Happiness is a Warm Gun? Living Liberty and Fear in the United States

Image: Alan Cleaver/CC 2.0

Written by John-Andrew McNeish, Professor, Noragric

So let me confess something from the start…I get the American fascination with guns. I am a gun owner myself, and have happily visited the gun range here in San Diego more than once.  The temptation to pick and choose from such a large and rare menu was just too great to ignore. At that moment at least, happiness was a warm gun, as the Beatles once sang[1]. I also admit that I respect, at least the historical significance, of the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution[2]. This made sense in the time of the Revolutionary War and the period of insecurity leading up to and following the US Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776. I wish my compatriots in Scotland – one of my countries of origin – had as much sense when in the same century we became part of Great Britain. Liberty is hard to keep hold of, and states are not always to be trusted. But this is as far as I can go in showing any empathy with Americans and their love of guns.

Average of 96 Americans killed with guns each day

There have been well over 100 separate incidences of mass shootings in the US[3] since I arrived in San Diego, many of them taking place in American schools. My family´s attention to this issue started with the mass shooting that killed 57 people in Las Vegas. But every few weeks a new attack would fill the media…26 killed in a Church in Sutherland, Texas; the shooting of 17 high school children at Parkland, Florida; 10 more school children in Santa Fe, Texas.  There has been on average a school shooting every week this year[4].  The figures for gun related violence in general are even higher than this[5]. On an average day, 96 Americans are killed with guns. Amongst the ten countries with the highest socio-economic indicators, the USA ranks ninth in terms of its wealth, but last in terms of violent gun deaths (3.85 per 100,000)[6]. This is 8 times higher that Canada and 27 times higher than Denmark.

This violence has, thankfully, not been visited directly upon myself, or my family. We have been living in a sleepy middle class suburban area of San Diego in the state with strictest gun laws in the USA. This does not, however, mean that the school shootings and gun violence have not caused us direct stress. My daughter has diligently gone to school throughout this year with the abiding fear that any loud bang in the school yard or corridors could be the sign of bad things about to happen. And we as her parents have encouraged her to go there.  We are also not alone in fearing the worst.  Both the High School and the Elementary school attended by my son have been upgrading the height of their perimeter fences and other defences. Throughout the year, the High School has run “lockdown” drills in an attempt to prepare for an eventual shooting. They have sent parents regular updates on their security, and when unrelated gun violence has happened locally[7] they have been quick to spread information and dispel rumours of an imminent attack on the school.  The San Diego police department has also increased its regular visits to both of the schools attended by our kids. Part of their work has also to stop students walking out of school on protest.

With such a high incidence of school shootings and gun violence it seems obvious – at least to a resident of a social democratic land – that some kind of change to the rules governing gun ownership should take place.  Indeed, many individual Americans and civil society organizations have been active in pushing for a change to the laws. Most of these proposals seek reform whilst also respecting the 2nd Amendment. Rather than a ban on guns, proposals have been made to regulate gun use, i.e. to restrict the age at which US citizens can purchase semi-automatic weapons (including the AR15, the most commonly used weapon in school shootings), ban bump-stocks that transform semi-automatics to automatics, and a requirement for background checks that look for both criminal records and histories of mental instability.

Industry and special interests rule the USA

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting in Florida a new movement for gun regulation appeared to have been born out of the disaster, and one that was led by the school pupils themselves. Across all media channels, reports were made of a new push by young people to rethink the tired debate surrounding gun ownership in the country.  Businesses including hotels, airlines and sporting goods stores were inspired to change direction, remove the favourable terms they had given National Rifle Association (NRA) members and remove ARs from stock. Across the country, marches and sit-ins by high school children supporting reform have been heralded as the start of something new and untethered to either Democrat or Republican political position or bias. The old cycle following a mass shooting (i.e., an incident kick-starting political and public debate but then fizzling out as politicians, lawyers and special interest groups – key amongst them the National Rifle Association – join the discussion) was supposed to have ended. Even President Trump seemed swayed by the kids’ emotions and efforts to speak truth to power.

Emma Gonzalez imagery at the Minnesota ‘March for Our Lives’, 24 March 2018. Photo: Fibonacci Blue via flickr/CC 2.0

In reality real change is yet to happen, and for the time being the old cycle continues…at least so far. In a country known for its strong democratic values and its highly vocal defence of liberty, it has been shocking to see how undemocratic manoeuvring closes down open debate on these issues. Following the Parkland shooting, just when it appeared that the President favoured some change to gun laws, the NRA made a visit to the White House. Despite the President´s bluster about draining the swamp, and how his government was not being held captive by special interests, he immediately changed position. The old rhetoric returned to the White House. Guns were a guarantee of freedom, a guarantee that individuals could protect themselves from criminals and terrorists in the inner city and on the southern border… Happiness is a Warm Gun. No evidence for this old rhetoric was put forward – simple repetition has been enough. The NRA and the small arms industry together with Fox News and the rest of the right wing media characterized the movement of high school students favouring reform as brainwashing by elements of a radical left. Debate has shifted away yet again from increased gun regulation to the hardening of school defences, to the failures of the police and their leadership, and to the mental instabilities of the shooters.  The parents of children killed in school shootings who have spoken out in favour of reform have been met by a series of vicious TV and social media campaigns characterizing them as liars and even terrorists. Everything else is to blame except the easy availability of guns. The same cycle of events is playing out at present in the aftermath of the shooting in Santa Fe. Industry and special interests rule the USA – not its people.

Even if you like guns and defend the 2nd Amendment, something very wrong is clearly taking place here. In this context, guns cannot objectively be seen as a source of liberty, but rather as a source of death and division. Despite all the talk of liberty, Americans claims to freedom delivered through the barrel of a gun is not only a lie, but a lie conjured by people who really know better. Because of this, children must go to school with the very real threat that life and learning will be cut short – and the threat comes from within, not unstable teenagers but cynical and greedy adults.

I will return to Norway with my family this summer and look forward to the start of the hunting season in the autumn. I also look forward to the peace and safety of Norway for my children. I know that the US and Norway are not really comparable given their considerable demographic differences, and that Norway has also had its issues with violent young men and guns. However, it is also clear that the comparative peace in Norway is defined by persisting social democracy and government regulation of firearms. There are many privately owned guns in Norway (in 2007 Norway´s 5 million people owned 1.4 million guns[8]), but in pact and not in confrontation with the Norwegian state, we keep them in check. An exam has to be passed, background checks are made, guns are locked away in a safe whilst not in use, and strict limits are placed on the guns that are allowed.  The result is that we barely figure in global statistics on gun violence. Lennon and McCartney placed satire in the words Happiness is a warm gun. They fully knew that it is not cold steel that triggers us, but the warmth and lives of our nearest and dearest. For the sake of our children, some limits to personal freedom is not a bad thing.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_Is_a_Warm_Gun

[2] i.e. A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of the free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arm shall not be infringed

[3] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/02/us/school-shootings-2018-list-trnd/index.html

[5]https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/firearm_mortality/firearm.htm

[6] https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/11/06/562323131/gun-violence-comparing-the-u-s-with-other-countries

[7] http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/courts/sd-me-juvenile-charged-20180503-story.html

[8] http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jul/23/nation/la-naw-norway-gun-policy-20110724

John-Andrew McNeish is a Professor in International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.  He is currently on sabbatical at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).

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