Guns and America: A love affair that baffles the world

A gun owner testifying at a hearing on proposed new gun laws in St. Paul, Minn. Feb. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Ben Garvin)

A gun owner testifying at a hearing on proposed new gun laws in St. Paul, Minnesota, Feb. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/The St. Paul Pioneer Press, Ben Garvin)

By Bernd Debusmann

Since the beginning of 2015, there have been 12 mass shootings in the United States. That’s one every two weeks, roughly the frequency over the past decade.

Most of the shootings have barely been noticed outside the communities where they happened.

But the recent Charleston massacre prompted shock and an emotional statement from President Barack Obama.

“Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” he said.

He was speaking in response to the June 17 killing of nine parishioners in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a self-proclaimed racist who used a legally-acquired .45 Glock pistol.

“At some point,” Obama said from the White House, “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.

“It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”

If history is a guide, little or nothing will be done about it.

Mass shootings have not cooled the American love affair with guns.

Gun culture is deeply rooted in American history, a country founded in armed insurrection against British colonial rule and later in westward expansion by armed settlers.

The Wild West, frontier justice, gunslingers, cowboys and Indians are part of American lore, glorified by literature and Hollywood movies.

Mass shootings  — officially defined as those killing at least four people  —  have not cooled the American love affair with guns.

Over the past two decades, sales of guns and ammunition have spiked after each massacre.

A day after 12 people died and 70 were injured in a hail of bullets in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, in July 2012, sales of guns and ammunition jumped by 40 percent, according to local gun dealer estimates at the time.

The reason for the rush to guns after headline-making killings is twofold: Some people arm themselves for fear of being caught in a shootout, others because they fear forthcoming restrictions on gun sales.

Those fears are stoked by the National Rifle Association (NRA). The gun lobby wields enormous influence in Congress and urges its members and followers to vote against gun control advocates.

The NRA denies any link between the easy availability of guns and gun violence. “It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people who kill people,” the NRA says.

Getting a gun rarely takes more than 15 minutes.

The death toll from gun violence has been running fairly steady for decades  — around 32,000 a year, about half of them suicides.

The U.S. murder rate per capita is by far the highest in the industrialized world, at around 3.5 per 100,000 people.

U.N. figures from 2012 for the 34 developed countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development showed Chile in second place, with just over two per 100,000. Turkey and Switzerland are tied for third, with one fourth of the U.S. rate.

America also holds a commanding lead in private gun ownership.

The Swiss-based Small Arms Survey, which tracks such numbers, says the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population and between 35 and 50 percent of the world’s guns in civilian hands.

In absolute numbers: 275 to 310 million firearms in a population of 325 million. China is second, with an estimated 40 million.

Getting a gun in America is not difficult.

While gun shop owners must have a Federal Firearms License, buyers simply fill in a form with their name, address, date of birth and citizenship.

There are questions on criminal convictions, mental health problems and drug use. The store forwards the information, by phone or email, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which runs it through a database.

The process rarely takes more than 15 minutes.

A watershed in the long debate over gun rights

Gun deals between private individuals require no background checks. Calls from advocates of “universal” checks, Obama included, have run into stiff opposition from citizens who see more control as a violation of a constitutional right under the Second Amendment of the Constitution.

Passed in 1791 and couched in ambiguous language, the amendment says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Years of wrangling over whether the amendment referred to militias or individuals came to an end with a 2010 Supreme Court decision that affirmed an individual’s right to own and bear arms.

Last December, the United States reached what appears to be a watershed in the long debate over gun rights.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center reported that, for the first time in 22 years, most Americans said that protecting gun rights is more important than controlling gun ownership  — 52% to 46%.

That would suggest America is far from the point of reckoning Obama invoked.


bdebusmann_webBernd Debusmann is a former columnist for Reuters who has worked as a correspondent, bureau chief and editor in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and United States. He has reported from more than 100 countries. He was shot twice in the course of his work  — once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria.

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