By Shivaji Sengupta
Greek statues, with bullet-holes for eyes
Blinded as Eros, with surprise,
Lover and loved…(Lawrence Durrell)
Yes, it has happened again and again and again…This time in Santa Clara, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Nine people were killed by a disgruntled worker of the Valley Transportation Authority. One of the dead was a Sikh-American, Taptejdeep Singh.
As someone vehemently opposed to unauthorized use of guns, I feel utterly frustrated at the futility of writing articles like this one. Since 2016, this is the fourth piece I am writing pleading to bring back the gun-control laws passed during the presidency of Bill Clinton. To no avail. What is it in our national DNA that we must suffer at sickening intervals mass murders like these, witness the loss of innocent lives?
Each time we mourn for a few days, politicians posture, journalists
pontificate. Then everything returns to the new normal.
Whether anything changes or not, it is worth asking why not? I have an answer but is an answer that everyone knows. So, this article will attempt to explain the cause of our wayward and cruel gun behavior, and
the cynicism with which Congress reacts.
First, the answer: Americans lack historical awareness, living too much in the excitement of the moment; secondly, we worship guns.
Those who favor minimal laws in the control of guns have a favorite meme, “guns don’t kill people; people do.” As redundant as this
aphorism is, it’s worthwhile to examine the saying.
Historically, it seems to me, two geopolitical reasons play into our obsession with individuals having the right to own guns. When the first Europeans came into this country they were mesmerized by the
vast openness of this land, particularly compared to the limited European
land-areas and population density. The natives who inhabited this land were innocent and willing to share what they had with the Europeans. But the latter wanted it all for themselves. So, along with the wild animals they needed to hunt for food, they hunted down the natives, killing or
conquering them, defenseless as they were without guns.
Most people since Howard Zin’s landmark “An Alternate History of the United States,” know this (although some dispute it). What most people do not consciously realize, however, is that the vastness of this land forced the Europeans to be often separated from each other, thus being alone, in constant danger of wild animals and the slowly resistant natives who were beginning to retaliate after being violently treated by the intruders. Guns became lifesavers.
There was also another reason for the popularity of guns, making for a
curious coincidence. According to the Stanford University historian, Priya Satia, the European sojourn to America roughly coincided with the popularity and rise of slave-trade. Guns became an immensely soughtafter item along with the slaves. Europeans carried loads of guns, of
various types to West Africa, the heart of the trade activity. In doing so, they not only procured slaves, but varieties of guns which they brought back to America, and, indeed, traded some of them to the very natives
they sought to eliminate. Says Satia, during the eighteenth-century guns became a big part of trade, particularly among the British in their relations with American natives and the Indians in India. In each country, they wielded guns to keep the natives in check. Guns were used in so many multiple ways – as weapons, currency, and high symbolic value –that it became impossible to regulate them, particularly here in America where the distance from the seat of government, such as Virginia or Washington D.C., from the South or the Midwest, made it impossible to
monitor people’s warlike behavior and control them. The result was the Cowboy vigilante phenomenon glorified by Hollywood, where bandits like the Lone Ranger took on the role of good cops hunting down bad elements. The cowboys further popularized the mystique of guns by excelling in sharp shooting with revolvers. (It is a curious coincidence that our erstwhile president, Ronald Reagan, himself acted in many of these “cowboy” movies during his quite a long film career!). Cowboys – and their guns – were part myth, part history.
But real history also lent a hand. The lesson the American founders learned after the
Revolutionary War that ended in Britain’s defeat in 1776, was that they
could not trust the red coats (British) as the latter continued to raid and maraud the local people. So, better be always prepared. The Second Amendment, in fact, was created to allow local people, physically far removed from government, to form “militia.” Hence, the necessity for guns.
However, because people in those days understood that the Second Amendment was about making sure that there would be no return of tyrannical rule like that of the Brititish, it only applied to military guns. It was never about an individual’s private, personal right to own guns. Somewhere along the line, all that changed.
As I see it, it is the myth of the Cowboys, along with the history of continuous non-stop, but ultimately unsuccessful, raids by the British to reverse the results of their defeat, that consolidated the American ethos of guns. As the twentieth century arrived, and the threat of the British completely receded, guns were ostensibly seen as a sport utility item used for hunting, they continued
to reign in American hearts as symbolic value. They symbolized freedom.
Regarding freedom, here again most Americans suffer under a misconception, confusing freedom with liberty. The two are not the same. Abraham Lincoln was aware of this distinction.
Freedom is environmental, a state of being for an entire people in a country. Liberty
is individual, a person’s right not to be forced and coerced to do, or not do, something he or she does not want. Lincoln rightly believed that in order to preserve freedom individuals need to give up some of their liberties. Immediately after the Civil War, he had asked Congress to pass gun-control laws to severely restrict individual ownership of guns at a time when, in the aftermath of the Civil War, they had become ubiquitous. What an irony that, soon after, the president was himself assassinated with a handgun! And not only Lincoln; two other presidents, William McKinley and John Kennedy were killed by handguns. Another two – Theodore Roosevelt’s and Ronald Reagan’s – lives were attempted. It was Lincoln’s call for individuals to give up guns that was partly responsible for his assassination. It was an affront to the Americans’ sense of individual liberty. Frederich Hayak, an eminent Conservative American philosophical, explains this obsession very well.
The problem here is that Americans have a knee-jerk reaction to coercion which is the chief culprit responsible for the loss of liberty. When I try to deprive you of one of your rights using superior logic, I am coercing you to do my will. Substituting “gun” here for “rights” we will understand why many Americans will not give it up. They won’t be coerced out of what the Second Amendment has given them. We will use guns, and mourn the dead with flowers, they say.
Listen to what Meghan McCain, an enormously respected Conservative, says about stricter gun control. “The AR-15 is by far the most popular gun in America, by far… I was just in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, if you’re talking about taking people’s guns from them, there’s going to be a lot of violence.” Tucker Carlson echoed McCain’s blood-soaked sentiment on his broadcast in Fox. “So, this is it—what you are calling for is civil war,” he said. “What you are calling for is an incitement to violence….I wouldn’t want to live here when that happened, would you? I’m serious!” Erick Erickson, another prominent conservative columnist, also warned of tragedy. “I know people who keep AR-15’s buried because they’re afraid one day the government might come for them,…I know others who are stockpiling them. It is not a stretch to say there’d be violence if the government tried to confiscate them.” Matt Gaetz, the controversial member of the House, said in Georgia yesterday that the Second Amendment is not about protecting hunting as a sport, not about games, but to protect ourselves from the overreach of government, to fight back if they tamper with our freedom. Although the Congressman did add that he hopes such a day never arrives, his warning rings ominous.
So there you have it. Those of us who vehemently oppose indiscriminate use of guns by all and sundry, and argue in favor of strict (not stricter) gun control, need to be aware of these sentiments.
Add to this sentiment the immense dollar volume the gun industry generates, and the powerful gun lobby that the National Rifle Association generates. The NRA contribute to the election of conservatives in Congress, and we have an impossible situation.
Gun control laws have fluctuated in the United States, ranging from practically no laws from the American Revolution which ended in 1776, till well into the twentieth century. In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law, restricting possession of guns, and redefined terms likei “fire arms,” and ” hand guns.” That trend of legal control of handguns continued with some exceptions right into the Clinton presidency. But in 2008 and 2010, landmark decisions were taken by the Supreme Court that turned the tide back toward easier ownership of guns and, what is worse, of assault rifles that Congress had banned during President Clinton. Since Donald Trump, the floodgate of gun ownership, and indiscriminate killings of the masses have become legion.
From 1992-2000, the Clinton years, 101 people were killed from mass shootings. From 2001-2008, during George W. Bush, 105. That number went up to 276 in the next eight years, and to 436 between 2017 and 2020. Of the 276 killed during the Obama presidency, there were 96 killed by handguns between 2009 and 2011, and 180 between 2012 and 2015, after Supreme Court’s landmark decisions mentioned above.
According to the 𝑁𝑒𝑤 𝑌𝑜𝑟𝑘 𝑇𝑖𝑚𝑒𝑠, not only were people who already had guns buying more, but people who had never owned one were buying them too. New preliminary data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center show that about a fifth of all Americans who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners. And the data, which has not been previously released, showed that new owners were less likely than usual to be male and white. Half were women, a fifth were Black and a fifth were Hispanic. In all, the data found that 39 percent of American households own guns. That is up from 32 percent in 2016.
With guns, people will kill; without guns they will forfeit their happiness.
Happiness is a warm gun. The reference is to the Beetles song when I was a teenager. I remember another hard rock album, Guns and Roses. The jacket had a smoking pistol, a bright red rose with a teardrop.
Somehow, these songs befit America.