Friday, July 27, 2012

Gun Play

When a heavily armed psychopath began murdering members of the audience at a screening of the newest Batman movie in Colorado last Friday, it was mid-morning in Finland. Almost immediately, there was blanket coverage of the rampage on the three biggest cable news channels I receive here in Helsinki.

CNN switched to its US-based broadcast, which we see in Finland only when something big happens back home. Also, the BBC and Sky News ran a non-stop live feed of the scene outside the Century 16 cinema, bathed in red neon in the early morning Colorado darkness.

I hate to admit it, but as I flipped back and forth between CNN, BBC and Sky, part of me was surprised by the saturation coverage of the events in Aurora. A thought, perhaps a callous one, occurred to me: “Why all the fuss? Doesn’t this happen all the time?”

For some, guns are at the center of the US
presidential election.
Well, maybe not quite. After all, there hasn’t been a killing spree in the US on this scale in at least three years, not since 2009, when 14 people were killed in a rampage in Binghamton, New York, then ten others in another mass shooting in Alabama, and finally 13 in a third attack at Fort Hood, Texas. All in one year.

The Ft. Hood rampage gained lots of media attention, also oversees (the shooter was a Muslim and an active-duty U.S. Army officer), but I can’t recall ever hearing about either of the other two incidents earlier that year.

And then there was Virginia Tech. This horrific murder of 32 people in 2007 remains the national’s deadliest rampage by a single gunman and a particularly ugly scar on the national character.

Maybe an even uglier scar is the fact that less attention-grabbing mass shootings do take place practically “all the time”. 

Three days prior to the shooting in Aurora, 17 people were shot in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, none fatally. Six days before that, four young people were wounded in Chicago. Two days before that, five people were shot, three fatally, in a shootout at a soccer tournament in Delaware. (Yes, a shootout – reportedly some spectators joined in.) Three days before that, July 9, saw 22 people shot (three to death) in separate incidents in Chicago on a particularly violent Friday night. Four days earlier, six people were wounded at a party in Seattle, one later dying, and to wrap up this grim litany, three people were wounded, one fatally, on July 1, again in Chicago. 

That’s just for July, this year – and, of course, that’s not counting the Aurora shooting. I suspect it’s not a comprehensive listing.

Clearly, the shooting in less than three weeks of 57 people, resulting in seven fatalities, makes gun deaths in America an all-too-routine affair. It’s a predictable part of American life.

And it’s one of the ways that the US truly is exceptional. America’s bizarrely intense love affair with guns sets it apart. I recently saw a comment on the Internet from a defender of America’s gun culture who tried to push back on the notion that the US is abnormally gun-happy. He pointed out that, despite the dismal picture gun-control advocates often paint of gun violence in America, things are much worse in some other parts of the world. Such as in Africa.

When conservatives start trying to score points by comparing the US favorably to the third world, you know they’re grasping at straws. (To be fair, like most people who make comments on the Internet, this guy was definitely not the 21st century answer to William F. Buckley, Jr.)

It is true, though, that the US isn’t the world’s most deadly country. On a per capita basis, the level of gun violence in the US is far below that of such places as Honduras, Jamaica and Venezuela. (A relative of mine who used to live in Venezuela once saw a enraged motorist with a pistol threaten another driver who had cut him off during the morning rush hour, firing a couple of shots just over the terrified man's head.)

Turbulent states such as Colombia are not typically the kind of nations America likes to benchmark itself against. But, when it comes to gun violence, it has no choice. Compared to other developed and stable countries, the US seems like a banana republic, with a rate of gun deaths a level of magnitude higher than any European country, Canada, or Australia.

In 2009, which admittedly was a bad year for mass killing in America (and Finland, too), there were 24 gun-related homicides here, opposed to 9,416 in the US. That’s four gun deaths per million Finns, versus 30 in the US. And this is just murders, not deaths from suicide or accidental gunshots.

Europeans justifiably wonder why my countrymen put up with such a situation, and the truth is Americans are okay with it. Of course, no one is happy about incidents like the Aurora shooting, but such bouts of violence is a price most Americans seem willing to pay to be able to stockpile their own little arsenal of firearms. How else can you explain the fact that, in the wake of last week's shooting, gun sales have spiked in Colorado, gun owners have insisted everything is fine the way it is, and no politician on the national stage dares utter the words “gun control”?

The reason for this is America’s particular fetish for guns, but also fear, if not fear of actual crime, then fear inspired by the foreboding threats of a powerful nation-wide syndicate that spreads its own brand of panic and paranoid – by which, of course, I mean the National Rifle Association.

1 comment:

  1. You're just scratching the surface. Gun deaths in the USA routinely hit about 30K a year. 100K a year are shot.

    The USA is in many, many, many ways a madhouse. If any nation has proven beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt that there should be no private ownership of guns, it is the USA.