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Are mass shootings the price of liberty?

A pro-gun rally in Washington. Credit: JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images

A pro-gun rally in Washington. Credit: JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images

August 5, 2019   4 mins

If there is anything even more predictable than a new mass shooting in the United States, it is the outraged response of Europeans in general, and the UK media in particular. Expressions of shock, horror and tearful compassion for the families and friends of victims are laced with a high-minded censoriousness about permissive US gun laws and exasperated cries of “when will these trigger-happy Americans ever learn?”

And here we go again. This weekend, the UK news, from TV to the press to social media, was dominated by reports of the shootings at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas (21 dead), and outside a nightclub in Dayton, Ohio (death toll nine).

Saturation coverage of these US atrocities largely blotted out anything that was happening closer to home, whether in the new political landscape of Borisland or the town of Whaley Bridge, which is threatened by a collapsing dam.

Mass shootings on the other side of the Atlantic tend to command a level of attention quite out of proportion to the relevance of these atrocities for us (not much) – perhaps it’s because of the simultaneous loss of life, perhaps because they just seem so alien. This time, the El Paso shooting also seemed to fit into a broader narrative – that of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and support for gun rights – which kept it in the headlines even longer.

As predictable as the initial European response is the misplaced hope that follows. Surely, now, Americans and those who govern them will understand that their gun laws (or the lack of them) must be addressed? An eloquent table of mass-shootings worldwide is produced to show precisely how out of order the US is: this year’s lists most European countries with zero such events, then the United States at the top, or the bottom, as you choose, with a huge 249. If other countries can eliminate, or almost eliminate, mass shootings, shouldn’t the US be able, even be morally obliged, to do the same?

It does not work like that. The public response in the United States to last year’s shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida created an impression that the tide might be turning, at least the tide of public opinion, with a new generation – of pupils and parents – leading the way. El Paso and Dayton may not completely discredit that argument, but they hardly suggest that radical change is around the corner. The gunman in El Paso was 21.

Don’t get me wrong. The shocked – and I would contend, exaggerated – European and UK response to US mass shootings is nothing to be ashamed of. It reflects well on us. It shows that, in most European countries at least, the multiple shooting of one’s fellow human beings is something repugnant and deeply alien. When it has happened – and the slaughter of 77 mostly young people by Anders Breivik in Norway eight years ago in pursuit of his racist agenda demonstrates that we are not immune to such crimes – the authorities and the public have been united in their determination to prevent any repetition.

Still, it seems to me, after spending time as a correspondent in the United States – starting shortly before the 1999 school massacre at Columbine High – that the censoriousness from this side of the Atlantic and the belief that the US can, must and will change its permissive attitude to guns reflect a profound misunderstanding of the United States.

Nor does it help – much, at any rate – to blame Trump, for all his inflammatory language, because mass shootings are nothing new, and the motives are different. Yes, there is a strong strand of white supremacy in the United States that has found an outlet in racist violence. But there is also an anarchist and anti-authority strand – remember Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, of the 1980s and 1990s – while school and college campus shootings have been committed by those who feel they are social misfits or outsiders. Then there are those who “go postal” with their grievance.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s time in office has fostered a climate in which racists can act on their prejudices with impunity. But what unites the mass shootings is not the motive, but the ease with which firearms can be obtained across most of the United States, which enables one person to kill many others at the same time. A correlation has also been found between gun ownership and gun deaths. So, simply put, it is the guns.

Any thought that European sensitivities will temper this, however, is wrong. The right to carry a gun is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution – and, though many on this side of the Atlantic might disagree, there is an admirable aspect to this. It makes the United States almost unique as a country that trusts its citizens to bear arms.

Of course, there will be those who abuse that right. But Trump’s argument, after the Florida school shootings, that fewer might have died had teachers been armed, would not be considered outlandish by many Americans. The phrase beloved of the US gun lobby, that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people”, is widely embraced. You can take the gun culture back to pioneers and frontiersmen if you like. But the right to carry the most lethally effective means to defend yourself – and to use it – simply does not invoke the hostility that it would do here.

Nor is gun culture just about guns. It is about all sorts of other things that are valued by Americans, which include a different relationship between the individual and authority and the right – the freedom – to be an outlaw.

Yes, it makes for a more violent society. It makes gun crime, including the mass shootings, vastly more prevalent that it is in the UK and other European countries. But that is a choice that Americans have made. They may tweak their laws a little at the edges in response to the latest atrocity. They may require a medical certificate here, or a licence there, or curbs on the open sale of the most murderous automatic weapons. But they will not legislate, still less amend their Constitution, to deny people the right to bear arms.

To blame the US gun lobby for this, in the shape of the National Rifle Association, is to see things the wrong way around. The NRA is a force and has money because gun-ownership enjoys public support, and no amount of mass shootings or appeals from shocked Europeans is going to change this. Americans have accepted a trade-off, between permissive gun laws and the high incidence of death by shooting. It is a trade-off that regards El Paso and Dayton, and Columbine, Stoneham Douglas and the rest, as a high, but largely tolerable, price for what is seen as the ultimate in personal freedom. This view will persist well after Donald Trump has left the White House, and probably for a long time after that.

Mary Dejevsky was Moscow correspondent for The Times between 1988 and 1992. She has also been a correspondent from Paris, Washington and China.


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