On 1 October, a lone gunman entered Umpqua Community College, killing nine people and injuring nine more before he was shot dead, marking the 994th mass shooting in the USA in 1,004 days. The response was frustratingly ‘routine’, as President Obama remarked. We mourned, we looked to explain and blame, we politicised, and again, nothing changed. Obama’s frustration reflects what is felt by countless Americans, including myself, for whom gun violence is not just a statistic or headline, but a reality faced every day. Too many are suffering, and too few are willing to address the issue in fear of losing their freedom and ‘Americanness’.
I was ten years old when I first encountered gun violence; in July 2005, my 19-year-old cousin, Meleia Willis-Starbuck, was shot and killed. Her father, John Starbuck, explained that Meleia was out with friends when they were accosted by a group of young men. The men became increasingly threatening, and Meleia called her high school friend Christopher Hollis to help. “Hollis came with his friends…produced a handgun and fired several shots. One of the bullets ricocheted off the concrete and hit Meleia in the heart.” John clarified that while Hollis intended violence, he did not intend to kill or injure Meleia. Rather “bad ass boys use bad ass weapons…that is part of our damaged culture, and is the biggest reason why Meleia is dead”.
The normalcy of guns increases the likelihood of death. Violence is not unique to the USA, but “adding guns to a culture steeped in violent action…is a recipe for disaster”. Mass shootings would not be as destructive if the perpetrators could not access guns, and threatening situations involving guns would be less fatal. Ten years have passed since Meleia died, and little has changed. Oregon is another chapter in the book of American blindness to the problem at hand: guns.
Yet, because guns are seen as a freedom and a right, people point anywhere but at the weapon. Guns are intertwined with a view of ‘Americanness’ held by many people and politicians, particularly the far-right wing groups. They look back to the defining document of the USA – the constitution – to govern an evolved, modern nation. The second amendment, written in 1791, entails a ‘well regulated Militia, necessary to the security of a free State’. Thomas Jefferson, then secretary-of-state, legitimately feared British invasion during a time when the American military and civil society was at its infancy.
Guns were used to secure, not instigate. However, modern-day America does not need a people’s ‘militia’. The USA is not under threat of invasion, has the largest military in the world, and law-enforcing departments embedded into everyday life. In an age when guns are more destructive than ever, taking a centuries old law verbatim is dangerous. While the second amendment used to justify defence, it now only justifies violence. History aside, guns are part of American society.
Hannah Previty, a student at Chardon High School during the 2012 shooting, in which three students were killed, explained that despite what she experienced, she understands the utility of guns in rural areas; “In rural Ohio, [guns] have a very real use, and those people never use them for crime. It has mostly to do with the protection of your land and livestock”. Even John said that some specific cases for self-defence legitimise owning handguns. On a case-by-case basis, those who have been impacted the most by gun violence can still accept them in parts of society. However, gun laws do not work on a case-by-case basis, and both Hannah and John agree that gun legislation is futile in stopping gun violence.
Only 18 per cent of guns in the USA are used for hunting, and only one per cent of Americans have reported using guns to defend themselves. The current system of gun control is exacerbating the problems, not stopping them. The few laws in place are ineffective at preventing guns from going into the wrong hands. Licensed gun shops are required to call the NICS for a criminal background check, but have no other requirements. Guns can be given as gifts without legal barriers. The Oregon shooter owned thirteen guns, some bought through this system. However, 40 per cent of legal gun sales are done through private sellers or gun shows, which require no checks, and 62 per cent of online gun owners are willing to sell to buyers without checks.
To drive a car, you have to be trained and tested. Yet to own a gun, no safety systems are enforced; Mother Jones found that only 34 per cent of gun owners had voluntarily taken gun safety lessons. Despite gun safety technology, only nine states require guns to have safety locks. Guns are not required to be locked away, despite increasing accidental shootings and cases, such as Chardon, where the perpetrator used a family member’s gun. The system of gun control in place is ineffective and broken. Despite left-wing attempts to increase gun control, there is a barrier: the National Rifle Association, with five million members, significant financial backing and political weight.
They have successfully lobbied against universal background checks, and in 2013 helped stop a new assaults weapon ban from passing. Polarisation of politics has increased their strength, despite aversion to rationality: the NRA criticizes the UK’s ‘imposing’ gun laws, yet fails to recognise that Americans are ten times more likely to be killed by a gun. The NRA’s relentless lobbying to keep guns in the hands of Americans for ‘safety’ despite the increasing mortality of the population is dangerous; John remarks “what the hell, why not backyard nukes, too?”
Gun violence annually costs $229 billion dollars, kills thousands, and leaves a poisonous legacy behind. “Meleia’s mother spent two years contemplating suicide…I went off the deep end…we all couldn’t get over the guilt of not having been there for her to take the bullet,” John explained. Hannah discussed the “collective psychological impact” of the shooting; “l have PTSD, a lot of us still do.” Yet still, the USA clings to its self-destructive right to bear arms. Guns are not a problem, but the problem. Mental health issues, racism and violence exist worldwide, but only in America does gun availability allow these issues to become daily fatalities. The NRA needs to look at the facts, the right wing needs to accept that times change and so must laws, and gun control needs to be increased. It is no coincidence that the USA has the most firearms per residents, and the most gun deaths.
Ironically, the pro-gun side claims they are fighting for American ‘freedom’, and yet, how can one be truly free when they are held at the barrel of a gun?