Gun culture US/Opinion
America's obsession with guns: How to account for this phenomenon, one absent elsewhere in the Western world? Image Credit: Gulf News

Before Roberta Drury, the 32-year-old woman who was the youngest of the 10 black folks killed at the Buffalo supermarket two weeks ago, was laid to rest on Saturday, she received a final goodbye from friends and family at the stately brick Assumption Church in Syracuse, not far from where she had grown up in nearby Cicero, a small town of 32,000, whose name was assigned in 1790 by a clerk interested in the classics, honouring Cicero, the Roman statesman.

The memorial service was both solemn and sad — as well it might have been.

The racially motivated massacre in Buffalo was not the first nor, alas, will it be the last in the US this year — it just happens to be the 198th mass shooting of 2022. Last year ended with 611 and the year before with 417, which statistically bring the numbers to roughly 10 a week.

Three weeks ago, a lone gunman in my own neighbourhood of Cleveland Park here in Washington wildly fired hundreds of shots from an assault rifle into the surrounding streets — before he fired one into his own head — but since no one, miraculously, was killed or seriously hurt, the incident received, save for the local media, barely a blip on the national radar.

Texas mass shooting

Update: Nineteen young children and two adults died in a shooting at a primary school in south Texas on May 24. The 18-year-old gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in the city of Uvalde before he was killed by law enforcement.

Investigators noted that the suspect was armed with a handgun, an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and high-capacity magazines.

Texas shooting
People mourn following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas, US Image Credit: AFP

We are talking here about a uniquely American phenomenon — namely, a people so consumed by their love of guns and so protective of their right to own them, that attempting to separate a gun enthusiast from his gun would be akin to separating a parent from his child.

All of which raises this, well, loaded question: how to account for this phenomenon, one absent elsewhere in the Western world?

Look, clinches aside, gun culture is as American as apple pie. It is at the heart of the American people’s archetype, encoded in their habits of spirit and the workings of their quotidian lives as it is encoded in their Bill of Rights, where the Second Amendment (ratified in 1791) affirms that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms that shall not be abridged”.

No question then about the fact that Americans love owning and bearing guns. According to FBI records, nearly 40 million guns were purchased in 2020 alone — though it should be noted that attitudes about gun violence and gun ownership differ widely by race, ethnicity, class, educational background and community type.

A country awash with guns

But one thing is clear: The US is so awash with guns that, statistically, every 100 Americans own 120 guns, with Yemen second — but far — behind it with 100 Yemenis owning a paltry 53 guns between them.

Guns were there at the dawn of American history when they were used by White Americans to subdue Native Americans in order to colonise their ancestral land and to subjugate African Americans in order to keep them in their place as slaves.

And guns were there for use two weeks ago by a young white nationalist with a grudge against folks whose skin colour he objected to.

I’ll say it again, in America, wild horses can’t drag a gun lover away from his gun. (And, please, let’s leave Freud out of the picture here.) And proof of how so ingrained is that love and how so protective are Americans of its presumed sanctity, is found in that unforgettable image from the 1999 annual conference of the National Rifle Association (NRA), a group that since its founding in 1871 has transformed itself into one of the most powerful political lobbies in American history, with more than 5 million dues-paying members.

The image is of Charlton Heston (he, the famous 1950s and 1960s film star), who had long become the NRA’s vocal and aggressive spokesman, standing at the podium, holding a rifle aloft, hollering to the world that the only time he, presumably along with other gun enthusiasts, could be made to surrender his gun would be when it was “pried from my cold, dead hands”.

The powerful gun lobby

The NRA conference, let the record show, was indecently held one week after, one tragic week after — the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where 13 students were killed and twenty others wounded, which at the time, it being the worst high school shooting in the US, prompted an anguished national debate on gun control.

Gun control? Forget about it. Gun lovers always double down when they hear the word “control”, demanding that laws regulating the purchase of guns be relaxed not restricted. Ask why they need guns and you will hear them say that, well, darn it, they need them to protect themselves against gunowners.

Really? These folks are into surrealism? Yes, really! So hear ye.

Less than two weeks after the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church mass shooting in New Brautlets, Texas, in 2017, when 26 worshippers were killed and 22 others injured there, Texas House Representative Jason Villalba, an ardent gun lover, was interviewed by NPR about the issue of gun control.

Sure, he said, it was the right time to “tackle the root causes of gun violence in America and what kind of solutions we might craft to address the situation”.

One of the solutions advanced by the legislator from the state of Texas, putative home of American rugged individualism, where cowboys roamed the prairies, packing a holstered Colt revolver on each hip — an iconic image so well portrayed in 1950s Hollywood Westerns, which, perhaps unwittingly, ended up glamorising gun culture — was to call for “the expansion of gun rights, perhaps”.

Then he told the interviewer, with a cute chuckle, seemingly as an afterthought: “Actually I’m armed at this very moment”.

Clearly, you will agree with me, a gun nut who needs to bring his gun with him for protection against an imagined deadly assault by a female interviewer at an NPR studio, needs less to pack a gun and more to see a shrink.

And, Oh, yes, it’s about time Americans learnt a lesson or two from, say Canadians and Europeans, who, when they have a grudge against people, throw eggs not fire bullets at them

Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile