On Friday, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in the small town of Newtown Connecticut, 27 people were killed, including 20 children between the ages of 5 and 10. The gunman, Adam Lanza, was 20 years old. After shooting his mother in her home, Mr Lanza proceeded to open fire on students and teachers at the school before taking his own life. It was America’s second deadliest school shooting, exceeded only by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which a gunman killed 32 people.
We are yet to see what the political response to this tragedy will be. In an emotional press conference, Obama broke into tears and made calls for “meaningful action”, whatever that is. What we do know already is that divisions on the issue of gun control polarise the American political sphere, and that perhaps these divisions are becoming more and more perilous for the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
In the 13 years since the notorious Columbine High School massacre there have been a further 31 school shootings. As a result of these tragic and incredibly devastating events, schools throughout the US have implemented austere and complex security measures. Many will ask – how did this man get through? The answer in this case is that a receptionist at the school recognised Mr Lanza as the son of one of her colleagues and casually waved him in. He later killed this same woman. Any what-ifs are redundant here. The tragedy is real and raw. There is no going back.
A New York Times study in 2000 examined 100 mass shootings and found that more than half of the perpetrators were mentally ill. Accordingly, more than half of mass shootings in the US are also murder-suicides. Significantly, it is easier for a mentally ill person to buy a gun in the US than it is to get proper mental healthcare. Indeed, Adam Lanza is currently believed by law enforcement officials to have been suffering from a personality disorder.
In the next few days, within the painful aftermath of this tragedy, many voices will rise in vindication of the shooter, blaming instead a mental health system that failed him. Blaming the mental health system means blaming the government that underfunds it and the public at large that communally, yet deftly, stigmatize mental illness. The result is that the mentally ill are left ostracized, isolated and unsupported.
What about gun control? According to Mother Jones, an organisation that has recently done extensive research on the contentious topic, there is a clear relationship between the rise in civilian firearms and the rise in mass shootings. Since 2006, there has been an estimated 24 mass shootings in America. This year alone there have been 6 in which 110 Americans have been killed or injured. Significantly, in 1995, there were 200 million guns in the hands of American civilians. Today, there are 300 million.
The ‘if only the good guys had guns’ attitude is prevalent within the American cultural consciousness, and thus large numbers of people react to these tragedies by going out and purchasing firearms. This attitude is highly irrational and misled, cultivated by the notorious National Rifle Association (NRA) which brandishes the second amendment to the US constitution, affording everyday Americans the right to bear arms with nauseating grandiosity.
None of the past 61 mass shootings in the US have been stopped by a civilian with a firearm. In fact, armed civilians attempting to intervene are actually more likely to increase the bloodshed; in New York this August 9 innocent bystanders were injured when police – that is, persons highly trained in the use of firearms – attempted to disable a gunman at the Empire State building. If police officers were unsuccessful, how could a civilian do any better? The end of a rampage in 2002 at the Appalachian School of Law in Virginia is often credited to armed students who intervened. However, these students were not civilians but rather current and former law enforcement officers. The killer was out of ammunition by the time they acted.
The bitter reality is that even under Obama’s leadership it is only getting easier for ordinary people to own and carry guns in the US. It is unsurprising that a litany of American politicians, including Mitt Romney, receive some measure of campaign contributions from the NRA. In the past four years, in 37 states, the NRA and their political allies have pushed through 99 laws that have essentially made buying, owning and carrying guns in public incredibly easy.
Only on Thursday the Michigan state senate passed a law allowing concealed weapons in schools and day care centers. Furthermore, Republican-controlled legislatures in at least four states are considering allowing employees to bring guns to work. Florida will soon be the first US state to have issued 1 million permits allowing people to conceal their firearms, and an Illinois law barring citizens from packing heat outside their home or business was struck down by a federal appeals court. In Missouri law-abiding citizens can legally carry a gun whilst intoxicated and can even fire it under the influence if “acting in self defense.” In Kansas, those with permits can carry guns inside schools, and Louisiana allows them in churches, mosques and other places of worship. Virginia recently repealed a law requiring handgun vendors to submit sales records, and the state even ordered the destruction of all such previous records.
A nation grieves and the world at large watches.
20 children were murdered in their classrooms. One boy with a gun wreaked a type of havoc that is irreversible, chilling and devastating. 27 people died in an institution where they should have been able to feel safe. One boy made a horrific, shattering, nauseating choice that cut 29 lives short, including his own.
We know the blame game will ensue as Americans struggle with waves of grief, guilt and confusion. There will be a painstaking search for a rationale and path of action that will prevent this from ever happening again.