Sunday Edition

Guns & Horrors

| | in Sunday Pioneer
Guns & Horrors

It is alarming but true. After every mass shooting in America, gun sales go up by at least 20 per cent. That’s because the public anticipates stricter gun control laws but, so far, the Government has remained lax and continued to be the handmaiden of the gun lobby, says S RAJAGOPALAN from Washington

Every time there is a horrendous mass shooting, America plunges itself into predictable mode. There is at once a lament over the country’s gun culture, accompanied by a clamour for stricter gun control laws. Calls are issued for healing, empathy and unity. But soon enough, the sharp political divide of a highly-polarised nation comes to the fore. Democrats and Republicans, who can never see eye to eye on gun control  and many other vital issues, start slamming each other with their partisan push and finger-pointing. In sum, nothing of consequence happens and as weeks roll by and the public outrage over the shooting subsides, it is business as usual in Washington.

The million-dollar question after last Sunday’s Las Vegas massacre is whether it will be any different this time round. After all, it’s a dubious milestone that American has crossed with this carnage, certified as “the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history”. Naysayers refer to previous shootings of a comparable scale in terms of casualties, such as the one in an Orlando gay nightclub last year that killed 49 people, to make the point that Congress failed to approve even a simple legislation to stop gun sales to buyers on terror watch list.

Democrats have accused Republicans of routinely blocking one Bill after another to bring about even a modicum of advancement on the gun control front. Ten years ago, after the Virginia Tech massacre in which a student gunned down 32 people before killing himself, the Republicans aided by some conservative Democrats blocked a legislation to limit the size of magazines. Five years later, after the horrific shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that killed 20 children and six adults, a Bill to merely expand background checks of gun purchasers met with similar fate.

The Vegas massacre, however, may help bring about a degree of bipartisan support to deal with at least one new challenge, if not fundamentally alter the whole gun control turf. This relates to banning the use of “bump stocks” — devices that allowed Vegas killer Stephen Paddock to convert his arsenal of semi-automatic rifles into fully-automatic weapons that are otherwise deemed to be illegal and fire at a rapid clip to such a lethal effect.

In a surprise move, even the gun lobby led by the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), which normally opposes all gun regulations, is on board over subjecting this deadly accessory to “additional regulations”, if not a legislative ban.

But America’s gun problem is of a more fundamental nature that cannot be wished away with such tinkering. Its gun culture, a historical phenomenon, is buttressed by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. Adopted way back in 1791, it protects the “right of the people to keep and bear arms”. Republicans are big-time votaries of the Second Amendment and will not settle for any dilution of gun rights on the grounds of self-defence. Democrats, however, accuse them of bowing to the dictates of NRA. “I can’t believe that a political party in the greatest country on earth is totally sold to the gun lobby and will do whatever they are ordered to do, despite the loss of lives,” Hillary Clinton thundered on a television show this week. President Donald Trump remains an avid supporter of NRA, which had endorsed his White House bid.

America is home to the largest number of guns in private hands. In a country with a population of 325 million, there are as many as 265 million guns with people, according to a 2015 Harvard/Northeastern University survey. It works out to more than one gun for every American adult. However, it is not as though every American adult is having a gun since the survey puts the number of gun owners in the country at 55 million, with most of them owning an average of three firearms. It also estimates that an astounding 133 million of these guns are concentrated in the hands of just three per cent of the adult population.

With such gun proliferation, little wonder that America has the highest number of shootings and gun deaths. There have been 47,323 shooting incidents so far in 2017, resulting in 11,825 deaths and 24,043 injuries, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a web portal that keeps a close tab on US gun violence. Mass shootings, which by American definition are ones in which four or more people are indiscriminately gunned down, have also been going up. The year’s mass shooting tally so far is 276, though very few of them may have attracted public attention.

In the Vegas massacre, which has occupied the spotlight for close to a week now because of its ruthless execution and record toll, the police have recovered a total of 47 guns from the shooter’s three locations — his 32nd floor room in Mandalay Bay Hotel and his homes in Mesquite and Reno. Investigators have found that as many as 33 firearms, most of them rifles, were bought within the last year. Curiously enough, such a sudden buying spree did not raise any red flags.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which keeps a tab on firearms sales, says it won’t be tipped off unless two or more handguns are sold at one time. “We wouldn’t get notified of the purchase of rifles. There’s no federal law requiring that,” a bureau official said.

Gun sales in America tend to spike immediately after every major mass shooting. This is because of apprehensions among prospective buyers that new regulations could make the purchase of guns more stringent. After the June 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, gun sales rose by 20 per cent over a three-month period. “This event in Las Vegas could result in increased demand near-term for firearms as people are concerned about personal safety,” gun industry expert Rommel Dionisio told CNN. He estimates that in the normal course, Americans buy some 15 million to 16 million firearms annually.

Support for gun ownership in America has been on the upswing since the early 1990s, according to a Pew Research Centre survey. It found that over the past 20 years, a period that has witnessed a spurt in major mass shootings, Americans have clearly shifted from supporting gun control measures to greater support of protecting the right of the people to own guns. Republicans are more likely to be gun owners than Democrats. A survey cited by The Washington Post highlights the disparity, saying that 49 per cent of Republicans and 23 per cent of Democrats owned guns as of 2016. 

Beginning with the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999 that killed 12 students and a teacher and injured 25 others, mass shootings in this period have included the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre (32 dead, 23 injured), the 2012 Sandy Hook carnage (27 dead, 2 injured), the Aurora multiplex shooting in Colorado the same year (12 dead, 70 injured), the San Bernardino shooting in California in 2015 (14 dead, 24 injured), the Fort Hood shooting in Texas in 2009 (13 dead, 33 injured) and the Washington Navy Yard shooting in 2013 (12 dead, 3 injured). The Las Vegas massacre (58 dead, 527 injured) and last year’s Orlando nightclub shooting (49 killed, 58 injured) are the top two on this list. The figures do not include the perpetrators who were either killed or injured in these shootings.

While the high-profile mass shootings attract all the attention, a host of American cities, notably Chicago, Baltimore, St Louis, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Houston, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, have a far serious problem of gun violence on a daily basis. A chart published by The New York Times shows that while 58 lives may have been snuffed out in one stroke in Las Vegas, the same number of people were killed by guns in Chicago in a span of 28 days, in Baltimore in 68 days, in St Louis in 70 days, in Philadelphia in 105 days, in Kansas City, Missouri in 117 days, in Houston in 118 days, in Detroit in 121 days, in Indianapolis in 122 days, in Los Angeles in 125 days, and in New York in 130 days.

Citing the grim statistics of gun deaths, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi fired off a letter to Republican Speaker Paul Ryan immediately after the Las Vegas shootings, demanding that he “create a Select Committee on Gun Violence to study and report back common sense legislation to help end this crisis”. Save for the possible ban of “bump stocks”, Republicans have little to offer on wider gun control measures. A livid John Lewis, the Democratic Congressman and civil rights icon, hammered the Republicans on Capitol Hill, quizzing: “How many more must die? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A million? What is your blood price? How many more bodies will it take to wake up this Congress?”

Republicans, in turn, blame Democrats for politicising every tragedy. They are quick to point out that Chicago, the Democratic bastion that boasts of the tightest gun laws, still continues to be America’s No. 1 city in terms of gun deaths. Much to the chagrin of liberals, they argue that what America needs to focus on mental health reform in order to bring down its high incidence of gun deaths, particularly mass shootings.

“Mental health reform is a critical ingredient to making sure that we can try and prevent some of these things that have happened in the past,” Speaker Ryan said, attracting stinging criticism from Democrats and liberal groups. But he insisted, “One of the things we have learned from these shootings is often a diagnosis of mental illness.”

Two lawmakers, a Republican and a Democrat, who themselves have been victims of mass shooting, are studies in contrast on gun control, highlighting Washington’s sharp political divide that frustrates any meaningful progress on this crucial issue. Republican Steve Scalise, the House Majority Whip who nearly lost his life in a shooting episode during a baseball practice session in Virginia in June and returned to Capitol Hill on crutches just last week, avers that getting shot has only strengthened his resolve against gun control and “fortified” his belief on gun rights.

Not so with Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt in a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona that left her with a severe brain injury and compelled her to resign her Congress seat. Ever since the shooting episode, she has remained a staunch gun control activist. Soon after the Las Vegas massacre, Giffords was on Capitol Hill with an appeal to all lawmakers to get their act together on the gun control front. “Now is the time to take positive action to keep America safer. Do not wait. The nation is counting on you,” said Giffords, who has been pressing for a series of stringent measures to deal with the escalating gun violence.




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