Firearms in America:
A Free Market for Guns, Violence and Death
America’s free market, primitive laws and dark-age social customs are responsible for never-ending campus tragedies, and nobody knows where Lord Yama will strike next, writes Partha Banerjee.
Those who always think of America as a dreamland are perhaps now more than a little troubled by the gun violence and massacre in Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech or Columbine High School. The fact is, this dreamland’s free market, primitive laws and dark-age social customs are responsible for the never-ending campus tragedies. Nobody knows where Lord Yama will strike next.
Just a few days ago, a new campus tragedy in the U.S. shook the conscience of the civilized world. A 27-year-old student, Steven Kazmierczak, entered one of the lecture halls at rural Northern Illinois University and randomly fired his shotgun to kill half a dozen students before killing himself. In April of 2006, a younger student named Cho Seung-Hui at another rural university, Virginia Tech, gunned down 32 people – mostly students – before turning the gun on himself. In April of 1999, two teenage high school students at tiny Columbine, Colo., used their guns to mow down 13 of their classmates and teachers. Similar grotesque incidents at various colleges, malls, health centers, post offices and other public places continue to happen in this so-called dreamland – innocent, young people are paying the price for this meaningless barbarism.
Many in India, Bangladesh and other countries busy modeling their societies after the U.S. perhaps now wonder: What’s the matter, what’s going on in the “best country in the world?” Those who emulate U.S. and idolize each of its little or big details including its media, entertainment, fashion, films and lifestyle are perhaps now a little disturbed. Those who bring up their children the American way eventually to export them to various U.S. campuses or corporations are possibly a little hesitant now; some of them are perhaps having second thoughts about sending their Western-modeled sons and daughters to American colleges – maybe, they’d now want to settle for some less violent countries such as England, France, Germany, Canada or Australia.
Then perhaps, there are many who still adamantly say, so what – can only a few incidents change the profile of a great nation such as the U.S.? The country is so vast and people from so many nationalities live here; just because a handful of madmen commit heinous crimes, is that enough reason to abandon it, reject it? After all, they might think, a crazy Korean committed the Virginia Tech massacre – who doesn’t know that most violent crimes in America are committed by those God-forsaken kalloos, yellow chinkoos, “fanatic-terrorist” Muslims and “illiterate, desperate” Mexican immigrants (isn’t that what Hollywood or Bollywood shows us on a daily basis)? No, they’d say, these few, isolated incidents never reflect the “greatest” system of this “greatest country” on earth.
However, those like us who’ve been living in the U.S. for a long time do not believe these incidents are few or isolated at all. We do not believe that either the African-Americans or other people of color including working-class immigrants are criminals, or in any way inferior to the whites that most outsiders equate with mainstream America. From our long experience and familiarity, we know that the U.S. establishment of which media and Hollywood are big parts has created these false perceptions about certain people and populations. The picture of America has been painted in a certain stereotyped way so that outsiders don’t understand the realities on the ground and analyze the reasons behind such mind-boggling maladies.
It’s an undeniable fact that in any society in any country there will be some crazy or depraved people. That is the reality – just the way a beautiful garden perhaps would have a few diseased and blotched plants. Upon investigation, one would often find DNA, genes, poverty and economic reasons, a child’s developmental processes, sociopolitical environment, domestic violence, lack of education, police brutality, etc. to be the underlying attributes for such out-of-norm traits. In the case of the U.S., the fraction of such a population may or may not be just a little higher than the average: Psychological and sexual deviations, racism and supremacist doctrines, gender-based discrimination, outdated, superstitious mindsets and unscientific thoughts still pervade the country. I’m not exaggerating: the reader can verify it – especially, with the advent of the Internet, one can easily look up the facts and get to know the “unseen side of the moon.”
One of the most incisive analysts of U.S society and policy (who is virtually banned from the mainstream media) is the MIT professor Noam Chomsky. He wrote me after the NIU incident: “If you explore, you quickly reach a deep-seated paranoia that goes far back in American culture. A few years ago the State of Indiana had to replace all of its highway signs, because they were being pulled out and destroyed. The reason, it turned out, was that they have on them some kind of code for highway crews, and many people believed they were instructions for the UN forces who are preparing to invade the US to carry out genocide. Not a joke. There’s a remarkable element of fear in the culture that goes back to colonial days.”
(Above): A memorial in remembrance of victims of a shooting at Virginia Tech. The Virginia Tech massacre was a school shooting comprising two separate attacks about two hours apart on April 16 last year on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va. The perpetrator, Seung-Hui Cho, killed 32 people and wounded many more before committing suicide, making it the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Now the question is, just because someone carries some mental illness or crazy, outlandish dogma – should he be able to create such havoc and kill people indiscriminately at a school campus or shopping mall? Here comes the critical difference between this so-called best country in the world and some “ordinary places” like France, Germany, Austria or Finland, or for that matter, China, Korea or Mexico. That critical difference is, nowhere else in the world – London, Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam or Tokyo – can an ordinary resident buy or use dangerous weapons out in the open. Nowhere else in the world other than the U.S. would an average person be able to purchase arms and ammunitions, shotguns or automatic rifles at Wal-Mart-type supermarkets or the more than 80,000 licensed gun shops all across the country. As long as you’re an American citizen or a valid resident, you can visit any place that carries such weaponry, show your driver’s license or other identification, instantly buy those guns, gadgets and bullets, and drive away in broad daylight. In many of the 50 U.S. states, one doesn’t even need a background check or minimum wait period. It’s often said that finding gun dealers in America is easier than finding a gas station.
The free market works at its best in the U.S. -- even for guns.
More than two decades ago, when I first came to this country as an international student in Illinois, I was shocked to notice it. I’d often wonder: How come a modern nation like America has such easy access to weapons of mass destruction – don’t they understand its grave consequences? Later, however, I’d learned that there was this precious little thing in the U.S. constitution called the Second Amendment. It says: “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.” In other words, it is a sacred, fundamental right that can never be meddled with.
In reality, a lot of controversy has raged over this issue. Forward-looking, modern and non-violent Americans wanted to impress that the time when the Second Amendment was written was when the U.S. states had their own citizen-member militia; it was a time when the armed militia would often battle with each other. It was a time when the U.S. was a newly-formed nation that needed to protect its sovereignty. An armed militia would help the government to stem the uprisings and rebellions; it would also expand its borders and defend itself against Britain. All these were perhaps relevant reasons in the 18th century. But now in 2008, these reasons are all outdated and ludicrous.
The problem is, a vast number of Americans, especially the “traditional” ones, would not even countenance a dialogue to challenge it; to them, there could be no arguments against it. Their status-quo dogma has found powerful allies in the wealthy and middle-class, mostly white conservative organization named the National Rifles Association or NRA. The all-powerful group has practically bought off most Republicans and some Democrats by large-scale contributions to their election funds. The result of their relentless lobbying has been that in the U.S., one can’t hear any more discussions on a simple, easy-to-understand issue such as gun control. NRA and its sponsored politicians and friendly media have successfully silenced the debate.
There has always been a debate about the meaning of the Second Amendment. Does it protect the right to bear arms, or the right to raise a militia? So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the right relative to raising a militia. The current Supreme Court judges, with the new inclusions hand-picked by the President George W. Bush government, might change that interpretation.
(Above): A spontaneous memorial to commemorate victims of a shooting at Northern Illinois University. The shooting incident took place Feb. 14, during which a gunman shot multiple people on the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. Six people died in the incident, including the perpetrator, making it the fourth-deadliest university shooting in United States history, after the Virginia Tech massacre, the University of Texas Clock Tower shooting, and the California State University, Fullerton library massacre.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and such big-name right-wing Republicans are the biggest endorsers of the gun lobby. The two chambers of U.S. Congress namely the House of Representatives and Senate are now flush with NRA-favored “leaders.” The likely Republican presidential candidate John McCain or even the so-called liberal leaders such as Bill or Hillary Clinton – all of them being pro-war politicians – would not take a strong position against the gun lobby either. They know that going against the powerful NRA could cost them their chances of being the next president. Barack Obama, the anti-war candidate who’s now seriously challenging Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, did speak out against the culture of gun violence in America just after the Northern Illinois University tragedies. He has to say something: after all, he is a senator from Illinois. Nobody, however, believes that only rhetoric will bring about any changes to the pro-gun, pro-violence political status quo. There was a lot of talk after the Virginia Tech massacre. However, nothing substantive had been done nationally to change the laws ever since. Only some cosmetic changes were made by local politicians to quell the massive unrest by the victim families.
The reality is, even in this day and age, one can find shotguns, revolvers, rifles and other weapons in Americans’ living-room cabinets or basement crawlspaces, and nobody considers it unusual or bizarre. Americans have been made to believe that easy access to weapons of mass destruction has nothing to do with mass destruction by weapons. They still believe that weapons are only kept at homes so that they can go out and hunt game or animals during the hunting season. Without any knowledge or appreciation of the world outside, they’re brainwashed to believe that guns don’t kill; guns only protect the sacred American home from “enemies” and “invaders.”
The maniacs of Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University took advantage of such ignorance. They acquired their weapons legally and on those fateful mornings, used them on innocent young men and women, just the way the two teenage maniacs did it at Columbine High School.
This point bears emphasis: Any society in any country has a handful of depraved and twisted maniacs. We’d find them in Gurgaon or Noida, Dhaka, Mumbai or Kolkata, we see them in Beijing, Bucharest or Budapest, and we see them in Mali, Malagasy, Montreal or Moscow. But only when the element of depravity or delusion is combined with easy availability of guns or grenades do we see such gruesome massacres. Imagine, had these mass killers carried hockey sticks, cricket or baseball bats instead of semi-automatic weapons – could they have killed so many? Most of these killers – Kazmierczak or Cho Seung-Hui included – have a mental profile of a delusionary loner (contrary to what the media are now portraying about the “soft side” of the NIU killer); they often consider themselves victims of social alienation and apathy. Some of them have serious medical conditions, are put on and off anti-schizophrenia-type drugs, which makes them even more erratic in their behavior. They look for revenge – often against some imaginary injustice. Then in a country like the U.S. — a free-market for guns -- they get easy access to violent weapons, and choose an ominous day to turn their lifelong frustration and anger against luckless victims.
There was a time when under the leadership of Jim Brady and his wife Sarah, their organization Handgun Control pioneered a movement to get America rid of this social menace. Jim Brady was a close ally of conservative, pro-gun president Ronald Reagan; he was paralyzed by gunshot wounds inflicted by bullets aimed for Reagan. The Brady couple’s tireless fight was able to push for some major anti-gun laws in the ’90s. Handgun Control, however, has now lost the power it once had, and with the rise of war-mongering Bush Republicans and neo-liberal, toothless Clinton Democrats, talks of gun control have now become a matter of the past. In this year’s election campaign, will surely be some superficial talk about it, but based on what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn’t suggest anyone to hold her/ his breath..
Contrary to what most people believe in India, Bangladesh and other Third World countries, America is still very much under the spell of conservative social dogma, prejudice and ignorance. The constitutional right to bear arms is no exception to that mindset. The mass media, especially TV and Hollywood and Bollywood, keep glorifying war, violence and killings, and reap profit from it. Video games and other so-called entertainment industries thrive on selling violence. This originally U.S.-Europe-Japan-conceptualized socioeconomic model is now idolized and mimicked in other countries such as India, Bangladesh, South Korea, Russia or China. Young minds are rapidly falling for it: the recent school shootings in India are a stark reminder of that.
America and American people actually have a lot more to offer to the world: Millions of people in this country are fighting tirelessly for peace, knowledge, prosperity, equality, rights and justice for all. These Americans reject the culture of guns, war and violence, and teach the values of non-violence to the younger generations. They inspire many of us to live and work here in the U.S. Can we idolize and emulate them?