Domestic terror and America’s gun dilemma

Domestic terror and America’s gun dilemma

John Cassidy
Is there anything left to say about America’s self-destructive passion for firearms? Perhaps this.
From a theoretical point of view, we are faced with a classic collective-action problem.
Clearly, it would be in everybody’s interest if there were far fewer guns out there, especially fewer of the military-style weapons that also lend themselves to the massacre of civilians – as we discovered yet again on Wednesday, when, according to officials, a 28-year-old man, Syed Farook, and a 27-year-old woman, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire at an office party in San Bernardino, California, killing at least 14 people and injuring 17.
But since there are already an estimated 3oo million guns in private hands (nobody knows the exact number), and US gun laws are so lax that many Americans believe that they need a weapon, or many weapons, to defend themselves and their families.
With reports emerging that Farook and Malik may have had ties to radical Islamism, these concerns are going to be exacerbated. In a different country, a winning argument could be made that the threat of homegrown terrorism is another powerful reason for restricting the sale and circulation of deadly firearms.
Here in the US, the mere mention of the “T” word, by making Americans even more fearful and providing more fodder for the gun lobby, is likely only to exacerbate the underlying problem.
The night before the shooting started in San Bernardino, the Associated Press reported that, based on background-check statistics, gun sales soared on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
Within 24 hours, the FBI said, it ran more than 185 000 background checks, which are required for purchases from licensed firearms dealers. (There isn’t a precise one-to-one correlation between background checks and gun sales, but they generally go together.)
The surge on Black Friday may have been, in part, a reaction to the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris in mid-November. But it wasn’t a one-off thing: gun sales have been rising all year.
In October, which began with a mass shooting in which a student at Umpqua Community College, in Oregon, killed nine people, the FBI carried out almost two million background checks. So far this year, it has carried out almost 20 million.
For citizens of such a rich and (hitherto) stable country to be arming themselves at this rate is collective insanity.
And it’s not just the citizenry that is gearing up. At one point during its live coverage of the shootings in San Bernardino, CNN showed two big armoured vehicles next to the black SUV in which the suspects had reportedly escaped, before they were killed in a shootout with police.
Wolf Blitzer, the veteran anchorman, noted that he’d seen those types of vehicles before – in Fallujah, Iraq.
Then, worried that the SUV might have been booby trapped, the police used a robot to approach the vehicle which resembled the ones featured in “The Hurt Locker,” the Oscar-winning movie about a bomb-disposal team in Iraq.
This, tragically, is the country we inhabit.
Confronted with daily mass shootings and widespread fears of more terrorist attacks, the United States has turned its police departments, or parts of them, into paramilitary forces equipped with weapons, vehicles, and other devices designed for fighting wars.
In all probability, the horrific events in San Bernardino – and, in Colorado Springs, where Robert Lewis Dear, Jr, a 57-year-old man, allegedly killed three people at a Planned Parenthood facility and fired on police officers before being apprehended – will accentuate the trend.
Seeing cops in two states under fire from heavily armed shooters, many police chiefs around the country will conclude that they, too, need more firepower.
And given the deadly arsenals that alienated private citizens, whatever their precise motivations, can readily assemble, it will be hard to counter this argument.
What would it take to break this cycle of violence and militarisation?
To counter domestic terrorism of all varieties, surveillance and police work are obviously key.
But the broader issue of firearms proliferation cannot be avoided. Generally speaking, there are two ways to tackle collective-action problems: through government regulation and in the establishment of social norms.
Ideally, both come into play and reinforce each other.
In Britain, for example, firearms laws have always been strict, and, outside of a few rural areas where hunting is popular, owning a gun is often seen as strange and anti-social.
Owning an assault weapon is illegal. Anybody who suggested changing the law would be treated as a pariah.
In the United States, sadly, the political system is paralysed, and in many parts of the country social norms are skewed in favour of gun ownership.
Far from regarding strict regulation as a potential solution to a serious problem, many gun owners regard it as a potential threat to their own liberty and safety.
Thanks to the organised clout of the gun lobby and the manner in which the constitution gives small states outsized political power, these views command a veto over policy.
Even modest measures that have majority support in the polls, such as expanding background checks and reinstating the assault-weapons ban that Bill Clinton passed in 1994 (it expired in 2004), are widely seen in Washington as non-starters.
In this context, the question of whether Farook, Malik, and Dear are to be categorised as terrorists is a secondary issue. America is stuck in a self-reinforcing cycle of gun violence, and things might be about to get worse. – The New Yorker

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