The United States has once again been forced to confront its deadly distinction as the world’s only developed country to be plagued by mass school shootings. After a teenager shot dead 17 people at a Florida high school on Wednesday, there is zero indication that the United States is in any way ready to adopt major new reforms to stop such tragedies occurring again.
In a recurring nightmare that appalls millions of US citizens and is unfathomable overseas, the Florida carnage was the 18th shooting incident at a US school since January 1. Each year, the country loses around 33,000 people to gun violence.
Yet each time, the event unfolds in the same way. First come the horrified reactions, then unity in the face of tragedy, followed by outrage, political polarisation and then impasse. If the debate rings hollow, it’s because both sides are immutable.
At one end stand those who oppose any gun control in the name of the second amendment to the US Constitution, which provides for the right to bear arms.
They argue that no law can prevent deranged individuals and criminals from obtaining a weapon, nor from opening fire in a school. Given the dangers, law-abiding citizens might as well be armed to protect themselves.
On the other side stand the likes of former Democratic president Barack Obama, who issued a new appeal for action on Thursday, insisting “we are not powerless.”
“Caring for our kids is our first job. And until we can honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep them safe from harm, including long overdue, common-sense gun safety laws that most Americans want, then we have to change,” he tweeted.
But many gun control advocates have given up hope of meaningful, national reform in a majority-led Republican Congress where Obama failed to enact curbs amid partisan rancour.
ACCESS TO GUNS
Instead reformers concentrate their fight on local politics, trying to convince elected officials in a greater number of states to make criminal and psychiatric background checks compulsory before any gun sale. But even this is often unachievable in a country that places the gun at the heart of its mythology – that of a nation born in the blood of its revolution and which remains proud of its Wild West heroes.
Politicians bankrolled by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful lobby group that endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential run, refuse even to accept that a firearm is by definition a lethal object and that widening access is risky.
On Thursday, Trump delivered a televised address to declare the United Sates a country in mourning – but avoided all mention of guns. He has portrayed the Florida massacre as the act of someone mentally disturbed, without mentioning how the shooter could have acquired an assault rifle at 19, an age at which most US citizens cannot legally buy alcohol.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled out any additional reform, saying instead that existing laws that try to limit gun ownership for criminals and those who are dangerously ill should instead be enforced. But a direct correlation between the availability of guns and the frequency of shootings is clear in the statistics.
“Every nation is home to disturbed teenagers who have been expelled from school. Only America gives them easy access to tactical gear, semi-automatic rifles and bulk ammo,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America.
US citizens, who account for fewer than five percent of the world population, make up nearly half the armed number of civilians on the planet. The homicide rate by shooting is 25 times higher than in other developed countries. The risk of dying by gunshot in America is 300 times higher than in Japan.
“If more guns and fewer gun laws made us safer, America would be the safest country on earth. Instead, we have the highest rate of gun violence of any developed nation,” says Watts.