Vol. XLI No. 41 October 08, 2017

Mass Shootings, Gun Violence and the Pathology of the US as a Terror State

Prabir Purkayastha

THE Las Vegas mass shooting by a lone gunman, with a death toll of 59 and 527 injured, raises many questions. Why is the person involved – a 64-year Stephen Paddock – not being considered a terrorist by the police and the US administration? Why is gun violence so much higher in the US than any other country? And for the rest of the world, does the US invasion of other countries have any correlation with its gun violence? Or does reaching for the gun to shoot so easily, also encourage violence as a mode of “solving” international problems?

The easy one first – who is a terrorist in the US? From the president downwards, there is a reluctance to name any white man who goes on such a homicidal spree as a terrorist. Whiteness somehow converts any such perpetrator of violence, as acting not on his political beliefs, but because he is mentally disturbed. It does not matter, even if it is a man with white supremacist beliefs, who walks into a black church in Charlestown, South Carolina and shoots down 12 people, killing nine.

In the case of Muslims – whether they are mentally disturbed or not – does not matter. Based on the name alone, from Trump to the media, all of them  will immediately call it a terrorist attack. Mass shooting or violence is terrorist only if the person is not white.

Shaun King, in The Intercept (October 3, 2017), in his piece titled The White Privilege of the Lone Wolf Shooter, writes, “What we are witnessing is the blatant fact that white privilege protects even Stephen Paddock, an alleged mass murderer, not just from being called a terrorist, but from the anger, rage, hellfire, and fury that would surely rain down if he were almost anyone other than a white man. His skin protects him. It also prevents our nation from having an honest conversation about why so many white men do what he did, and why this nation seems absolutely determined to do next to nothing about it.” 

To others in the world, it raises a different question. Is there a deeper connection in the US peoples’ willingness to invade other countries, particularly those who are not white? Does the underlying Islamophobia that colours who is a terrorist, also make it easier to invade states simply because their populations are Muslim?

In a Washington Post op-ed (October 3, 2014), the military historian and former US Army Col. Andrew Bacevich wrote, “As America’s efforts to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State militants extend into Syria, Iraq War III has seamlessly morphed into Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV. That is, Syria has become at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that US forces have invaded or occupied or bombed, and in which American soldiers have killed or been killed. And that’s just since 1980.”

From who is a terrorist, let us move on to the other issue: gun violence. While periodically, we read about gun violence or mass shooting in the US, we are generally unaware of the extent of such mass shootings or the larger gun debate. Or its connection to the larger political debate in which right to bear arms – even assault rifles and semi automatic weapons –  overlap with race and political beliefs.

Let us look at simply the numbers. This year alone, according to the US non-profit Gun Violence Archive, there have been 273 mass shootings in the US. Deaths related to gun violence number 11,754, a number far higher – per hundred thousand population – than any other country in the world. Except those who are in a state of civil war. The US has 10.2 deaths due to gun related violence per hundred thousand people. This is 10 times more than Germany; or about 50 times more than India.

The US not only is a far more violent country than any other economically advanced one, it also has the highest number of guns per capita than any other country. By far. With only 4.4 per cent of world’s population, it has 42 per cent of world’s firearms that are with the civilian population! It is an addiction that is only becoming worse. As mass shootings in the US have risen, so has the support for the gun lobby. The Las Vegas shooting, led to an immediate rise in stock prices for gun companies. The minute people in the US hear about a mass shooting, they seem to go out and buy more guns.

The issue is not only simple numbers of how many guns, but the kind of guns. The US is one of the very few countries which allows assault rifles and semi automatic weapons to be bought and sold without regulations. The difference between these and fully automatic weapons is not in their fundamentals but in how they can be fired. Both have near identical features, and with very few alterations, a semi automatic weapon can be converted into a fully automatic one that can fire continuously. A semi-automatic weapon fires once per trigger pull – it cannot be fired continuously unlike an automatic one.

For the rest of the world, it is difficult to see a civilian use of assault rifles and semi automatic guns. Why would anyone use it for hunting, supposedly the only civilian use for such rifles?

How did Stephen Paddock fire nearly a thousand bullets, if not thousands, in a time of 9 to 11 minutes, the time before he was taken down? Did he have illegal automatic weapons in his possession?

Unless they are pre-1986 vintage, the US tightly regulates automatic weapons. However, the semi automatic weapons can be converted to near automatic ones with simple additions, and are not regulated. One such addition is what is called a bump-stock, which can easily be fitted into a semi automatic one. Here the person firing “pulls” the trigger only once, the recoil of the weapon moves it back and forth, therefore making it fire continuously. It degrades the accuracy of the weapons, and makes it unsuited for hunting.

The way an automatic weapon has been defined in the US law, this device is “legal” even if it converts a semi automatic weapon into an automatic one. With such a device, a magazine of 100 bullets can be fired in about 12-15 seconds.

Paddock had 23 weapons in his hotel room, some fitted with such bump-stocks. He also had a number of magazines, holding a large number of bullets. He was firing into a packed audience of 22,000 people; he did not even have to aim – just point and pull the trigger, letting the gun do the rest. He did not even have to shoot all his victims, the stampede would have killed many more, as we know from the Elphinstone overbridge stampede. The stampede was as deadly as the mass shooting that triggered it.

While gun control is a recurring theme in US politics, its racial overtones should not be forgotten. The National Rifle Association supporters in the US, are right wing, much more likely to be sympathetic to white “nationalism”, and the demography that brought Trump to power. Michael Moore, in his film “Bowling for Columbine”, has traced the gun violence in the US, not to the easy availability of guns, but to racism and slavery. It is the fear in the white population of the freed slaves that promote gun culture and gun violence. While such a connection may be arguable, what is not open to debate is the disproportionate support in the white population for the gun lobby.

Is the gun violence in the US related to its wars abroad? Can the psyche of a country remain unaffected when its soldiers go and kill all the villagers in order to “save the village”? As in My Lai? Or when it is easier to fire at anything that moves, as in Iraq and Afghanistan than think about civilian casualties? Or when the US civilian bombing obliterates most of Mosul or Raqqa including its civilians?

We cannot know the pathology of an individual. Statistically, we cannot analyse individuals. But we can, when it comes to collectives. It is the pathology of the US state that makes it the number one terror state in the world. And it is this pathology of the terror state that correlates very well with the mass shootings in the US.