The massacre of children and their teachers in Connecticut has once again generated two questions with no real answers: why did this horrific event happen and how is another preventable? Similar questions emerge elsewhere around the world when such tragedies occur, as in Norway, Japan, Scotland, Russia, or even China. They have also challenged Germans after similar school shootings in the towns of Winnenden and Emsdetten over the past several years. It seems that no one is immune from the terror of random violence.
Yet the constant wave of deaths in the United States through gunfire is uniquely horrific. It is not only the numbers that are shocking—thirty thousand lives lost annually to gun violence, a number that is expected to overtake annual U.S. automobile related deaths within the next five years. It is also the combination of the rivers of guns streaming through American society at flood levels along with the pornographic presentation of those guns permeating the media watched every day by tens of millions of Americans. The temptation of some sick minds to transfer their fantasies into reality with the help of a gun is omnipresent. Add to that the underlying drumbeat of those who wish to dress the right of gun ownership in the costume of citizen protection from a fiendish government and the result is a domestic arms race that is reminiscent of the Cold War period.
In contrast to other democracies, the American preoccupation with guns is different. It is as much a symbol as it is a means to an end. Millions of Americans own guns for multiple purposes, be it hunting or simply firing them at target ranges. There must be a sense of empowerment in that. Millions more have also used guns given to them to kill others in wars fought going back decades, if not centuries. Yet—with some exceptions—that did not transfer people into monsters that turned these guns on others back home, perhaps because of the horrors they witnessed in battle. Finally, there are those who choose to identify gun ownership as a benchmark of the citizen rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, whether they own guns or not.
The fascination with guns in the U.S. is stirred by the symbolism of those who used them against threats, be they the sheriffs who faced down outlaws in the Wild West or victorious soldiers over enemies in war. However, over the past several decades such symbolism has found new avenues to reach an even greater audience through virtual wars and battles that can be easily glorified in video games and films. It is not an accident that the perpetrators of the recent killing sprees in Connecticut, Arizona, Colorado, Virginia, and elsewhere in the U.S. were carried out by younger people without so much of an ideology as an undecipherable anger. And the ability to express that anger with easy access to militarized weaponry expands their capacity exponentially to kill others, including themselves.
There is no way to wish away the existence of guns regardless of their killing capacity. Guns of all types are made, sold, and bought in the U.S. in enormous numbers—roughly 5.4 million guns were produced in the U.S. in 2009 alone, with average annual firearm revenue around $11 billion. The industry is also supported by an extremely powerful and influential lobbying group known as the National Rifle Association (NRA). However, guns are also made and sold in many places—including in Europe—where the rate of gun related deaths is far below that of the United States at almost ninety deaths daily. We also cannot wish away the dangers of mental illness or criminal forces that are often at work. A glance around the world will only confirm the prevalence of violence virtually everywhere one might look. Yet each country needs to address the way debates over policy choices dealing with both these challenges are framed.
In the U.S., the debate over who and what is to blame for this continuous bleeding is driven in part by those who argue that the problem is not the guns, but rather those who choose to use them for violent purposes. In contrast, those who do not accept that argument believe that there must be greater efforts to contain the proliferation of guns, while also focusing on the potential dangers of mental illness.
There is no credibility to the argument by those in the U.S. who rely on the constitutional reference to protect gun ownership against the threat of a potential dictatorship. Stricter gun regulation has not impeded the systems of European democracies, or that of Canada, or even in East Asia, which all have more civil liberties protections for their citizens than the U.S. There is no instance of imminent danger to today’s advanced industrial democracy of turning into a dictatorship because of gun control regulations. There is, however, credibility in focusing on the mental health of all citizens, including the ability to recognize when people need help while also providing the social structure to help sustain themselves. The need to own an assault rifle or machine gun to accomplish that is, at a minimum, questionable.
Europeans looking across the Atlantic at this latest tragedy cannot afford condescension. The dangers of such violence are all too prevalent to believe that anyone is immune, and those dangers can assume different appearances—the German police are currently pursuing the perpetrators of a bomb plot that occurred in Bonn just last week. What is dangerous is the spread of the disease of gun proliferation, which can only be met by common cause. That would involve both the production as well as the spread of high-powered assault weapons. That ought to be a discussion point of transatlantic cooperation.
The possibility of such cooperation and action will be dependent on the readiness of the American side to recognize its own addiction, as well as on other countries hoping to avoid the same tragedies so frequent and painful as those today in Newtown—the latest in a lengthening line of victims of gun violence.