Observer editorial, Saturday 15 December 2012
In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the character of Kurtz, at his life’s end, has a moment of profound lucidity, which prompts his last words: “The horror.”
This weekend in the wake of the latest terrible mass shooting in the US, at a primary school in Connecticut, which claimed the lives of 27 innocent people including 20 children, a similar public mood appears to have taken hold, given its most powerful expression in the moving speech by a President Barack Obama on the edge of tears.
It is early days yet but the first indications are that the Newtown massacre has inspired a rare moment of national self-reflection over what is obvious to outside observers: that gun control in the US has failed with horrific consequences.
In America in the past 40 years, a right-driven agenda has argued for the privatisation of the individual’s right to own the means of the use of lethal force and driven an extraordinary proliferation of small arms.
While it is clear that the US cannot be described as a failed state, in this one crucial aspect, however, it does demonstrate the traits of one. Indeed, Americans own twice as many guns per head as unstable Yemen, the country that has the second highest rate of firearm ownership on the planet.
At the heart of the issue has been a deliberate effort by the gun lobby and the US right, beginning in earnest in the mid-1970s, to redefine the second amendment of the US constitution and recast a provision designed to provide collective defence in the shape of “well-regulated” militias as a modern and absolute individual right.
That process reached its conclusion when a conservative-dominated supreme court passed two recent rulings affirming this meaning.
What is paradoxical about all this, as the historian Jill Lepore made clear in her excellent examination of gun control for the New Yorker earlier this year, is that the proportion of Americans owning guns has been in a steady and significant decline.
Indeed, between 1985 and 2010 the prevalence of gun ownership has declined from roughly a third of Americans owning a gun to barely 20%. Yet despite that, the US, by number of guns, remains the most heavily armed in the world with one weapon for almost every citizen, not least because those who do own guns now tend to have multiple weapons.
In other words, gun ownership, in political terms, has for long been a minority issue in the US, with those who do own firearms – by and large being white, older and male – monopolising a national debate.
All of which suggests that Obama has been presented with a historic opportunity, should he choose to grasp it. In the outpouring of anguish and horror over the Newtown shooting one is reminded of the public reaction in the UK to Hungerford and Dunblane, which saw two significant and incremental changes to gun laws in the UK, the first banning semi-automatic weapons and the second widespread ownership of handguns.
For most outside observers the answer to America’s gun problem appears self-evident. It needs to begin with a reinstatement of the ban on ownership of military assault weapons that have no business being in private hands. A proper federal system of regulation, including background checks registration, and limits on the type and number of weapons an individual can own, would bring the US belatedly into line with other civilised countries, as would a determined push back against state legislation allowing the carrying of concealed weapons in public.
The rate of death from firearm injuries in the US, put very crudely, at more than 30,000 a year exceeds the annual death rate in the present war in Syria. Until the US confronts the reality of its failed policies regarding ownership of firearms it will live in a recurrent nightmare where it is condemned to confront the same horror as it did on Friday at Sandy Hook elementary school.