Note: This essay was first written in the aftermath of a shooting at a Florida high school in February 2018 and what came to be known in its wake as “the gun control marches”, and was published in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai) on May 5th. The present, slightly revised, version has been precipitated by yet another shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18, which left two teachers and eight students dead, and another seventeen students wounded. The dead will be eulogized, and their pictures will be published; promises will be made about making American schools safe for children. The premise of my article is that ‘gun control’ is a chimera in a culture where the gun holds an exalted place and has totemic significance. While the gun control marches should not be trivialized as the gestures of naïve if idealistic young women and men, I also cautioned in my essay that it would be far too easy to overestimate their political salience in the political culture of the United States. The notion of Texas as one of many trigger-happy places may be horribly cliched, but the studied and deliberate refusal to even call for gun control in Santa Fe, where the young and the old alike have turned to “prayer” in an effort to seek God’s guidance at a time of grave misfortune, shows far the United States has gone in embracing gun culture as the most characteristic expression of American identity. In the last of the four or five parts of this essay, I shall argue briefly that the weaponization of prayer is itself a manifestation of an unbridled gun culture.
(in four or five parts)
Part I: A High School Shooting: Fragments of Americana
On February 14, 19-year old Nikolas Cruz walked into his former high school in Parkland, Florida just before students were about to disperse for the day. Cruz, a school dropout, proceeded to Building 12, a three-story structure that, on a typical day, would have held 900 students and some 20-30 teachers. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, Cruz commenced firing and choosing targets at random; he said not a word, nor is there anything to suggest that some provocation instigated him to act. Six minutes later, he dropped his rifle and made good his escape by merging into the body of panic-stricken students fleeing for their lives. Having done his work for the day, Cruz descended upon two iconic American fast food restaurants to satiate his thirst and hunger. He apparently stopped at a Subway for soda, then wound up at McDonald’s, before being spotted by a police offer who took him into custody.
The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at Parkland is a story dripping in Americana. Other societies have had an occasional mass killer, but the high-school dropout lends a particularly American touch to the story. The college dropout may, on that comparatively rare occasion, turn out to be the proverbial genius; but the boy who fails to complete high school almost invariably signifies trouble. Social workers like to point out that boys, in the US, are less likely to finish school than girls, and are far more likely to engage in what is termed “risky behavior”: such behavior—the turn to crime, petty vandalism, over-indulgence in drugs, exceedingly fraught relationships with family members—is more often than not risky to one’s own life and well-being, but may also be risky, sometimes fatally so, to others. Cruz, like others of his ilk, seems to have had few friends but a morbid fascination for guns. In the characteristic language of the day used to describe people in his mold, he was apparently a “depressed loner” and was increasingly drawn to extremist views.
Though African Americans are, proportionately, implicated in more crimes than white people, mass killers in American society are almost always white. The commentators who uniformly dwell on the “loner” generally fail to probe whether white people are far more prone to loneliness than black people, or why the white male American is more likely to wind up without a “community” that might succor and sustain him. It is no over-statement to suggest that nearly every aspect of a uniquely American narrative around “the gun”—among others, the fanatical obsessiveness with a presumed constitutional right to ownership of firearms; the lure of the hunt; the gun shows at large convention centers; the recreational shooting ranges, where American pass their time much as one might at a picnic or a basketball game; the gun retailers spread throughout the country; and the place of the gun in the winning of the West—started with white people and remains overwhelmingly part of their universe, even if the gun has now passed down into other hands to sow terror in other communities.
Cruz’s weapon of choice in committing mass murder was the AR-15 rifle, sometimes known as the Colt AR-15 after the name of the famous gun manufacturer that took out a patent on it in the early 1960s before it lapsed in 1977. Colt acquired the firearm from “ArmaLite Rifle”, the company which first developed the model: thus the “AR”, which, contrary to common understanding, does not stand for “Assault Rifle” or “Automatic Rifle”. The New York Times has described the rifle, a slightly modified form of which was used by Omar Mateen less than two years ago to mow down dozens of people at a gay nightclub in Orlando in what was then the largest mass shooting in the US, as “simultaneously, one of [the] most beloved and most vilified rifles in the country”. Its versatility is demonstrated by the fact that, with slight alterations, the US military turned it into a fully automatic assault weapon, and civilians can likewise personalize the rifle. The National Rifle Association has noted that the “AR” is often mistaken for “assault rifle”, and it records with pride that the only true characterization of the acronym is “America’s Rifle”. An estimated 10-12 million of such rifles are in private circulation in the US.
Where else, then, but in America could Cruz have walked into a school building without being accosted by any guard, calmly taken out what is practically a military-grade assault rifle from a duffel bag, cut down many lives before casually casting aside his rifle, and then put a finish to a most satisfying afternoon with a visit to a fast-food restaurant? In some countries, the state comes after innocent people: in the Philippines, thousands of alleged drug dealers, and often just those who have dabbled with taking drugs, have been gunned down; the country’s President has himself presided over military-style executions, and has had himself photographed on more than one occasion with an assault weapon. In Yemen and Syria, those charged with defending the nation have strafed their own populations from the air. In Iraq and Afghanistan, suicide bombings, one fall-out of the American war on terror, have turned every street corner and every building into a possible booby-trap. America does not need any of this: it has its own form of terrorism, one which sends school children hunkering behind desks and closed doors for safety and compels institutions to go into “lockdown”. A new debased vocabulary to match this terror has come into being: in most large offices, university campuses, and government installations, “the active shooter drill” is now mandated for employees. America has taken out the patent on every day gun violence. Will it own up to this patent?
(to be continued)