Americans are considered exceptionally fond of guns; the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership — both generally and per capita — by a huge margin, and is one of only three countries in the world, along with Guatemala and Mexico, to enshrine a right to guns in its founding document (the latter two were directly inspired by the American example).
Since 1982, the town of Kennesaw, Georgia, U.S. has required the head of every household to own a working firearm with ammunition. In this 12 minute short film, Canadian photographer and filmmaker Nicolas Lévesque profiled the small town of about 30,000 and captured their perspectives about the intersection of guns, culture, and American identity.
Click below to see the fullscreen version, or click here. (Sorry, videos sometimes do not embed properly.)
Courtesy of The Atlantic.
This sobering Google spreadsheet provides a record of all mass and spree shootings that have occurred in the US over the last 30 years. Aside from the usual stats — such as the name of the perpetrator, location, number of fatalities — it also includes a summary of the crime, any known motive of the killer, and whether or not they had a confirmed history of mental illness.
It’s well-sourced and updated five minutes, having unfortunately grown quite a bit over the last couple of years (coinciding with other reports that have found a decline in mass shootings despite an overall drop in crime). Needless to say, it’s a somber read, and an awful reminder of the unusually high incidence of gun massacres in this country — reasons that will be explored for another day.
By my observation, a good number Americans justify gun ownership on the basis of defending themselves, individually or collectively, against government tyranny (however it may manifest). Setting aside the feasibility of armed civilian resistance (which is a different discussion altogether), I find it interesting that the US seems to be the only stable, long-lived democracy for whom a significant proportion of citizens feel the need to keep the state in check through arms.
By my knowledge, every other free and democratic society doesn’t rely on armed civilians to ensure that their rights aren’t violated — or at least they don’t feel the need to. Indeed, many of the countries that perform better than the US in metrics of civil liberty, economics, and government transparency have no such political rhetoric attached to gun ownership. Among wealthy, industrialized democracies, America is an interesting outlier.
But why is this the case? What are other successful — often more successful — democracies doing in order to preclude the need for armed citizenry? And what are the implications of this curiously adversarial power dynamic? What does it say about the nature of our government, society, and culture? I have my own ideas, but I’d rather leave the floor to you all.
- Another day, another senseless act of violence (in reference to the recent events in Colorado). No one ever goes to a mall, theatre, or school expected to be gunned down for no good reason. We don’t wake up thinking this day will be our last. We go about our lives completely oblivious to the fragility and finiteness of our existence. Perhaps that’s a merciful thing, since it would no doubt depress us and lead to much anxiety (which would defeat the purpose of living every moment with appreciation and gusto). Maybe we should just keep it in the back of our minds at least.
- In just about every one of these massacres I read about, there is at least one incidence, if not several, of people sacrificing themselves to save their loved ones (or even total strangers). It’s such a strange juxtaposition of human nature: at the very same time that someone is senselessly murdering others, people are unflinchingly giving their lives to save each other. I wonder if I am capable of that sacrifice? The best or worst aspects of us can emerge during such tragedies. I hope I never have to find out.
- Colorado, where the recent gun massacre occurred, has one of the loosest gun regulations in the country: there are no limits on assault weapon ownership, no limits on handgun purchases per month, and no permits or licenses required for gun ownership. The state has no authority to regulate guns, while safety measures such as safety lock requirements are nonexistent. With all that said, most research I’ve read suggests that gun policies, whether strict or loose, have little to no effect on gun violence. Instead, the underlying causes are child poverty, a lack of mental health services, socioeconomic inequality, and a lack of community cohesion.
- The US has a woefully inadequate mental health system, with among the fewest people receiving psychiatric help of any developed nation. Now, many of these mental health clinics are closing down or facing budget cuts, including in public school and prisons. Imagine the consequences of this.
A shooting spree just occurred in Seattle, Washington, claiming the lives of five people, plus the perpetrator. As to be expected, the details are horrifying: the man walked into a café like any other client, then began opening fire at everyone inside. As he fled the scene, he shot and killed a woman at a nearby parking lot, hijacking her truck before driving off somewhere to kill himself.
As in most such instances, the gunman was allegedly mentally ill. It remains to be seen how he obtained a gun, namely whether he stole it from a family member or friend (which is often the case) or managed to purchase it himself (which also tends to happen, as with the 2011 Tuscon massacre).
I know these kinds of incidents are rare, and the number of unfit people who use guns is smaller than the overall population of gun owners. But how many times can we write these off as isolated tragedies before we have a real discussion about the high rate of gun violence in this country? I’m all for gun rights, but every freedom has its sensible parameters for the sake of protecting the public at large (as well as not so sensible ones, but that’s a different story).
And before anyone says it, I’m not letting this single event color my entire view on gun politics in this country; my current musings were triggered by this incident, but informed by the many others that have occurred before it. I know full well that we can’t stop every madman or criminal from slipping through the cracks. But this sort of thing seems to occur far more than it should, and in any case, gun laws are hardly the only factor involved – plenty of other countries have high rates of gun ownership without approaching our uniquely high level of gun violence.
Personally, I believe much of this has to do with our relatively permissive attitude towards violence in general, exacerbated by the high rate of fractionalization, inequality, and disunity in our society; there is too much fear and animosity between all the different communities that make up our nation. It’s hard to measure if that’s being reflected by our uniquely high crime rate, and I frankly don’t have the time to explore the topic further at this point, but it’s something to consider.
Another point of concern for me was the fact that the killer’s relatives were apparently “not surprised” that he did this. They anticipated that he had the capacity to harm people, and they made no apparent effort to do something about it? As details emerge, we’ll see if they did in fact try, but in any case this raises the issue about how treat mental illness in this country, both institutionally and as a society. It seems that we still don’t take psychological problems seriously enough, nor do we have a developed enough mental health apparatus that could better address such problems.
Indeed, I recall reading how the US not only imprisons more people than most developed nations, but also institutionalizes far fewer people than the Western average – suggesting that people we’re otherwise putting in prison or ignoring should really be given mental health treatment. Of course, that’s not going to change so long as most Americans treat mental illnesses as nonexistent, taboo, or something that doesn’t require “real” medical treatment like physical health problems do.
Finally, as per my morbid nature, I can’t help but ruminate on the sheer horror of this event, as far as what it says about the randomness of death. The people going to that café did not expect that it would be the last time they’d live. Few people who die ever see it coming. And who comes out of a neighborhood parking lot expecting to be shot and killed? As the article mentions, there have been several such incidents of random death in Seattle, including a man getting shot by a stray bullet as he was driving with his family.
I go to cafes, park in public lots, and drive through the streets. I could just as easily be a victim of these random occurrences. It’s terrifying to imagine that, even as I write this, someone could barge right in and shoot me dead. While unlikely, it’s clearly not out of the realm of possibility. The rareness of these incidents makes no difference to the victims – or those who, like myself, are aware that they could be victims.