There are around 90 guns for every 100 Americans yet, despite 85 fatal shootings a day, the mighty US gun lobby is as powerful as ever.
Gary Younge Guardian/UK 16 April 2012
America's relationship with guns is as deep and complex at home as it is perplexing abroad. One of the most powerful lobbying organisations in the country and deeply embedded in the Republican party, the National Rifle Association (NRA) still calls itself the country's oldest civil rights organisation. The fact that most British police are not armed confounds even the most liberal here. And even though the nation is evenly split on whether there should be more gun control, every time there is a gun-related tragedy the issue has been effectively removed from the electoral conversation. And at the centre of these apparent contradictions stands the NRA.
Guns in America are no trifling matter. There are approximately 90 guns for every 100 people in the US (a rate almost 15 times higher than England and Wales). More than 85 people a day are killed with guns and more than twice that number are injured with them. Gun murders are the leading cause of death among African Americans under the age of 44. And the NRA is no joke. Claiming gun ownership as a civil liberty protected by the second amendment, it opposes virtually all gun control legislation. It claims more than 4 million members, has a budget of more than $300m and spent almost $3m last year on lobbying.
The second amendment to the US constitution reads: "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." "It's about independence and freedom," explains David Britt. "When you have a democratic system and an honourable people then you trust the citizens." Britt, an affable man in his 60s, does not lend himself easily to caricature. Elsewhere in the room, one T-shirt quotes Thessalonians 3:10 ("If any would not work neither should he eat") on the back and "I hate welfare" on the front. Another one announces: "Christian, American, Heterosexual, Pro-Gun, Conservative. Any Questions?"
Britt believes individual gun ownership is a guarantor of democracy. "In Europe they cede their rights and freedoms to their governments. But we think the government should be subservient to us." For all the rightwing demagoguery associated with the NRA, this is quite a radical notion. The trouble is that, left in the hands of individuals, each gets to define their own version of tyranny and potentially undermine democracy with their firearms. Some believe the healthcare law enacted by a democratically elected Congress is tyrannical.
Elizabeth Watkins lost two of her sons to gun violence. Timothy, 28, was shot after a fight in Miami in 1990. The second, Mark, also 28, was caught in crossfire while visiting a friend in St Louis. Watkins used to attend funerals of those who fell to gun violence in the city. “I had to stop after a while,” she says. “I couldn’t take it any more.”
Given the scale of the problem, one is struck by how modest many of these demands are (for gun control laws). Yet the mantra from NRA enthusiasts and others is that guns don't kill people, people kill people. This ignores the fact that people can kill people far easier with guns than almost anything else and that, in a country with high levels of inequality, poverty and segregation, such as America, they are more likely to do so.
The NRA is not entirely certain what to do with its partial success. Partly it keeps pushing for laws that would expand the places where guns might be carried, including churches, bars and college campuses. Partly, it opposes even the most basic controls, such as legislation to ban gun sales to people on the government's terrorist watchlist, meaning a suspected terrorist can be denied the right to board a plane but not to buy a gun. Time and again people paint scenarios in which I or my family might be attacked, threatened or in some way violated, as a rationale for arming myself. In this atmosphere, Richardson's evocation of Rwanda, while extreme, is not entirely ludicrous.
"Ultimately it comes down to whether you trust other people or not," says one gun control activist. "We do, they don't." The ideas that the government might protect you, that the police might come, that if nobody had guns then nobody would need to worry about being shot, are laughed away. "By the time you call the police it could be too late," says Britt, who has never had to pull a gun on anyone but has had to make it clear he might a few times. "All they can do is write the report." When the breakfast is over I tell Britt that I am heading into town to see some people. "Be careful," he says. "St Louis is a very dangerous place."