bear arms. The psychological impact of this cannot be understated. Certainly, the founding of our country necesitated it — an era where ragtag state militias stood in lieu of a national army and a rebellion was waged against perceived tyranny.
In invoking the right later preserved in the second amendment, framers of the Constitution and Bill of Rights consistently echoed the importance of self-preservation in the face of oppressive government. There is common sense — a right, a reason and a justification — enshrined in the verbiage of the second amendment:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Very little of the Framers’ common sense has survived into modernity. The original intent of the amendment — arming a state militia — has eroded over time. Just a decade ago, and approximately 110 years since the last state militia was called into battle, the Supreme Court (District of Columbia v. Heller) held that an individual’s right to possess firearms is unconnected with his service in a militia. Ironically, originalist judges — the faction typically touting that the meaning of the Constitution remain static through time — composed the majority.
America’s deep infatuation with firearms goes well beyond this “strained and unpersuasive reading of the amendment’s text.” The Heller decision simply legally solidified the longstanding American reality: that gun ownership is woven into the fabric of our national identity.
Perhaps not to American spree killers, but to a significant chunk of our nation, gun ownership stands for freedom and self-reliance. It is the modern manifestation of the historical American promise to control one’s own destiny. To the NRA and its army of single-issue voters, the right to bear arms is unassailable — any attack on gun ownership is an attack on the authentic American experience.
“Gun ownership…and the NRA recalls a romanticized notion of the Frontier Era of the United States to base its assertions of a historic, patriotic responsibility for the citizen to bear guns to protect country and family, thereby enshrining guns as the ‘birthright’ of American Citizenship,” according to a 2012 Columbia University study.
The mythic heroes and national icons America has built in her young history follow this logic. If King Arthur embodies the romantic virtue of the United Kingdom, John Wayne exemplifies the gritty soul and righteous justice native to the United States. The cowboy, the revolutionary, the frontiersman — all as American as apple pie, and all inexorably tethered to not only firearms, but a unique brand of individualist justice.
“You are all of that same bloodline,” Charlton Heston famously said to an NRA crowd. “You are the sons and daughters of the Boston tea-spillers.”
America has nurtured this national image. In an increasingly complex modern society, the gun lobby has throttled the democratic process — exchanging societal order and the “protection of the general welfare” for a historically perverted fantasy. This has allowed the NRA — undoubtedly aware of the slippery slope of regulation — to rail against any reform, no matter how sensible and necessary.
Further, the pervading rationale of gun ownership as a means of keeping the government in check is also patently ludicrous. In a time of drones and ballistic weapons, a stockpile of firearms may as well be a slingshot. And yet, for a justification so ubiquitous in American gun culture and frequently touted by the NRA, very few of even the most ardent “patriots” would fight for their right to own a LGM-118 Peacekeeper missile. For all the high-minded banter currently muddying up the gun debate, the root of America’s attachment to guns remains atavistic and primal.
The gun lobby doesn’t cause mass shootings in America. A deeply complex confluence of uniquely American problems is the root of this phenomenon. There is an unprecedented accessibility to firearms and sub-standard access to mental healthcare in the United States. The spectacle of media coverage spurs on “copycat” actors. There are idiosyncratic stressors and anxieties in American life — the chronic preoccupation with fame, the expectation of individual success, a perceived and worsening threat to the identity of the white heterosexual male.
Rather, the national identity — and worse, the rules of discourse — have been hijacked by a rabidly motivated minority of “true believers.” Each mass shooting and subsequent demand for a “national conversation” on gun control leads nowhere. The deck has long been stacked against the purported majority in favor of sensible reform. This is the reason why the CDC is barred from using federal funds to research gun violence as a public health problem. It is why every major attempt at federal legislation for gun control has failed since Sandy Hook. It is the reason that in the immediate aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas shooting, the president began parroting the dystopian idea of arming public school teachers — an insane concept literally pulled from the lips of longtime NRA front-man Wayne LaPierre.
Common sense — let alone facts and statistics — means little compared to self-identity and allegiance to heritage. Until America redefines who she is at her core, until she drags her national folk heroes into the cold and hard light of modern society, atrocities will worsen, and the cycle of grief will continue.