One of the ghastliest aspects to the now metronomic occurrence of horrific US mass shootings is the hand-wringing fatalism that ensues. Republicans offer impotent “thoughts and prayers” while heading to the National Rifle Association’s next convention. Democrats declare nothing can be done unless conservatives drop their reflexive opposition to any semblance of gun reform.
With each new carnage, that sense of impotence entrenches itself a little deeper and America’s once-deserved reputation as a place that fixes problems sinks a little further. The cry “if not now, when?” provokes the answer, “If last time didn’t do it, why now?” Like bad weather or car accidents, school massacres have become part of everyday life.
Such fatalism ought to be anathema to every American. Plenty can be done. For a start, Biden must insist that Congress hold straight votes on common sense gun regulations that force obstructionists to put their name on the record. Top of the list should be to ban the sale of military-style weapons that are used in the majority of school and other public shootings, including last week’s Uvalde massacre and the gunning down of ten African Americans in a Buffalo supermarket three weeks ago. It is no coincidence that the incidence of mass shootings has risen dramatically since 2004 when the ten-year ban on semi-automatic weapons expired. Biden knows this better than anyone as he was co-author of the 1994 bill that put the ban in place.
In no other democracy is it remotely so easy for people to obtain mass killing machines. The US is estimated to have the world’s highest number of civilian-held firearms per capita, ahead of war-torn Yemen in second. This is a matter of national shame. Forcing Republicans and the minority of pro-NRA Democrats to vote against measures that would require simple background checks on gun buyers, and remove weapons from the mentally ill, might shame some into thinking twice.
If change does not come from the top it should be organised from below. That is how democracy works. In the absence of federal action, shareholders can still put pressure on gun manufacturers, and retail outlets, to behave more responsibly. Uniquely, the gun industry has legal immunity from the effects of its products. Imagine if pharma companies were shielded from the consequences of bad drugs or automakers from faulty engines. The same rules must apply to Smith & Wesson, American Outdoor Brands and other gun manufacturers.
But America’s problem goes deeper than the scandalous availability of guns. The rise in mass shootings has coincided with the explosion of social media and a metastasising of conspiracy theories. Parents of children who lost their lives in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre have won a series of defamation suits against Alex Jones’ InfoWars, the rightwing site that claimed they were “crisis actors” staging a fake event. He is now on the edge of bankruptcy. They also forced Facebook and other platforms to change their algorithms to remove conspiratorial content. States and cities can also do more to hold gun makers to account.
It would be disingenuous to apportion blame evenly for the shooting epidemic. One of the two major US parties has been stoking a culture of victimhood while making it easy for the toxically aggrieved to carry out their dark fantasies. Although the Uvalde shooter was Hispanic, it is no surprise that most of them are young white men. It would be impossible to bring every potentially violent loner back into society’s mainstream yet relatively simple to deprive them of access to weapons designed for soldiers. All it would take is one federal law. Every other major democracy has done it. America must not acclimatise itself to today’s monstrous reality.
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