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US Gun Violence: Why Mass Shootings And Killings Have Become Common

US laws allow citizens to buy and own guns. Political parties get massive funding from gun lobbies, who thwart strict regulation. The reasons why mass shootings and killings have become common

Amid Loss and Grief: A young girl holds a banner in Uvalde
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Gun violence is all-pervasive in America. But the gut-wrenching images that have angered and repelled the world are of mass shootings, where innocent children have been killed in their classrooms: at a place where children are supposed to be safe and protected. The injured, and those who survived, are traumatised and scarred for life. We need not go far back into history. The Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Connecticut in December 2012 rattled everyone, irrespective of which corner of the world they lived. As many as 26, including 20 children between the ages of six and seven, and teachers were killed by a lone gunman, who began the bloodbath by shooting his mother before proceeding to the school. He later turned the gun on himself. The shooter was a 20-year-old.

A decade later, in May 2022, another mass shooting at the Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, shook not just the US, but the rest of the world. Salvador Ramos, an 18-year old former student of the school, shot and killed 19 children and two teachers. This time, it was compounded by police inefficiency with the shooter roaming around the school looking for victims for about an hour, before being shot dead by law enforcers.

The shooter wrote ‘LOL’ with the blood of his victims on a classroom whiteboard, said Joe Moody, a Texas lawmaker at a hearing with the victims’ families. “The attacker scooped up the blood of his victims and smeared it into his disgusting message,” Moody said.

For the children of Sandy Hook, Uvalde brought back memories of their own horrific experience. “I couldn’t handle it. You hear about other shootings and it breaks you. But the fact that it was the exact same thing completely re-triggered me and my anxiety,” Nicole, who lived through the experience in her school as a second-grader, recalled in an interview with ABC News.

“I was just thinking about all the families that are in their houses right now, telling their children that their siblings, their friends and their classmates are gone,” Maggie, another student, told the channel. “It just really broke me to know that after 10 years of everyone giving us their thoughts and prayers; after 10 years of everyone saying, ‘Enough is enough’; and, ‘Never again after Sandy Hook’—it happened again.”

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Unforgettable: Families mourn together during a vigil Photo: Getty Images

And yet it keeps happening again and again. Perhaps not school shootings, but random killings at malls, churches, at night clubs and in the playground. The appeal from parents and students and communities has fallen on deaf ears.

Here are some stark facts. As of May 1 this year, an average of 115 deaths have taken place each day in the US. Roughly 13,959 persons have died from gun violence in the first four months of 2023, according to latest figures published by the Gun Violence Archive that tracks the shootings. Of those killed, 491 were teenagers and 85 were children. There have been 184 mass shootings, defined by the Archive as an incident where four or more people have been shot or killed. Mass shootings have led to 248 deaths and 744 injuries till the end of May. These are neither to do with national security nor are they terrorist-related deaths.

What is it about the US and guns? Why can’t a thriving democracy like the US ensure that guns don’t fall into the wrong hands? While mass shootings naturally grab headlines, gun violence is embedded in everyday American life. It is also a vastly divisive political issue with the nation sharply polarised over restrictions on gun sales. Much of this has to do with the early settlers and the American Constitution.

Easy access to guns and mental health issues are two of the major reasons for gun violence in America.

It is well-known that the early immigrants from Europe who went to the US had to fight the Red Indians and the wild animals as they took over the land bit by bit from various tribes who were the original inhabitants. Carrying firearms was a must. Older generations are familiar with Hollywood staples of spaghetti westerns and comic strips that glorified cowboys who fought the Red Indians. Lone Ranger and his horse, Silver, was a much loved gun-wielding hero of the past. The need to carry firearms for protection has been embedded in the American psyche since the beginning.

Moreover, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution protects citizens’ right to keep arms for self-defence. It was ratified in 1791 with several other articles in the Bill of Rights. This amendment has been raised every time legislation against gun laws is introduced in the US Congress. The amendment includes the right to carry weapons in public spaces with reasonable exceptions; this was the judgment delivered as late as 2022. Reasonable exception means mentally unstable individuals and felons.

The right to bear arms is regarded as sacred by the Republican Party that puts up a stiff resistance against changing or modifying the act. One of the most powerful supporters of gun rights in America is the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA, an advocacy group founded in 1871 as a recreational organisation to promote rifle shooting, has grown to become a powerful political force. It is committed to aggressively promote more guns to keep America safe. More guns means more sales. The gun industry rakes in a cool US $9 billion annually. The NRA plays an important part in US elections by funding Republican candidates who uphold the Second Amendment and are opposed to restrictions on gun use. According to ABC News, the NRA spends about US $2-5 million on funding Republican candidates who support its views.

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People visit memorials for the victims Photo: Getty Images

In its convention, held in April 2023 in Indianapolis, Republican presidential hopefuls were in full attendance. Former President Donald Trump and Vice President in his administration, Mike Pence, were listed as speakers. There was a video message from both Nicky Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Trump’s solution to school shootings is to provide teachers with firearms! He said at the convention that as President he would create a new tax credit to reimburse teachers for “the full cost of a concealed firearm and training from highly-qualified experts”. So, more guns, and not less, to solve America’s mass shootings, says Trump.

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Despite the daily trauma, the majority of Republicans refuse to budge on the issue egged on also by the aggressive pro-gun campaign of the NRA. It is not just the politicians and gun manufacturers that support more guns, many Americans, including public figures and celebrities, are against any attempt to ban the sale of guns. In the past, former Hollywood superstar Charlton Heston, who acted in movies like Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, were among the icons of the NRA. He spoke passionately about guns and was the biggest promoter of firearms. Chuck Norris and Whoopi Goldberg are members of the NRA and public campaigners for guns. Actor Tom Selleck is a supporter of the gun lobby. A-list actor Bruce Willis has responded to mass shootings by rejecting gun control.

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To most people outside the US, it is shocking that the response from the public is not stronger, considering how many lives are lost; the trauma of families; the long-term psychological impacts of those injured; and, others who witnessed the shootings—including post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. The insecurity often extends to the larger community as well.

David Riedman, who tracks gun violence in the US, founded the K-12 School Shooting Database after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, in 2018. He has compiled data on every school shooting—every time a firearm has been discharged on school property—dating back to 1970. He found 16 cases involving shooters under the age of 10. What is chilling is that three of them involved 6-year-old children. Two of those were ruled accidental. “There is a shooting almost every day at a grade school campus in the United States. There have been 164 so far in 2023,’’ Riedman told Outlook.

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“Many of the shootings at schools are targeted killings related to disputes and domestic situations. I have found that there are 16 different situations that shootings on campuses can be categorised into. Beyond the mass attacks like Parkland, Sandy Hook and Uvalde, there is systemic gun violence that impacts students every day,’’ Riedman adds.

Riedman’s grim picture is reflected in tweets by ordinary citizens. Take the series of tweets from Pepper Oceanna: “I was in 7th grade when my school went into lockdown, because a 9th grader had a gun. We had to wait for nearly an hour after school until the kid was apprehended. It breaks my heart that we live in a society where our government is in the pockets of the NRA and gun lobbyists. One day, one of these Congress people will lose a child, grandchild, niece or nephew to a mass shooting. I just hope they act before then, but I fear they won’t.” The anti-gun lobby is growing by the day, yet so far they have not succeeded in enforcing stricter laws on gun sales.

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Easy access to guns and mental health issues are two of the major reasons for gun violence in America. The pressure of modern living has led to people living in isolated silos with little communication with family and friends. Social media allows like-minded people to communicate, often living in different regions. It is easier for many to talk to expose their thoughts over the social media rather than talk to people in the family, school, or neighbourhood.

Today, shootings are no longer confined to the US. Incidents of gun violence are spreading across the world and India is no exception. The recent shooting of a young girl on the Shiv Nadar campus by a fellow student for rejecting his advances is a warning of things to come.

(This appeared in the print as 'Trigger-Happy')

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