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Winter 2017-2018

October 2017 saw the worst mass shooting incident in modern US history. On 1 October, 64 year old Stephen Paddock rented a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. He took various weapons with him, including an AK47, an AR-15 machine gun, a handgun and a .308 hunting rifle. Below him, over 22,000 people were attending the Route 91 Harvest Festival concert.

Paddock opened fire, leaving 58 dead and 527 people seriously wounded. One hour, 20 minutes after the start of the incident, a Police SWAT team entered the room to find Paddock had committed suicide. When they raided his home address, they found a further 19 firearms, explosives and several thousand rounds of ammunition.

Paddock had adapted the semi-automatic weapons with what is called a ‘bump stock’, which can be fitted to use the recoil of a semi-automatic to generate fire levels equivalent of a fully automatic weapon – for example, the semi and fully automatic rates of fire for an AK47 are 40 rounds per minute and 600 rounds per minute respectively. Bump stocks can be purchased over the counter in the US quite legally.

The shooting may well prompt a security review by the US military, as the Mandalay Bay Hotel overlooks the McCarran International Airport and the main terminal of ‘JANET’, the US Air Force ‘airline’ that ferries security sensitive personnel around the US and overseas.

Indeed, nearly 300 people broke down security fencing around the airport, in a bid to escape the hail of fire – with so many unauthorised people going ‘airside’, the airport had to suspend all flights.

Surprisingly, despite there being 162 mass shootings in the USA since 2009, opposition to easy access to firearms has been muted.

However, outsiders to the USA should understand that gun culture is deeply embedded in American society. Indeed, depressingly, after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, in which twenty 6-7 year olds and six teachers were killed, gun sales increased by 11 million – two causes were cited; that people were panicked by the school attack and sought protection, or that it was believed the Obama administration would bring in controls, so there was an attitude of ‘buy them while you can’.

With a population of 310 million, there are now 300 million privately owned guns in circulation in the USA. The resultant death rate is staggering. In 2013 for example, 33,636 US citizens died from gunshot wounds. The scale of the problem can be seen when compared with fatalities from road traffic collisions – in 2016, 37,461 US citizens were killed on the roads.

Gun ownership is enshrined in the foundation of the US State. The Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, famously proclaimed:

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Its main aim was to appease anti-Federalists, who feared the domination by a central government in the new State. The six main purposes of the Amendment at the time were to:

  • Allow the organisation of a people’s militia to protect a democratically elected government.
  • Allow citizens to participate in law enforcement, where there was not a standing law enforcement agency.
  • Deter tyrannical governments.
  • Repel any invaders, at a time when the country was surrounded by the forces of British, French and Spanish/Mexican imperialism.
  • Facilitate an individual’s self-defence.
  • Suppress Slave revolts.

The latter is now obviously redundant, but many Americans feel the rest holds true, particularly in a country where old sores run deep from a Civil War of only (in historical terms) four to five generations previous. Nor should it be thought it is the domain of right wing politics only – it should not be forgotten that the Black Panthers evoked their right to bear arms under the Constitution, as did striking Kentucky miners in the industrial battles in Harlan County in the 1970s.

The National Rifle Association, with its five million members, is still a major lobbying force in US politics, and will remain so under the Trump administration. They have been subject to public pressure and criticism as the mass shootings intensify, but their ‘solutions’ could only exaserbate the problem.

One such like-minded institution, the Crime Prevention Research Center, shouts very loudly on its website that it “does not accept donations from gun or ammunition makers or organizations such as the NRA”. Its President however, is Dr John Lott, author of such books as More Guns, Less Crime and The Bias Against Guns which may give us a clue to their viewpoint. Dr Lott’s answer is extension of ‘Concealed Carry’ laws, arguing that most mass shootings in the US take place at locations where the carrying of guns is banned.

The problem with that of course, is that the average US citizen is not “a well-regulated militia”. Imagine the 22,000 people at the Route 91 event had all been armed – horrific though Paddock’s attack was, the death toll had a mass shoot-out occurred in response, – with resultant ‘blue on blue’ casualties – can be imagined. It should not be forgotten that the Beslan School siege in Russia in 2004 ended in a chaotic massacre with nearly 400, mainly children, being killed, after many local civilians – driven to a frenzy over the threat to their children by the Chechen terrorists – brought along their own weapons and finally snapped after day three of the siege, with the Army and police losing control.

The US pro-gun lobby is producing quack-statistics in an attempt to portray everywhere else as just the same as the US, using ‘Europe’ as an example in particular. They have been stung with the stark fact that a US citizen is 25 times more likely to die from gunshot wounds than their counterparts in similarly developed countries.

Yet Dr John Lott declares:

“…the EU has had about the same rate of mass public shootings as the US and the EU has averaged more casualties from these attacks than the US.”

This is clearly nonsense. Reality is quite straight forward. USA is one country with a population of 310 million, the EU is 28 countries, with a combined population of 510 million, so like is not being compared with like. The US has around 30,000 gunshot deaths every year – the EU, according to the Flemish Peace Institute in the Netherlands, has around 6,700 gunshot deaths a year, pointing out that nearly 5,000 of them are from suicide.

Given the grip of gun culture in the USA, outsiders have little hope of influencing American public opinion. What can be done however – particularly in these days of Fake News and ‘Alternative Facts’ – is to ensure the gun culture contagion stays away from our own countries.

  • This is an extract of a full feature in Resilience magazine, the quarterly journal of the EPS. Free subscription to the magazine is one of the benefits of joining the EPS – to join.
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