Guns: America’s favourite toy

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Since 2012, there have been over 1,300 mass shootings in America, which averages one a day. This year alone, 11,600 Americans have been killed by guns: the “Land of the Free” has the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world.  Perhaps this is because America also has the highest number of guns per person; an astonishing 371 million firearms are owned by private citizens – they have 13% more guns than people.  It’s not that everyone has a gun, it’s just that lots of Americans amass guns like Imelda Marcos amassed shoes. Some Americans are better armed than a battalion in the British Army or a small foreign country but, if anyone is buying guns because of concerns about terrorism, it’s worth pointing out that since 9/11 terrorism has been responsible for just 0.1% of American gun deaths.

From a British perspective, the ease with which Americans can buy guns looks like sheer madness. Gun laws differ from state to state, but nowhere in America even gets close to the restrictions that a would-be assassin would face in Britain. Virtually anyone in America can buy a gun unless they are a convicted criminal or have a certified mental health illness. Americans make up 5% of the world’s population but they own half of the world’s guns. Guns are one of the most successful commercial products that America has ever made – they even outsell smartphones.

To understand American gun culture, consider the Second Amendment of their constitution, adopted on 15 December 1791, which states that “… the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Gun laws vary from state to state but, in Nevada, where the Las Vegas attack took place, people don’t have to tell anyone that they own a gun and they are not required to get a permit, a license or even to register their firearms, however many they own. It’s even legal to own assault weapons and ammunition in large-capacity magazines, as well as to carry unconcealed firearms in public places like polling stations, casinos and bars, despite the fact that some people might not like having one waved in their face as they turn up to vote, collect their winnings, or walk past a bar where someone is drunk.

Guns in America are also very cheap; a handgun retails for about £150, an assault rifle for just a little over £1,000. If you think that the price of computer games is too high perhaps you should economise by playing with guns for real, on the street (I’m kidding, please don’t do this, kids). 

One reason that gun culture in America is so strong is because of the unstinting work of the National Rifle Association (NRA) who last year spent $4m lobbying politicians, another $50m on political advocacy and a further $250m on educational programs. Their arguments are neatly condensed by the NRA’s president: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Compelling motivation if you live in a country where every redneck and ne’er-do-well is armed, but sadly the evidence is that carrying a gun makes it far more likely that you will yourself be shot. Defining the “good guys” is also problematic – basic training in how to use a gun isn’t one of the criteria that the NRA expect.

Tragically, the logic that leads people to buy guns because of their concern about other people having them is exactly why America has such a problem. 

The question is, who will be brave enough to break the cycle?