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Last updateFri, 14 Dec 2018 4pm

VIEWPOINT: Mass shootings — We have met the enemy and he is us

The massacre in Orlando, with its record number of dead, leaves us afraid that nothing more can be said, except that another one is coming.

Americans feel trapped in a recurring nightmare, mired in confusion with no chance of the kind of enlightenment that has led us before, as it inevitably does, out of dark places. 

Sometimes confusion has evaporated by taking a look at ourselves, as the cartoon Pogo did in 1970, celebrating the first Earth Day: “We have met the enemy and he is us,” Pogo said, surveying the toxic dump that Florida’s Okefenokee Swamp had become. He meant of course that all of us, not only corporations, share responsibility for trashing the planet. Today we still have pollution but there has been tremendous progress and practices common in 1970 are unthinkable.

Barack Obama reflected our discouragement in his speech Sunday, no doubt remembering his stinging defeat in 2013 in getting the Manchin-Toomey gun reforms passed after the equally surreal Sandy Hook tragedy — record-breaking in its time for the number of people killed, mostly children.

But is a cathartic understanding possible — one that leads us out of the dark and not just traipsing behind some insurgent idiot who “tells it like it is” while telling us nothing useful or even true? My answer is that, yes, enlightenment is possible. 

The December shooting in San Bernardino was the one that firmed my resolve to make sense of things. At first, I suspected a rise in extremism — people inflamed by issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, “too much government” or ancient religious feuds. 

But analysis made me discard the role of hot-button issues because, while few attackers have been women, blacks, children or seniors, otherwise they are as diverse as the U.S. population — white-bread students, military types, conspiracy theorists, Asians, Latinos and Muslims — too diverse to be motivated by one contentious issue. Even their victims are diverse: occasionally black, LGBT or of some religious persuasion, but more often random, just people who happen to be in a theater. 

So does it all boil down to wackos? An increase in mental illness? This is the tack the gun industry takes. Its inane slogan “Guns don’t kill people – people kill people” implies the solution is not limiting guns, but controlling crazy people. Sometimes their corollary goes further. Don’t limit guns; increase them. If every patron entering a bar takes along, as the Orlando killer did, an AR-15-style military assault rifle designed to kill large numbers of people by spewing out 20 shots in 10 seconds, this would improve things. 

You have to wonder if anyone who’s not on drugs – and plenty of people are – actually believes this, but the milder version of this delusional fantasy, that mass shootings are caused by an excess of crazy people, can appear valid. After all, aren’t millions of U.S. schoolboys routinely given drugs for behavioral disorders? 

Then a doctor gave me his take on the insanity explanation. All countries have the same proportion of crazy people, he said. So another cause is at work in the States. Accepting this as axiomatic, I began searching for that cause.

Right off the bat, statistics lit the way. The United States, I learned, has by far the highest rate of gun ownership in the world — 113 guns for every 100 persons, more guns than people. The country with the next highest rate, Serbia, with a history as war-torn as the United States, trails way behind, with only 70 guns per capita, around half the U.S. rate. Canada and Mexico have just 31 and 15 guns per capita, a small fraction of their big neighbor’s rate.

So the explanation, though far from common knowledge, is in your face: Americans have so many gun massacres because we have so many guns. My enlightenment seemed complete. 

But of course it wasn’t. Gun ownership statistics decimate some inane lies, but don’t tell us why there are so many guns, nor the solution, nor if there is a culprit — an enemy — and who it might be. For that I needed some background.

The explanation for the sheer number of guns is labyrinthine. The American historical landscape includes Plymouth Colony, with its outsize fear of Indians, where militia members were fined 12 pence for failing to bring a loaded gun to church; it includes a desolate farming nation where a gun was essential protection against all manner of marauders.

It includes the much ballyhooed establishment of a right to “bear arms,” as well as the modern gun industry’s fiction about revering the Second Amendment while conveniently overlooking its mention of a “well-regulated” militia and the fact that one of its first implementations was George Washington, as president and not as general, leading a militia of 13,000 against the people fomenting the Whiskey Rebellion, revealing that the amendment was meant for government to put down insurgents, not for insurgents to defend themselves against tyrannical government, as the gun industry claims.

The American historical landscape also includes a long history of military intervention, in territories both near — the massacre of Pequot Indians led by Captain John Mason of the Massachusetts Bay Colony — and far — the 1953 invasion of Guatemala armed and funded by the CIA to protect the United Fruit Company’s brutal hegemony. 

True, leaders often counsel restraint in our drive for military domination, notably former General and the President Eisenhower who warned in 1961 that the United States was in the malignant grip of a “military-industrial complex.” 

Nowhere in this landscape do we see the malign reach of the military-industrial complex more clearly than in the military assault weapons in the hands of U.S. citizens, perhaps 8.2 million of them, according to a principal gun industry group, the misnamed National Shooting Sports Foundation, misnamed because, although the gun lobby’s face is a patriotic, constitution-loving hunter, it principally represents the beyond-huge U.S. gun-manufacturing industry, supplier to a country that in 2011 spent more on its military than the next 13 nations combined. 

With this prodigious production capacity, wouldn’t any business school graduate recommend extending sales to ordinary people? And what happens to guns after military use? Do they disappear or are they dispersed like the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle — a tank — worth $US733,000, that was donated after use in Afghanistan to the Story County Sheriff’s Office in rural Iowa?

Another massive blip in the U.S. landscape is that regulation of political influence and campaign spending is in tatters. Ever heard of the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC (Federal Election Commission) Supreme Court decision? In the same year, the NRA alone, only part of the gun lobby, was already outspending the entire gun control lobby 9.5-to-1. But after the decision, the FEC (and in another rule change, the IRS) lost any real power over lobbyists and there was a massive increase in “dark money” organizations that can put out political ads without revealing their donors. 

Compared to countries such as the United Kingdom, where political advertising is very controlled (TV and radio gun ads are prohibited), prospects for an above-board gun industry lobby are bleaker than ever. We saw this after the Sandy Hook shootings, when Obama’s Manchin-Toomey gun reforms, which had very strong support among the people, failed. It is no secret that the culprit was gun industry’s overpowering political influence in Congress.

Still, however much all this indicts U.S. business and government for their dominating ways, we may still want to look in the mirror, at our own blindness, our own faith in the sanctity of business for the sake of business, perhaps our own belief in American superiority and the inevitability of American hegemony, our own fear of being losers. 

After all, the United States is where the most prestigious area of study is the prized MBA (a field that always struck me as supremely boring and myopic), a country where some leaders command admiration simply for their business prowess regardless of whether it is in sleazy and useless fields such as gambling.

Yet this may be changing. Some say that the reason for the success of insurgent candidates such as Trump and Sanders is that people are starting to recognize, if dimly, that there is too much economic growth for growth’s sake, too much blind faith in the triumph of the bottom line. Why are we fracking, people ask, when we should be reducing our dependence on oil? Why are we offering crummy jobs to many people, while a smaller and smaller elite enjoy obscene wealth?

The malignant Trump, who was endorsed by the NRA in May, can be best defeated by Hillary Clinton, the only viable candidate and clearly no friend of guns. Hopefully she can convince arms lovers led astray by the NRA, that nobody is going to take away their freaking guns —we just need to take away their ability to own 99 assault rifles. 

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