City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Insanity of Guns?

Irregardless.  Sometimes, one needs to go outside the confines of conventional dictionaries to express an idea with the appropriate shade of meaning, or in this case just the right weight of emphasis. The emphatic rejection of any possible change in viewpoint, position or action whatever the circumstances might be. The addition of the ‘ir’ prefix far from being redundant, allowing the word to roll off the tongue, underlining the intractable nature of the position taken. There is no other word that can describe the insanity that passes for the debate around gun control in the US. It seems that whatever might be the nature of scientific evidence, however robustly commonsensical it might be to do something urgently about controlling the incomprehensible proliferation of sophisticated weaponry, and however many grisly tragedies unfold at regular intervals, nothing substantive will change when it comes to gun laws in the US.

For the rest of the world, it is incomprehensible. There is something spectacularly wrong about the gun culture in America, something that, in comparison, even makes the election of Donald Trump feel like a plausible event (ok, not quite). How can a country allow its citizens to arm themselves with so many guns including military-grade assault rifles, and then wonder why so many innocent lives are lost when individuals run amok? No other country has anywhere near the same kind of gun ownership- the population of guns in the hands of civilians in the country is estimated to be about 270 million, with 88 guns for every 100 people (Yemen is next with 54 guns per 100 people) making it the heaviest armed country in the world by far. 30,000 people lose their lives through gunshot injuries every year, out of which about 12,000 are accounted for by murder. In many states, fully automatic weapons are legal; both the Las Vegas and the Connecticut shootings featured semi-automatic rifles that allowed for the rapid firing of multiple rounds. By any yardstick, weapons of these kind have no role either in self-protection or hunting, the major reasons cited for needing guns. And yet, over the last 25 years, support for stricter gun laws has actually declined- from 78% in the early 90s to 55% today (Gallup poll cited by CNN). The resistance to any form of gun control is significant. In a recent NBC-WSJ poll, more respondents (50%) were more concerned about regulations going too far than about their not doing enough (45%).

It is true that gun ownership has been a part of tradition and the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected. It is also true that in a heavily armed environment, even those that would otherwise not felt the need for guns, might find it prudent to own one. There are parts of the gun ownership debate that might not be cut-and-dried, but surely the question of assault weapons should be a no-brainer.

The underlying question that is perplexing is this- how can certain beliefs remain so totally impervious to reason? What explains the ability to continue to believe in something that is so clearly the cause of such repeated tragedies? What allows rational individuals to continue to live in a state of denial and actively resist any knowledge that might challenge existing beliefs?

A big part of the problem in this debate is that the gun lobby is formidably funded and has its claws deep inside the political establishment. Guns have also become a deeply ideological question, and in the polarised times of the day, this serves as a powerful barrier to any change. Not ceding any ground to the other side, becomes an overriding objective, and often translates into opposing rational changes, simply because the other side supports it.

But, important as these variables are, they do not fully explain why things are the way are. Powerful lobbies, have in the past, been overcome, notably in the case of tobacco. And while ideology is without question a defining fault-line, mass shootings of the Las Vegas kind do not discriminate on this basis. In any case, while attitudes to gun control do vary by ideological persuasion, even on the issue of assault weapons, which should be a no-brainer, according to a CNN report, as many as 30% democrats support private ownership.

What is invoked in this case is the idea of liberty. Owning guns is seen to be a sign of individual freedom, and private ownership of guns is part of a larger distrust of collective institutions beginning with the government. As a founding myth of a nation of pioneers, the relationship with guns transcends reason, and makes America look very strange indeed to outside eyes. What guns represent is unfortunately more important than what they do, which is why reasoned arguments against guns are simply not enough to bring about change.

Every culture has aspects that others find incomprehensible. India teems with many such head scratching oddities. To the outside world, many Indian customs seem incomprehensible. Usually, cultural norms that sit at variance with contemporary ideals are embedded in an intricate and intertwined maze of beliefs, rituals and unconscious everyday practice. Right or wrong, good or bad, one can see why changing them is difficult. Unlike most countries in the world, America has had the luxury of a fresh start and the ability to make rules relevant for a modern world. To treat the right to bear arms, a man-made law created in response to a certain context, as an intractable given in the face of such demonstrably horrible consequences is to give birth to a modern and highly intolerant religion.

Change, the need for which seems staggeringly self-evident from the outside is often exceedingly difficult to bring about from within a culture. Even when people have full control of their destinies, the search for meaning might well lead to choices that are bewildering. The American experience can perhaps make us more understanding of the difficulties we have with bringing about fundamental change in India.

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