Vol. XLII No. 09 March 04, 2018

Never Again – Guns and the Culture of Violence

R Arun Kumar

THE rampant gun culture and shooting of innocents has claimed the lives of 17 young school students and their teacher in Parkland, Florida, US on February 14. This is one of the deadliest high school massacres in the history of the US. Since 2012, there have been more than 1,600 mass shootings, killing more than 1,800 people and wounding more than 6,400. In fact, four of the five deadliest gun rampages were in the past year and a half, after Donald Trump assumed presidency. The shooting at the Parkland High School follows a series of mass shootings in late 2017, one at a church in Texas and the other at an outdoor country music concert in Las Vegas. According to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but holds 31 per cent of global mass shooters”. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate of Canada, more than seven times that of Sweden, and nearly 16 times that of Germany, according to United Nations data compiled by The Guardian.

These incidents have once again placed the debate of gun control forcibly before the public agenda, this time with the survivors of the school shooting leading the charge for the proponents. A major aspect missing from the entire debate is the link between the imperial policies pursued by the US and its impact on the prevalent ‘gun culture’.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is the most vocal opponent of any government control over the right of individuals to own a gun. It identifies such a control as an infringement on the rights of the individuals guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US constitution. NRA is a very powerful organisation, funded in large part by small arms manufacturers. It has connections across the political divide in the US, but chiefly, its supporters are in the Republican Party. According to analysts, Trump received over $30 million from the NRA during his presidential campaign. The NRA and other gun-rights organisations spent nearly $55 million in the 2016 election – nearly 19 times the amount spent by groups promoting gun restrictions. The NRA has 5.5 times the budget revenues as the four top national gun control groups combined. With such huge monetary resources and the accruing political access, NRA succeeded in blocking any restriction on curtailing gun ownership. Even Obama, who vowed to impose restrictions, could do nothing but shed tears after the tragic school shooting in 2012 (Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults). Now with Trump as the president – the first president since Ronald Reagan – who attended their national convention, they are pretty confident about their ‘rights’ being protected, in spite of massacres that happen around the country.

The survivors of the Parkland shooting have taken upon themselves challenging the NRA, established politicians and their views on gun ownership. These student survivors are leading protests organised by thousands of people. Most were high school and college students locked arm-in-arm with the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ activists who also have been victims of gun violence. The students behind the march have also formed a group, #NeverAgain. There are several reasons why the protests organised for gun control are getting noticed now.

One of the important factors is the age of the students. They are in their late teens, who responded immediately after evacuating the building by going before the media and expressing their ire before the entire world to show exactly what they were feeling. These students are also benefiting from a broader national environment in the US that is ripe for activism. They are joining the protests like the ‘Me Too’ movement that has led to the downfall of several Hollywood big wigs, prominent personalities, including politicians; protests against Trump's attempts to ban travelers from majority-Muslim countries and the protests against racial attacks – Black Lives Matter. These have given them the confidence to believe that they can affect a change. Being young, they have refused to buy the arguments of status quo made by some ‘adults’ who argue about the difficulties in getting a legislation passed. They are looking at things differently – with a belief in affecting a change and making the world a better place. This is visible in all their protests, conduct, speeches and whenever they are confronting the law makers in person.

As a result of their efforts, Trump was forced to order a Justice Department crackdown on bump stocks and propose tougher background checks on gun buyers. They've made the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos call for congressional hearings and sparked marches, protests and school walkouts around the country. Still, they have a long way to go. For the average American, the ‘gun issue is one on which they have opinions, but it’s not a top tier issue’, as the connect between their bread and butter issues and gun control are not exposed.

It is because of this limitation that Trump, backed by the NRA money bags, is desperately trying to derail the issue by offering to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health.” Beyond that, he said, he will consider a proposal to arm school teachers in an attempt to prevent mass shootings. These diversionary tactics are exposed by Michael Stone, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who maintains a database of mass shooters. According to his analysis, only 52 out of the 235 killers in the database, or about 22 per cent, had mental illnesses.

Interestingly, Trump had mentioned an important thing in his discussion with the public attorney of Florida: “The fact is that you are having movies come out, that are so violent, with the killing and everything else, that maybe that's another thing we need to discuss”. Further, Kentucky governor Matt Bevin said “We have a cultural problem in America... You look at the ‘culture of death’ that is being celebrated….It’s garbage. It’s the same as pornography. They have desensitised people to the value of human life, to the dignity of women, to the dignity of human decency”. While these observations are true to the point, there is an important lacuna in their arguments. Both of them, in spite of what they had stated above, also emphatically argue that “guns are not the problem”.

It is pertinent to look into the role of State in perpetuating the ‘culture of death’ in the American society. Researchers have accessed nearly 4,000 pages of documents from the Pentagon and the CIA through the Freedom of Information Act. According to these official documents, the US military intelligence agencies (including the NSA) have influenced over 1,800 movies and TV shows produced by the Hollywood. These included blockbuster franchises of Marvel, DC, which includes movies such as Transformers, Iron Man, and The Terminator. On television, Flight 93, Ice Road Truckers, Army Wives, 24, Homeland, NCIS, reality shows like America Got Talent, talk shows of Oprah and Jay Leno, documentaries by PBS, the History Channel and the BBC were all influenced by the US government’s department of defence. It is now established unequivocally for the first time that the ‘security State’ has supported thousands of hours of entertainment. And then there are the growing number of video games, a number of which are engineered by or created for the military, which have accustomed players to interactive war play through military simulations and first-person shooter scenarios.

The reason for government’s involvement as Professor Henry Giroux points out: “Popular culture not only trades in violence as entertainment, but also it delivers violence to a society addicted to a pleasure principle steeped in graphic and extreme images of human suffering, mayhem and torture”. This combination of military with entertainment is labeled as ‘militainment’, whose purpose is to glorify war, military and earn support to America’s increasing military interventions and expanding military empire. It is also intended to silence people from questioning the increasing defence expenditures of the successive governments, even in the background of severe economic crisis and increasing income and wealth inequalities. The US today, spends more money on war than the combined military budgets of China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, Italy and Brazil. It has over 800 military bases and troops stationed in 160 countries. It is intended to blind the people from realising the fact that the United States is the number one consumer, exporter and perpetrator of violence and violent weapons in the world.

The over-the-counter availability of lethal weapons act as catalysts in the background of military invasions, government sponsored glorification of violence and widening inequalities. To ensure that the incidents of mass shootings are not repeated, though necessary, it is not sufficient to enact more gun control measures, or increase the presence of armed police and surveillance.

They had unambiguously declared that ‘there cannot be two sides to doing everything in our power to ensure the lives and futures of children who are at risk of dying when they should be learning, playing, and growing’. And, the movement for change, ‘starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard’.

In order to realise the ‘change’, they have announced their future course of action. Along with the Women’s marches, a national school walkout for 17 minutes (one minute for every person killed in Parkland) has been planned on March 14 and on March 24, a ‘March For Our Lives’, is planned in Washington. The students have already joined with the women’s, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ groups. This alliance should be further broadened to include the trade unions and other organisations of the working people, to become a formidable force.

These voices need to be heard. They will sure be heard.