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Wake Up America

It’s time the killing stopped – Andrew E. Hall on the madness of gun laws in America.

“I will give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
– a slogan popularised the America’s National Rifle Association (NRA).

“At times it feels like only yesterday, and at others it feels like many years have passed. I expect him to crawl into bed beside me for early morning cuddles before school. It’s so hard to believe he’s gone.”
– Sandy Hook Elementary School mother on the son she lost in a mass killing at his school on December 14th, 2012.

I’ve just watched three recently released Hollywood movies, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the new Bond flick, Skyfall, and Bruce Willis’ latest offering, Looper. All three were, in their own way, entertaining, even enthralling, despite various plot and continuity glitches. Each dealt with different subjects in interesting ways – Django being an oblique look at the issue of slavery in America; Skyfall, the new-age threat posed by cyber-terrorism; and Looper, time travel and organised crime.

But the best of my movie watching this year has been Zero Dark Thirty, which is a three-hour epic about the search for Osama bin Laden. It is a psychological thriller that portrays the processes – some quite brutal, when it comes to scenes of torture – involved in tracking down, and ultimately killing, the terrorist tzar.

Of these, and strangely enough, the latter relied least on the starring role of firearms.

But all three of the former, when the credits roll, should say: “Starring Gun, Gun, and Gun” . . . oh, and by the way, Daniel Craig, etcetera.

A friend of mine suggested that the buckets-of-blood approach to violence taken by Tarantino is “cavalier”. Perhaps so. Django and Tarantino’s other offerings turn violence – and gun-related violence in particular – into a theatre of the absurd.

Skyfall and Looper portray the requisite weaponry as a conflict resolution normalcy. As do so many other filmic escapades in the “action” genre – the Hollywood staple.

Does this speak to us in any other way than simply “entertainment”?

Does it speak to the killing of kids at an elementary school in Connecticut and how such horrors can come to pass?

Does it speak to the current “conversation” in the U.S. about introspection and reforming gun laws?

There is not one shred of evidence (that I could find, and I looked quite hard) to suggest that a love of guns is related to the size of the male appendage and sexual adequacy, and only slim anecdotal musings about a link between screen violence and the real kind. This is disappointing to me because I thought I had a perfect plan that I was going to send to the United States vice-president, Joe Biden, who is in charge of looking at ways to reform gun ownership laws.

The Shlong Test:

Zip . . . plonk . . . yes sir, a bit small (too much risk that compensation behavior will raise its ugly head at some point in the future) here’s your single shot Derringer; a bit further up the scale and you might get a six-round, single-action revolver; further still and you may qualify for a double barreled shotgun – like the one that (then) U.S. vice-president, Dick Cheney, shot his mate in the face with – and so on.

No civilian will get an assault rifle – they just don’t make ‘em that big.

But what to do about the women “doomsday prepping” noddies who stockpile weapons so they can shoot their neighbours when Armageddon arrives?

Such a woman was the first fatal casualty, at the hands of her son, Adam Lanza, before he proceeded to the elementary school in Newtown and murdered 20 young children and six educators . . . before ending his own life. According to police reports his weapon of choice was a semi-automatic Bushmaster assault rifle, which he used to blast his way into the school through its secured main entrance.

America, once again, expressed shock and outrage that such a crime could occur.

And when newly re-elected president Barack Obama voiced his grief, and made a commitment to reform gun ownership laws, the sales of assault-style and other firearms skyrocketed. The Cheshire grin on the faces of arms manufacturers and gun retailers grew at the same rate as their profit margins.

The rest of the world – similarly shocked and disgusted – scratched its head and wondered if U.S. citizens suffer from some form of collective amnesia, delusion, and denial.

Just as a reminder, here are some statistics from the past dozen years or so compiled by the Mother Jones organisation . . . and these are just the shootings where the loss of life topped double figures:

1999: Columbine High School, Colorado – 15 dead.
2005: Red Lake, Minnesota – 10 dead.
2007: Virginia Tech, Virginia – 33 dead.
2009: Binghamton, New York – 14 dead.
2009: Fort Hood, Texas – 13 dead.
2012: Aurora Theatre, Colorado – 12 dead . . . and, of course, Sandy Hook (28).

There were plenty more mass killings during this period; they simply didn’t crack double figure death rates.

Outside of the U.S. we witnessed, in July 2011, the aftermath of Danish conservative militiaman, Anders Behring Breivik’s, rampage at an island holiday camp for youths who didn’t happen to share Breivik’s brand of politics. He used his assault rifle to murder 69 kids in a couple of hours.

pink guns 02
Back in the U.S., despite the fact that domestic gun-related deaths from the beginning of the 20th century to the present far surpasses U.S. military personnel deaths in all wars during the same period, Americans cling to a form of words that enshrine their “right” to own and carry firearms. The Second Amendment, which was passed by the first Congress on September 25, 1789, reads:

“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.”

It was later ratified by the states and authenticated by Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, as:
“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.”

Note the semiotic toning-down in Jefferson’s version.

Since it was adopted in the late 18th century and enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights, this amendment has never been amended. Unlike, for instance, legislation pertaining to the evolving automobile industry, particularly with regard to safety and emissions-control issues.

So let’s do a little Back to the Future exercise . . .
At the time when the Second Amendment was adopted the standard-issue infantry weapon was the musket. This firearm was loaded through the muzzle with black powder, a spherical projectile, and a piece of wadding to stop the ball rolling out of the barrel, and tamped down with a long poker. The rifle was then primed with black powder, the trigger pulled, and then the whole loading process began again. A dexterous and skilled rifleman might be able to get off two or three rounds a minute. Maximum effective (i.e. killing) range was somewhere around 150 metres.

The standard infantry formation and tactic at the time was for riflemen on both sides to line up, shoulder-to-shoulder, and start pinging off at each other, finishing in a bayonet charge.

Sitting in Marty Fly’s seat of our DeLorean is a pimply youth from present times who has spent most of his life playing war games on the Internet. He is armed with an AR15-style assault rifle (the “civilian” version of the U.S. military’s M16A1/2 and M4) and half a dozen clips of 5.56mm ammunition.

The DeLorean screams to a halt on a battlefield in 18th century America – about 200 metres from a line of riflemen who resent this mysterious intrusion. They start loading their muskets while our pimply youth gets out and slams a 30-round magazine into his weapon and cocks it. The red-coated riflemen fire a volley, which falls woefully short. Our pimply youth’s weapon is a semi-automatic, and sighting through his scope he starts squeezing off rounds – his weapon has an “effective” range of about 350-plus metres so he can afford to backtrack a bit while still firing.

After about a minute and a half all 100 historical riflemen are dead (or severely wounded because the 5.56 is a very nasty bullet), our pimply youth hops back into the DeLorean and ponders his next adventure . . . at the school he used to attend . . .

Old NRA saying: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.

Disingenuous nonsense: people with sophisticated modern weapons kill people a lot more easily and quickly, and in greater numbers than someone armed with a musket . . . or not at all.

One policy option open to vice-president Biden might be to enforce the letter and spirit of the un-amended Second Amendment (as written, and intended at the time of writing) allowing his countrymen and women to own and “bear” as many black powder weapons as they like.

American journalist, Robert Parry, writes in an article reprinted on the Truthout website:

“The American Right is fond of putting itself inside the minds of America’s Founders and intuiting what was their ‘original intent’ in writing the U.S. Constitution and its early additions, like the Second Amendment’s ‘right to bear arms’. But, surely, James Madison and the others weren’t envisioning people with modern weapons mowing down children in a movie theater or a shopping mall or now a kindergarten.”

The so-called assault rifle was developed for one purpose only – to kill human beings more efficiently, and in greater numbers on the battlefield.

I used to have a fairly intimate acquaintance with the “iconic” AK47 rifle because I worked in a part of the world where every Tom, Dick and Ahmed carried one. It was “fun” to blat off a mag on full auto (especially if the magazine was interspersed with tracer rounds). But I can assure you it was next to useless (in its factory form) as a target shooting rifle . . . or even game shooting for that matter, not that there was much of that to speak of there. What it does very well is kill people at close range.

The (and listen to the language here) “best” rifle I ever fired was a WWII Lee Enfield, because it was “superbly” accurate and “beautifully” balanced.

I now need to enroll myself in a 12-step program for the misuse of adjectives.

I used to kill things with guns – various animals and birds – when I was a lot younger. I was very good at it. It gave me some kind of personal utility. I had little appreciation of the preciousness of life in all its forms. Now I can barely bring myself to go fishing.

But I can understand the appeal that guns (especially bigger, badder, “sexier” guns) have for some people.

The U.S. federal government under Bill Clinton signed into law a ban on sales of all assault weapons in 1994, but the legislation had a built-in “sunset clause” whereby it had to be re-ratified after 10 years. Unfortunately in 2004 George W. Bush was the U.S. president . . .

In the Australian state of Tasmania there is a tourist attraction called Port Arthur – one of the original prisons for convicts transported from England in the 18th and 19th centuries. In a dark coincidence of nomenclature a young man from New Town, Tasmania, packed his bag one April day in 1996, and headed for the historic site.

Martin Bryant (28) took his bag and a video camera into the site’s tourist café and bought a meal – which he ate on the deck outside. He then unpacked a Colt AR15 rifle with a 30-round magazine and began shooting indiscriminately in the café and adjoining gift shop. Afterwards he hunted down men, women, and children on the grounds around the café, murdering them in cold blood. When he had finished – and had been apprehended by police – 35 people lay dead, with 23 seriously injured.

My mother ate her lunch in the very same café exactly one week earlier . . . I congratulated her on her timing.

The Australian people were shocked and outraged, as was the federal government.

Top gun of the NRA, Charlton Heston, (an obscenely short time after the shootings) made a trip to the Australian state of Queensland and delivered a predictable speech about arming the population against such loonies as Bryant (that ended with the “cold, dead hand” bollocks). Most Australians, however, reckoned it was Heston who was the real loony.

Such was the national outrage that the federal government simply could not let the massacre slide into the pages of history. Sweeping (retrospective) legislation was hastily passed through both houses of parliament that would outlaw (not merely ban) sales and civilian ownership of assault-style weapons; semi-automatic weapons of all kinds (with stringently enforced exceptions for professional shooters and gun club members); and pump-action shotguns.

Part of the move to eliminate such weapons from Australian households involved a non-voluntary federal government buy-back (at the market price of the time, and attached to an amnesty period) of all weapons that had been made illegal. Gun control and licensing was, however, a state matter, and several states resisted adopting the new legislation, including, strangely enough, Tasmania.

The federal government’s response was to apply extreme federal funding pressure until the recalcitrant states capitulated and got with the programme.

All of the weapons bought back in the $350-plus million scheme were destroyed by the Australian Federal Police and other law enforcement agencies.

Last month the (then) Australian prime minister, John Howard, spoke on America’s CNN, and wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled, I Went after Guns, Obama Can Too. In this he mentioned (amongst other things) that the banning of many firearms had the side-effect of drastically reducing the young, male suicide rate (particularly in rural areas) – for which Australia (before the ban) held a sinister statistical record.

Martin Bryant will never be released from prison. Charlton Heston is dead, but has been replaced by equally idiotic and irresponsible types, up to and including the NRA’s current nutjob blowhard, Wayne LaPierre. Australia has a yearly gun-related death toll that can be counted on the fingers and toes of two or three people . . . probably with a few of toes left over. On a per capita basis if the U.S. had a similar annual death rate by gunfire it would take 25 or so people doing the finger/toe count . . . not 500-plus.

Of course the rabid Right of American politics would point the finger and bleat that the Australian federal government’s intervention (and coercion of the states) on gun reform was exactly why the Second Amendment was created. They would be wrong.

Australia still has very successful world-class competition shooters. Farmers may still own firearms – just not the ones that have been banned. Sporting shooters still shoot things. Gun club members may still own weapons – but depending on what kind of weapons, they may not be permitted to take them home from the gun club (which, it might be said, saves potentially tragic accidents when children find, and mess about with, daddy or mummy’s gun).

Australians still have the ability to own arms, subject to stringent licensing conditions and background checks. They are just not allowed to “bear” them in inappropriate places . . . like schools.

Australians (in general) aren’t big on militias. They live in the 21st century and are quite happy there.

The NRA is often referred to as the most powerful lobby group in the U.S. and sees itself, alternately, as a group of gun “enthusiasts”, and a protector of the Constitution.

What it really is, is the mouthpiece for the multi-billion-dollar arms industry.

Much has been said about the relationship between popular culture and its “sexy” representation of gun violence. Think of any Steven Segal movie you like. Think of any shoot-‘em-up video game your kid is playing on her/his tablet device right now. A consistent message is sent by Hollywood and gaming developers: Guns are good.

Isn’t it odd that in the movie industry a far more rigid censorship is applied to films containing nude images of the human body, and the perfectly natural (and beautiful) act of sexual intercourse, than to images of people killing each other in more and more graphic detail?

Little actual research exists to either support, or debunk, the anecdotal evidence that on-screen violence has the effect of desensitizing people to the point that they are more able to commit it.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre Barack Obama has called for the Centre for Disease Control to conduct such research . . . better late than never.

Perhaps, though, there is another place we can look to establish a link between popular culture’s repetitive portrayals of violence in general, and gun-related violence in particular, and the effects these images might have on (some) people . . . the advertising industry. Another multi-billion dollar industry, advertising (and “public relations”, for that matter) firms pay their people large amounts to influence public psychology. Repetition and the “sexing up” of whatever these companies are trying to flog (whether they be products or messages) is obviously very effective . . . otherwise the industries wouldn’t exist. This being the case why is it such a stretch to draw the same conclusions about a film industry that is obsessed with violence, and a gaming industry that reaches out to younger and younger minds, encouraging them to shoot-to-kill as a mere pastime?

Where does parental responsibility lay when it comes to allowing children’s access to depictions of violence in all its forms?

On the small screens’ so-called “natural history” channels you can’t escape the relationships people have with their guns. Programmes like Future Weapons, One Man Army, and the preposterous nonsense of Doomsday Preppers (to name but a few) consistently reinforce the pride of place guns (and other weapons) take in the psyche of some people (a large number of them if we’re talking about Americans). That these shows are simply (relatively) inexpensive vehicles for broadcast companies is a moot point. They would say that where there is demand there will always be supply. But demand can be, and is, manufactured and manipulated.

It is highly unlikely that the Second Amendment will be tampered with any time soon – especially while Republicans hold a majority in Congress. Them good ol’ boys and gals just love their guns. So do many Democrats. But it would not be unconstitutional for laws to be made, as they were in Australia, restricting, severely, the types of weapons that can be owned and carried. Mitigating something so close to the hearts and minds of so many people is fraught with political, and sometimes personal, danger – no matter how righteous and sensible such mitigation might be.

America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, had to face up to such issues in his bid to end slavery, as depicted in Stephen Spielberg’s majestic film, Lincoln. Okay, so Abe eventually paid the ultimate price at the hands of one of America’s earlier nutters, John Wilkes-Booth, but the 13th Amendment stands today in the same spirit in which it was written and, eventually, ratified. Gun control in our time is equally important.

As Robert F. Kennedy put it after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. : “Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily – whether it is done in the name of the law or in the defiance of the law, by one man or a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence – whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children, the whole nation is degraded.”

. . . and then someone shot him . . .