December 23, 2012
In his article, “America as a Gun Culture,” historian Richard Hofstadter popularized the phrase “gun culture” to describe America’s long-held affection for firearms, with many citizens embracing and celebrating the association of guns and America’s heritage. According to Hofstadter, the right to own a gun and defend oneself is considered by some, especially those in the South and the Southwest, as a central tenet of the American identity.
Today in America, a gun is status among too many. That’s why they call it an equalizer. And unfortunately what’s happening today is that everybody is getting more and more equal because everybody has one.
Given America’s gun culture, it is not surprising, but regrettable in my opinion, that the Supreme Court in District of Columbia vs. Heller held that Americans have a Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.” However, this does not mean that federal and state governments cannot pass and enforce gun control laws. In fact, most gun control laws have been found to be valid after the Supreme Court decision.
Unfortunately, the purchase and possession of guns in the U.S. is largely controlled by hundreds of state and local laws that collectively are inadequate to protect the populace. And American legislators too long have been overly responsive to the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby, in tandem with gunmakers and importers, military sympathizers, and far-right organizations.
In 2012, 151 people were physically wounded or killed in seven mass shootings. This figure includes the victims of similar but less lethal rampages in a Portland shopping mall, a Milwaukee spa, and a Cleveland high school. A portrait of each of these victims can be found in Mother Jones.
Was mental illness a factor in these mass shootings? Early reports are that the Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza had Asparger’s syndrome, a form of autism, which is considered a developmental disorder, not a mental illness. Asparger’s syndrome is not associated with violence. There is no evidence that Lanza had a history of violence or treatment for mental illness or was denied access to treatment. He did not buy the guns in question. Rather, he took the weapons used in the massacre from his mother’s gun collection. But the larger question is not whether Lanza was mentally ill, but whether he had a history of violence and anger.
The bottom line is that most people who commit violent acts are not mentally ill, and the vast majority of people with a mental illness are no more violent than anyone else. To suggest otherwise tends to stigmatize the mentally ill.
What’s outrageous in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings is that there is now a race to buy semi-automatic weapons in anticipation of a ban on such weapons. According to Bloomberg, for example, Walmart has reportedly sold out of semi-automatic rifles in five states, including Pennsylvania, Kansas and Alabama.
President Obama has tasked Vice President Joe Biden to lead an inter-agency task force to come up with concrete proposals to address gun violence by January. The NRA has called Biden the “most anti-gun vice president in American history,” and has an “F” rating from the pro-gun group for his voting record in the Senate. I take the NRA comment as a good sign that Biden is the right choice to lead the task force.
Senator Dianne Feinstein said she would introduce an assault weapons ban — which expired in 2004 — on the first day of Congress. As Senator Feinstein said on her campaign website: “Who needs these military-style assault weapons? Who needs an ammunition feeding device capable of holding 100 rounds? These weapons are not for hunting deer — they’re for hunting people.”
Hopefully, the U.S. is finally ready to get serious about meaningful gun control at the federal level. Maybe, the murder of 20 children and 7 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was the “tipping point.”
I recommend Tim Arnold’s excellent article, “America Faces Gun Culture Crossroads” on the types of gun control needed.