“The gunman is worse than the one at the theatre a couple of weeks ago because he targeted an entire community," said a worshipper who witnessed the tragic shooting at his local gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wis., Aug. 5. The shootings killed seven people, including the gunman, and critically wounded three people, including a policeman.
As a claim, it is open to debate. The body count was higher in Aurora, Colo., so was the number of injured. Hate crimes carry a greater penalty in the United States, but it is a fool’s game to pit one tragedy against another.
What matters more is what the two shooters shared in common: the possession of lethal weapons. The kind that allowed one individual to wreak disproportionate harm, take multiple lives in a matter of seconds, allowed him to live out his most violent fantasies. Focusing on the “hate” angle distracts from the far greater crime: the appalling state of gun laws in the United States.
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people -- or so goes the tired argument used by anti-gun control advocates to dismiss any call for stricter legislation. And their Republican supporters like Mitt Romney are quick to define every shooting rampage as the work of a “deranged person.”
Let’s focus on the man holding the gun, they insist. On his CNN program, Global Public Square, Fareed Zakaria exposed the emptiness of this argument, using data to devastating effect. “The United States stands out from the rest of the world not because it has more nutcases – I think we can assume that those people are sprinkled throughout every society equally – but because it has more guns,” Zakaria points out. The United States is the only country to have more than 70 guns per 100 persons in the entire world. The precise number: 88. Yemen is a distant second at 54.
The other numbers are just as damning: “We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 50 percent of the guns. But the sheer number of guns isn’t an isolated statistic. The data shows we compare badly on fatalities, too. The US has three gun homicides per 100,000 people. That’s four times as many as Switzerland, ten times as many as India, 20 times as many as Australia and England.”
And yet, conservative commentator George Will insists: “The killer in Aurora, Colo., was very intelligent and farsighted and meticulous. I defy you to write a gun-control law that would prevent someone like this with a long time horizon and a great planning capability from getting the arms he wants. I just think that this is a mistake.”
Sikhs in Oak Creek should be grateful that their shooter wasn’t quite so “very intelligent and farsighted and meticulous.” He didn’t bother to assemble an entire arsenal before he went on a rampage. But here’s the more important point: he could easily have done so under existing U.S. law.
The legal arguments against gun control are equally specious. There is no U.S. constitutional right to carry an assault weapon that shoots 100 rounds. “A lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals — that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities,” declared President Obama in the aftermath of Aurora. Most polls confirm they do.
As the press watchdog group, Media Matters, points out, contrary to the conventional wisdom touted by TV talking heads, three in five Americans support reinstating the nationwide ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. Other polls show that 86 percent support a criminal background check for all gun buyers; 63 percent are for a ban on high capacity magazines or clips; 69 percent support limits on the number of guns a person can purchase within a certain time frame; 66 percent support a national gun registry.
And yet there has been no significant effort to institute sensible limits on gun ownership in the United States.
While many see gun violence as symbolic of America’s uber-macho, cowboy culture, it is also indicative of a core flaw in modern democracy, which has become captive to minority interests. In India, most citizens agree on the urgent need for stricter measures to curb corruption — but to little avail. So why do we repeatedly see the will of the majority thwarted by a small number of influential people?
One reason is that all political debates are framed in polarizing extremes by media outlets — especially television — that thrive on conflict. The damage is incalculable and became evident in the trajectory of the anti-corruption movement in India. We were either going to embrace the Hazare version of the Lokpal bill or have no anti-corruption legislation at all. The gun debate similarly sets up a false choice: either ban all guns or remove all curbs on ownership.
The media also like to reduce all politics to personality. “The narrative almost always gets formed around the insanity, the extremism of that particular assailant and not a broader discussion of the number of firearms or number of fatalities due to firearms. That doesn’t do much to change public opinion. Immediately the discussion shifts back to ‘He called himself the joker and he had red hair,’” observes Dhavan Shah, a communications and political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
In India, the press was only too glad to focus on Anna at the expense of the broader (and more boring) issue of corruption. Does he advocate whipping alcoholics? Is he senile? Is he fighting with Arvind Kejriwal? Soon enough, Team Anna goes from hero to zero, and anti-corruption legislation is declared DOA.
The outcome is always a stalemate that favors the status quo.
The other reason is the self-serving nature of politics and politicians. No one wants to do anything that will jeopardize their career or their party or — in India — their personal wealth.
“When there is an extraordinarily heartbreaking tragedy like the one we saw, there’s always an outcry immediately after for action. And there’s talk of new reforms, and there’s talk of new legislation. And too often, those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere,” said Obama in his Aurora speech. And yet he too has no plans to propose new gun legislation in a reelection year. Be it corruption or gun control, there is a silent bipartisan consensus to do nothing.
A third reason is public apathy (as Obama gently puts it, our “attention,” or lack thereof). Sure, we all want things to be better, but not enough. Americans won’t take to the streets to change gun laws despite nearly 20 mass shootings a year.
In a democracy, those who care the most, win. And they’re often not the good guys.