The Guardian 25 April, 2007

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Living by the gun

If the tragic events at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, (known for short as "Virginia Tech") in the United States last Tuesday did nothing else, they certainly exposed the moral bankruptcy of both US political leadership and the country’s prevailing culture.

The local police were still unsure whether they were dealing with a single mass shooting or two separate incidents when President Bush went public reading a speech full of pious platitudes mixed with strange regrets that the massacre occurred at a "place of learning".

According to Bush’s logic it would apparently have been all right — or at least better — if the gunman had run amok at a supermarket or a cinema, or perhaps in an office building or a factory.

Numerous commentators noted that Bush deliberately steered clear of any reference to restricting fire-arms. The President did not even mention the fact that Virginia’s gun laws are among the laxest in the country (and Lord knows even the toughest are pretty lax).

As Michael Moore showed all too clearly in his excellent documentary Bowling For Columbine, gun culture in the US is not a product of the country’s "frontier history" or any other objective factor; it is the result of the deliberate cultivation of fear and paranoia among the populace, a fear and paranoia that is all too useful to the right wing and big business.

While all those jockeying for selection as Democrat or Republican presidential candidates made speeches deploring the shootings at Virginia Tech, not one of them made the simple observation that if automatic handguns had not been readily available, a disturbed student like Cho Seung-hui might well have attacked someone with a knife, a club or even an axe — but the potential for mass killings would have been drastically reduced or even eliminated.

Instead, access to high-powered automatic handguns meant Cho was able to kill or injure 61 people!

In the left-leaning US film The American President, made by a collection of Hollywood "liberals", Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd laments the fact that, thanks to the well-funded campaigns of outfits like the National Rifle Association, "most Americans do not relate guns to gun-related crime".

In the film, lobbyist Annette Bening lambastes the watered down restrictions that most US legislatures are prepared to impose on gun ownership: "like a 48-hour waiting period before a five-year-old can buy an Uzi!".

Shepherd’s Chief-of-Staff Martin Sheen explains why a "crime control" bill might get up but a "gun control" bill will not: ‘Gun control’ means we’re wimps and we’re soft on crime".

In Andy Anderson’s witty 1986 Texas-made revenge caper movie Positive ID, Broadway actress Stephanie Rascoe plays a seemingly demure house wife planning a "hit" against the thug who raped her.

She is surprised to find how easy it is to buy a handgun at the local department store. Having acquired suitable false ID, she discovers she doesn’t need it.

"Don’t you want to see some ID?" she asks the salesman on the gun counter. He looks at her with scorn: "Where do you think you are, lady? Soviet Russia?"

Despite the fact that ample statistics are available to show that very few criminals are actually driven off or captured by a householder’s use of his own gun, in the US in particular this cosy fantasy persists. In reality, family members, neighbours, visitors and passers by are more often killed by these guns.

In fact, most of the people shot by privately-owned handguns are members of the gun-owner’s family. An argument that might end in a slammed door here, can easily become deadly in the US if there is a gun ready to hand.

Capitalism, however, encourages the concept that guns solve problems. Increasingly police tote, and use, heavy weapons, especially on television.

The number of popular entertainment programs in which the hero resolves the matter by blowing the bad guys away continues to grow. The majority of video games seem to be based on nothing else (unless it is outright war).

Even some sectors of the capitalist class are disturbed by the prevalence of gun culture, in the US and increasingly here as well. The editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday April 18, under the headline "A society armed and dangerous", castigated the USA’s National Rifle Association (NRA) and the politicians who listen to it.

The Herald’s leader points out that in Florida the NRA "backs a bill that would prevent ‘arrogant’ business owners barring customers from bringing guns into their parking lots".

In Tennessee, the NRA is supporting a bill that will "disallow any curbs on carrying guns during a state of emergency". Meanwhile "in Illinois, there is a battle over moves to ban the .50 calibre sniper rifles, powerful enough to bring down an aircraft at a range of more than a kilometre".

In the Letters column of the same day’s Herald, reader Con Valtsas of Ashbury wrote: "At the state elections, people voted a second person to sit in the upper house and represent the Shooters Party.

"It doesn’t take much intelligence to know what they stand for. I thought it was only Americans who were gun crazy."

Unfortunately, Con, being a gun nut is a question of ideology, not nationality. It should come as no surprise then that the "Shooters Party" candidate entered parliament on the back of Liberal/National Party preferences.

Making guns available readily and plentifully to gun nuts is like marching behind the banner "Arm the ignorant and stupid!"

Seems a dumb thing to do, really.

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