There was a mass shooting in the United States on 6 September. A lone gunman, armed with a legally purchased 9mm pistol and a stunning 250 rounds of ammunition, walked into an office building in downtown Cincinnati and opened fire. He killed three people and wounded two others. Dozens more might have died had his gun not jammed.
You probably didn’t hear about any of this. Why would you? Mass shootings have become normalised in the US. Politicians offer only “thoughts and prayers”; journalists take less and less interest. The Cincinnati shooting barely registered in the Donald Trump-obsessed news cycle. Nor did the arrest of a 12-year-old boy who arrived at his school in Iowa on 31 August with a loaded handgun and tried to shoot his teacher and fellow pupils.
Friends and family in the UK often ask me: “What do you hate most about living in America?” My answer is always the same: “Guns”. The horrific epidemic of mass shootings. The ludicrously easy access to firearms. The ridiculous power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
Here in the US, guns are everywhere. Virginia, where I live, is an “open carry” state, which means it is legally permissible to carry a firearm in public. My halal butcher is located right next door to a gun store. My commute to Washington, DC requires driving past the imposing headquarters of the NRA. The Walmart round the corner from my house sells both guns and ammo.
What disturbs me most about living in a country filled with legally acquired firearms, however, is the widespread fear and anxiety; the terrifying realisation that you could be shot and killed at any time, in any place. A cinema. A school. A college. A church. A nightclub. A video games tournament.
I hate having to admit to this nagging, perhaps irrational fear of random gun violence; to even having changed my behaviour since moving to the US in 2015. I now refuse to use my horn at a reckless driver who cuts me off on the freeway. What if he pulls out a gun? I can’t watch my kid perform in a school play without also keeping one eye on the hall doors. What if, God forbid, a nutjob with an AR-15 were to walk in? I can’t even be relaxed in the presence of police officers: these days, plenty of people of colour in the US fear being shot by armed police almost as much as they do by armed criminals.
The fear works both ways. Surveys suggest that American gun-owners no longer cite hunting or target shooting as their main reason for buying and possessing firearms; they cite personal security. This is despite a dramatic fall in violent crime in the US over the last 25 years. “When I look at our survey, what I see is a population that is living in fear,” said Deborah Azrael, one of the lead authors of a 2015 study of US gun ownership by Harvard and Northeastern universities. “They are buying handguns to protect themselves against bad guys, they store their guns ready-to-use because of bad guys, and they believe that their guns make them safer.” (Spoiler alert: they don’t!)
It’s politically incorrect, though, to point out that the fear expressed by gun-owners is racially tinged. Guns have long been seen as protection for white folks against black and brown folks – yesterday’s Apaches and Sioux are today’s Mexicans and Muslims. “Be careful what you say about guns,” American friends of mine often warn me. “Remember what happened to Piers Morgan?”
Foreigners in the US are frequently told to defer to the constitution and the hallowed second amendment and its right to “bear arms”; they’re reminded of how guns are part of America’s founding story and inextricably linked to the country’s rugged individualism and “frontier spirit”; they’re supposed to recognise how Americans, in the words of the US historian Garry Wills, proudly demonstrate “our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun”.
Yet this is misinformation, plain and simple. Let’s be clear: US gun culture is built on myths and lies; on propaganda pumped out by the NRA, Fox News and gun manufacturers. Here are the facts about the country’s fabled gun culture: almost four out of five American adults (78 per cent) do not own a firearm. In fact, just 3 per cent own half of all the guns in the US, with the other half held by only 19 per cent. The average American gun-owner has eight firearms; the average American owns none. Polls suggest three out of four Americans believe gun laws should be stricter than they are now, while nine out of ten support background checks for all gun-buyers.
The truth is that a small fraction of Americans – aka gun-owners – are holding the vast majority – aka non-gun-owners – hostage. They neither know, nor care, that the rest of the industrialised world doesn’t live like this; they don’t live in fear of mass shootings.
I’ll never forget how a few months after I moved to the US, my then eight-year-old daughter came home and told me about the “safety drill” at her new elementary school. “You mean the fire drill?” I asked, only half paying attention. “No,” she said, hesitating. “It’s what we have to do if a bad man comes into the school. We all have to hide somewhere in our classroom, in case the bad man looks through the door window.” There was a pause. “I have to hide behind the coats and my teacher has to hide behind her desk.”
What kind of society is this? What kind of nation would rather scar an entire generation of innocent young children than regulate the sale and ownership of lethal firearms? What kind of people abdicate their responsibility to keep their kids safe?
Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC
This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism