I have a confession to make. A few months ago, I visited a gun range for the first time. I was on holiday in Texas and I was bored and curious.
I also happened to be with two friends – but only one of us had ever fired a weapon before (spoiler alert: it wasn’t me). “That’s fine,” said a smiling woman at the front desk, before explaining that if one of us could demonstrate how to operate the safety catch on a handgun, we could all use the range. (Huh?)
Moments later, we were handed an array of automatic and semi-automatic weapons. “Was it really this easy to get hold of a gun in America?” I wondered to myself, as I unloaded round after round into the paper target in front of me. It was a bizarre and – I hate to admit this, especially in the wake of the latest mass shooting, in Las Vegas – exhilarating experience.
Like cars and French fries, guns are everywhere in the United States. You see them on television and in movies; in the holsters of police officers and security guards. They’re even available for purchase at your local Walmart. The US is one of only three countries in the world whose constitutions guarantee a right to bear arms. (Guatemala and Mexico are the other two.)
Today, not only are Americans ten times more likely to be killed with a gun than people in other industrialised nations, but the US also has the highest gun-ownership rate in the world (Yemen is in a distant second place). The average US gun owner owns eight firearms. The Las Vegas gunman had 42 guns: the police found 23 in his hotel room and 19 in his house.
So will Las Vegas, now the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, result in the US finally tightening up its gun laws? Don’t. Be. Silly. The debate over gun control is similar to the one over climate change. Records keep getting smashed, lives keep being lost, the experts line up on one side of the argument and yet… Republican politicians, lobby groups and big donors tag-team to guarantee that nothing is done.
Remember: 90 per cent of political donations from the National Rifle Association (NRA) go to members of the Republican Party, and the vast majority of the NRA’s five million committed members are only too willing to campaign for GOP candidates in swing seats. During the Republican primaries, the Texas senator Ted Cruz released a video showing him cooking a strip of bacon on the barrel of his machine gun. The former Florida governor Jeb Bush tweeted the word “America” over an image of a handgun with his name inscribed on it.
The NRA spent $30m in support of Donald Trump, who went from being a supporter of a “ban on assault weapons” in 2000 to promising the NRA that he’d eliminate “gun-free zones” in 2016. Since coming to office, Trump has revoked an Obama-era regulation that made it harder for people with mental illness to buy guns. (Does that include himself? Just asking.)
To be clear: right-wing Republicans have been bought and paid for by an extremist gun lobby. But wasn’t it ever thus? No. The Republican president Richard Nixon called guns an “abomination” and wanted a total ban on handguns. As governor of California, Ronald Reagan – who was later shot with a gun acquired at a pawn shop – backed a 15-day waiting period for firearm purchases. In 1995, George Bush, Snr, quit the NRA in disgust after its boss, Wayne LaPierre, described federal agents as “jack-booted thugs”.
Most Americans are unaware that the NRA started out in 1871 as an organisation dedicated to promoting gun safety and shooting as a sport; in 1934, its then president, Karl T Frederick, told Congress: “I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licences.”
It was only in the late 1970s that the NRA morphed into a politically active, hard-right lobby group, loudly opposed to any and all proposals for gun control and willing to target any politician, Republican or Democrat, who stood in its way. To quote LaPierre in 2012: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
So who needs Islamic State when you have the NRA? That might sound hyperbolic but consider the numbers. By the morning after the Las Vegas shooting, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there had been 11,656 gun-related deaths in the United States in 2017. Among the dead were 545 children. And what’s the death toll from Isis-related terror attacks on US soil this year? Zero.
In 1970, the historian Richard Hofstader wrote a seminal essay called “America as a Gun Culture”. Referring to the lack of popular support for gun control, he asked: “One must wonder how grave a domestic gun catastrophe would have to be in order to persuade us. How far must things go?”
Thirty-seven years later we continue to “wonder”. After all, what kind of “catastrophe” has not already happened? Shooting kids in a primary school? Sandy Hook, 2012. Shooting US military personnel inside their barracks? Fort Hood, 2009. Shooting a pastor and his congregation inside their church? Charleston, 2015. Shooting serving members of Congress? Gabby Giffords, 2011. Steve Scalise, 2017.
“No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction,” President Obama pointed out at a prayer vigil for the victims of Sandy Hook in December 2012. “Surely we can do better than this.”
Five years – and at least 150,000 dead Americans – later, it turns out that the United States can’t do any better. Or just won’t. To quote the now legendary headline from the satirical paper the Onion: “‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens.”
This article appears in the 04 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer