Still across the border in Windsor, Canada, where the idea of thinking about one’s safety on the street is ridiculous, your correspondent came back to the Days Inn, turned on CNN from across the river, to see that there had been another gun massacre in the US. Oregon this time, at least 10 dead at a community college just south of Portland, another seven injured, with the possibility that more will die of their wounds. The shooter, killed by police, was a 20-year-old male.
There are various reports: that he invaded classrooms, made people stand up and say their religion and then shot them down, that he posted various plans on 4Chan, and was egged on by other posters, but not much more than that. An hour later, President Barack Obama appeared on all channels to give a press conference of visible anger, pointing out that he had done this many times before, that he would probably do it again, that most gun owners agree with the sort of laws — mandatory background checks, and a few other things — that the NRA fights tooth-and-nail against, and that they should put pressure on their representatives and their congresspeople.
But of course there is no chance of anything happening. The NRA’s power is monumental, the Congress is rock solid, and Chief Justice John Roberts’ Supreme Court has taken a particularly open interpretation of the second amendment as regards gun-control laws. People who agree with “background checks” in one survey will agree that “they’re trying to take our guns” in another, and on it goes.
Despite the claim by the SCOTUS majority that it is simply interpreting the original intent of the drafters of the Second Amendment, the laws are absurd. Semi-automatics that load like machine guns are fine, but, for example, over-the-shoulder rocket launchers are banned. Why? Because the founders didn’t anticipate the latter — so it does not count as a form of “arms” one has the right to bear — but a rifle that can load 700 rounds a minute is analogous to a front-loading musket. This is political ouija-boardism disguised as constitutionality.
This dilemma is for the people of America to work out, and good luck to them. They have a dual problem: the sheer plethora of firearms, together with a political-cultural framework that has pumped atomisation, isolation and a notion of winner-and-loser values to unparalleled status among a class of mostly young, white men (there are few Hispanic random shooters, and almost no black ones). In Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore pointed to the paradox that Canada had, if not as many firearms as the US, quite a lot of them, but only one massacre a decade, if that. Why the divergence? Moore put it down to the political divergence, that Canada was a social democratic society with a stronger sense of social solidarity with strangers who were fellow citizens. It is wounded white men who often specify women, “political correctness” etc as the cause of their woes. But notably, they usually don’t target such groups specifically. The massacre is a general one, against society a a whole.
But it has soared well beyond that since then. The numbers of guns have soared in the US, and so too has the atomisation. All advanced societies have become frighteningly isolated for all but a privileged elite, but the US has become a wasteland of dead burbs, dead malls, online shopping and chatrooms. The paradox is that such a society needs more gun control, not less, while it sorts itself out. It’s the countries with responsible gun control systems, such as Sweden, that, culturally, have far less need for them. When there are massacres — such as two in two years in Finland — they don’t start a chain. Or they are acts of focused terrorism such as Anders Breivik’s right-wing attack on left-wing students at Utoya.
In that respect, Australia is more like the US than it is like Canada. Massacres tend to occur in settler-capitalist societies, because massacre is simply encoded in the history — the more brutal the process, the more likely an extended aftermath. In the ’80s and ’90s, we were starting to head towards one massacre a year, with the “firecracker effect” taking over, one massacre kindling the next. Then Port Arthur, and then gun control — an all-party effort, but led by John Howard, against his own right. And no massacres — no truly random ones — since. No parallel process, of similar cultures, Australia and the US, could have been clearer — taking gun numbers down, and certain types of gun out of circulation. With gun numbers remorselessly rising, and with Senator David Leyonhjelm doing deals to get fast-loading shotguns made legal, we will get our next new massacre in the future, and the cycle will begin again.
In the interim, two proposals: the first is that one of the few people who could really talk to the American right about gun numbers and massacres and what makes a difference is … John Howard. His status in the US, among a certain coterie, is — one shudders to admit it, but it’s true — only just below that of Churchill. He’s the leader they wanted Dubya to be. Someone like David Frum, or anyone else on the right keen on gun control, should organise a speaking tour of the US. And Howard should do it, if he cares as much about the US as he claims to. Sometimes harsh truths are the currency of friendship. Whether he would have the courage to go against many of the slavering lunatics who constitute his fanbase.
The second is that there is going to have to be some pre-emptive campaign around gun control at home, targeted against the Leyonhjelms et al, and driving a wedge between those people who are of the right, but who nevertheless look on the American situation with horror. The gun lobby in Australia has nothing like the power of the US lobby, and most of its most public figures are distinctly odd and unappealing individuals. Indeed, the strongest argument against such a campaign is that it may give these people credibility that they don’t have.
And I’m no proponent of a gun-free society — the state shouldn’t have a monopoly on such means of violence. But our settings are right, and have been proved to be so. It may be time for a high-profile campaign to remind people of the bullets we have dodged over the past two decades, and what that has meant for our society. Gun massacres don’t kill anything like the number of people killed by car accidents or other means. Yet the effect on the whole society is demoralising in the extreme, turns the whole of public space into an armed camp, and drives people further inward to private existence. Canada doesn’t have it, and it is a not significant part of a fundamentally different mood either side of the border. We don’t have it, we don’t want it, and we should push back hard against the possibility of it.