Jan 22nd 2013

“Gun Crazy”

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

We have a cockeyed national debate on gun violence in which some motivated by political expediency seek to dodge core issues, while others driven by political ideology work to misdirect the discussion diverting it away from the core issues.

The President has now signed Executive Orders offering small but eminently supportable reforms. And Congress can and should pass an assault weapon ban and universal background checks for prospective gun purchasers. But these will not solve the problem. Nor will the rather bizarre proposals from gun advocates that we turn our schools into maximum security facilities with armed guards and kindergarten teachers carrying concealed weapons, or that we take a page from our "cold war" with the USSR allowing airline passengers to carry weapons thereby creating a "mutually assured destruction" stand-off on planes. 

No, our problem is neither that our guns are too sophisticated for our own good or that we don't have enough of them. Our problem is simpler and deeper. It is our "gun culture" and guns, period.

My generation grew up playing "cowboys and Indians" or "cops and robbers". If we didn't have cap pistols or toy rifles, we simply improvised with a pointed finger, a thumb trigger, and "pow, pow, you're dead". My grandsons do not play these games. Instead they act out more fanciful tales of space invaders and fantasy futuristic heroes, all possessing more potent weapons. But they will also make do, when necessary, with sticks or fingers morphing them into weapons possessed of all sorts of magical and destructive powers. 

Let's face it from cradle to grave we are fed a steady diet of guns and violence. From cartoons, Westerns, or cop shows, to video games and Quentin Tarantino's "bullet and blood fests", guns and shooting and killing are ingrained into our "deep culture". Like "Mom and apple pie", guns have become part of who we are as a nation.

There is a scene in the film noir cult classic "Gun Crazy" where Bart, the film's main character, as a young boy is staring longingly into a store window. The object of his desire is a six-shooter. Unable to resist its call, he shatters the glass and attempts to steal the weapon, only to be arrested in the act. 

The next scene has Bart standing before a judge trying to explain his obsession with guns. He tells the court, "I feel good when I'm shooting them. I feel awful good inside, like I'm somebody".

Gun Crazy Bart's fixation with the weapon is pathological and it leads ultimately to his demise. When I see the look on the faces of gun enthusiasts lining up to make what they fear may be their last purchase before "Obama takes our guns away", I think of Bart. When I watch them sensually cradling their assault weapons or "zoned out" at the shooting range, I think of Bart, knowing that nothing good can come of this obsession. 

President Obama's remarks, delivered last week before signing a series of Executive Orders, combined a thoughtful reflection on the tragedy of lives lost with a firm resolve to enact measures to address this curse of gun violence. Especially sobering was his observation that in the one month since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre more than 900 Americans have been shot to death. No one should have been shocked hearing these numbers. They are well known.

An average of 900 to 1,000 Americans have been murdered each month for years now. Almost 10,000 a year, or over 100,000 in the last decade. When suicide by gunfire and accidental gun deaths are added in, the total is more than 30,000 deaths annually, making guns one of the leading killers of Americans. 

We have almost 300,000,000 guns in circulation in the US, enough to arm 9 in 10 Americans. Almost one-half of all households have firearms, with statistics showing that these households are twice as likely to suffer from gun violence than households where no weapons exist. And while we should be concerned with assault weapons, the reality is that more than two-thirds of all gun murders are committed with handguns—and we haven't had a serious debate about handguns in years.

We know all this. And yet there continues to be a pathological obsession not only with owning weapons but with blocking any reasonable controls on their ownership. Gun lobbyists, for example, defeated an effort in the Commonwealth of Virginia that would have restricted residents to purchasing just one gun per month. The modus operandi of this lobby is simple and direct. They allow no discussion, no compromise, no concessions, and tolerate no wavering or signs of weakness. And they mask their deadly advocacy with the Constitution, arguing that what is at stake is the very survival of America's freedoms. In the process, they further inflame the passions of their adherents.

In the end, we have a "gun crazy" culture, armed to the teeth, with some believing that they are the true patriots defending liberty against tyranny. When we add to this mix, all of the resentments and pressures that gave birth to the Tea Party (including a not so subtle appeal to race) and we are left with a dangerous and volatile brew. 

All this was in evidence after the President spoke last week. His opponents responded using harsh and, at times, near hysterical and violent rhetoric. Despite their rants, his Executive Orders will stand and new laws banning assault weapons and more will be proposed and debated and should be passed. But until we have a prolonged and serious national discussion about our sick love affair with guns and purge ourselves of this pathological obsession, we will only be skirting around the edges of an issue that is killing us.  

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