America has a gun problem

How many times have we heard these five words before?
In 2012, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. In 2015, after the Chapel Hill shooting. And after the Charleston church shooting in the same year. In 2016, after the Pulse nightclub shooting. In 2017, after the Las Vegas shooting.

Just a couple of weeks ago, after the Stonewall Douglas High School shooting in Parkland Florida.

Everybody knows America has a gun problem. I wouldn’t be writing this article if it didn’t. For us non-Americans, it’s a very interesting and frustrating topic. Why haven’t they banned guns already? What’s taking them so long? How many more people need to die for them to realise there’s an issue, if someone can buy a gun so easily? We’ve asked ourselves these questions, and yet the answer is not simple.

I have lived in the States myself: I spent nine months in the Mid-western town of Cincinnati, Ohio. I lived with an American family, went to an American High School. By default, I lived an American life, doing American things.

I remember the first time we had a ‘Lockdown’ simulation at school. It’s the same principle like when a fire alarm goes off in the university library, with all students have to evacuate. Except that a ‘Lockdown’ simulation is for other types of emergencies; like the potential of a  school shooting.As my classmates and I were being evacuated, I thought to myself: it really doesn’t get more American than this. Looking back, I realise how strange and yet telling it is that I was not surprised by it. I just thought it was a normal procedure, and glad we were aware of how to deal with these situations if they were to arise. Just a couple of weeks earlier, a friend of mine was studying in Baltimore and found herself in the middle of a shooting while she was shopping with friends. Thankfully she was able to hide and escape, but the sound of the gunshots still haven’t left her memory.

Whenever I asked Americans who were pro-gun ownership about why they felt so strongly on guns and gun control, I often got the same answer: “We need them to protect ourselves”. I thought how  strange it was how threatened they felt in their daily life considering the vast majority of them lived in quiet, safe and rich suburbs. I wonder frequently, “What’s the worst that could happen? What’s to be so scared about, to need these weapons?”

David French, in his most recent article ‘What critics don’t understand about gun culture’, partly answers my questions: “We’ve learned the same lesson that so many others have learned. There are evil men in this world, and sometimes they wish you harm”. While this is undeniably true, there is something extremely important that French fails to mention: that what keeps evil men from becoming a danger is nothing but opportunity.

The opportunity could be perhaps, to be able buy a gun.

However, we need to understand that gun culture isn’t just about weapons. It’s not just about a father like David French who walks into Walmart and buys a gun so that he can protect his children. It’s about identity.

Being pro-gun means associating oneself with certain policies, politicians and most importantly socio-political opinions. Now more than ever, the gun debate is stained by the narrative of ‘us vs them’. Us, the people who buy and love guns. Them, the people who want to take them away, who undermine the freedom given to American citizens by the Second Amendment.

What many pro-gun Americans fail to understand is that gun control doesn’t mean taking away people’s guns, but having harsher background checks so that it is more difficult for “evil men” to gain access to weapons. Men who show signs of wanting to shoot up schools, men who commit domestic violence, men who are mentally unfit to carry a gun. There is no reason for these men to have these weapons; this is an opportunity for them to become ‘evil’.

I spoke about this with Jack Hanson, a British-American PhD researcher at the University of Strathclyde with knowledge and experience with firearms, and asked him why gun owners feel so threatened by the idea of background checks.

“Americans have an intrinsic distrust of ‘Big Government’,” he says. “It is taught that Americans are free because we have guns, we can resist tyranny because of guns. The idea of handing any information about guns to the State appears to be a betrayal of the intentions of the Second Amendment.”

The idea that the ability to buy weapons is directly proportional to being free is a recurrent theme of pro-gun arguments. It is not by hazard that the NRA, who are arguably the reason for the difficulty to pass gun control laws, describes itself as “America’s longest-standing civil rights organisation”. With the 5 million NRA members as “proud defenders of history’s patriots and diligent protectors of the Second Amendment”. It’s no coincidence either that Congress members who are pro-gun receive financial support by the NRA. Or that gun rights groups receive much more money in contributions than those supporting gun control. As the CNN found, gun rights groups have given Congress members nearly $13 million for their campaigns over the course of their careers. While gun control advocates have received just over $570,000.

Nearly $13 million dollars has been spent to protect the current laws on gun ownership, to halt any form of gun control.

I asked Jack whether he thought that being pro-gun control and still purchasing from the NRA (and therefore funding the NRA’s lobbying practices in Congress) was possible.

“Most of my interests are in old, mostly non-functioning, frontier rifles and the like. Americans should be allowed to own and carry firearms legally. Making them illegal will simply bring us back to the Prohibition era,” he said. “Regardless, the NRA is no doubt a corrupt organization and should be avoided at all costs. I have no interest in buying the available military hardware and will resist purchasing firearms and equipment from member companies. It is unnecessary and I believe that our laziness and desperation to be considered strong, in control, scary and safe contributes directly to the horrible things happening in the U.S.”

Jack also raised a point in regards to illegally purchased weapons, arguing that when talking of gun control, we should also focus on organised crime and “gangs who are unafraid to use” illegally obtained firearms. While it is true that organised crime and the illegal purchase of weapons are problems to be solved, I personally believe that America can’t solve these problems without tackling the entitlement that the gun industry has in the country first.

It all comes back to identity. As long as people feel like they can’t be safe without owning a gun, America will have a gun problem. As long as people see background checks as a threat to their right to freedom, America will have a gun problem. As long as people associate being American with owning a gun, America will have a gun problem.

There may be hope on the horizon however – the Stonewall Douglas students from Florida are showing us, the world, that change may be coming on gun control in America. They will make the change happen, for themselves., by themselves.

By Linda Mohamed