Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

Gun Violence Is Only the Symptom of a Troubled Society

Every time a horrific incident of mass violence occurs, we should study it with the same care that we study any subject in which our own life is at a stake, because it is. Yesterday’s carnage in Virginia Beach, Va., in which 12 persons were killed by a co-worker is only the latest example of a society in crisis. Mass shootings in the United States have reached levels unacceptable in a civilized society.

The abundance of guns plays an important role in this phenomenon. In 2015, The Washington Post estimated that there were 357 million firearms nationwide; this, with a population of approximately 317 million. And these numbers don’t even include the number of unregistered guns in civilian hands. It is well known that there is a considerable and constant traffic of unregistered firearms in both directions across US borders.

The cornucopia of firearms in civilian hands alone doesn’t explain by itself the high levels of violence. Cultural, political and economic factors are just as significant. Culturally, no other people assume they have the right to bear arms, regardless of the dire consequences of creating a gun-ridden society.

Andrew Exum, a former US Army officer who was part of General Stanley McChrystal’s review of the American strategy in Afghanistan, wrote in The Atlantic, “After the September 11 attacks, I spent several years at war and then lived abroad as a civilian for another several years. And when I finally returned to the United States in late 2008, I noticed something different about the gun culture in the country to which I was so eager to return. For one, driving with my mother from our home in East Tennessee to Nashville, I noticed how many billboards on the side of the highway advertised guns. And not just any guns—these were not .30-06 hunting rifles or shotguns, but rather, the kind of tactical firearms, including assault rifles that I had carried in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why in the world, I thought then, would anyone have a need for such weapons?”

Another significant factor is the glorification of violence. It is estimated that when a child reaches adulthood, he will have seen 16,000 assassinations and 200,000 acts of violence on television. Statistics indicate that 15 to 24-year-olds are 49 times more likely to die from gun homicide in the US than in any other country. It is difficult to deny that widespread gun ownership and violence in the media don’t have a role to play in these statistics. Today, the US supplies most of the world’s violent media resources.

The politically motivated wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the support to the war in Yemen have contributed to the creation of a climate of violence. Instead of combating terrorism, these ill-advised adventures have increased it and, as a result, have also increased the overall violence in the world.

That almost no politician has denounced the nefarious influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its responsibility in creating a culture of violence is a clear demonstration of that organization’s power. It took huge demonstrations of high-school kids –many of them survivors of gun violence- for the general population to become aware of the NRA’s impact.

According to a 2007 Small Arms Survey, the U.S., with only 4.4% of the world’s population has roughly 42% of the world’s guns. And yet, despite that almost 90% Americans approve establishing “commonsense” solutions to control the sale of guns, including universal background checks, arms sales continue to soar.

The U.S is a leading exporter of small arms and military hardware, at tremendous profits to gun manufacturers and the military industry. Annually, almost 10 million firearms are manufactured in the U.S., and the Trump administration is easing restrictions to sell firearms –including assault rifles and ammunition- to foreign buyers.

Several solutions involving “smart guns”, such as using biometrics to identify the arms’ rightful owners, have been proposed, but they are far from being widely adopted. Also, although smart guns can prevent the guns from being used by somebody who is not its rightful owner, they cannot prevent mass shootings from arms purchased legally.

A comprehensive set of laws that would limit gun sales, gun ownership, illegal trade in arms, and banning high caliber ones would show the legislators’ intention to control gun violence, and that they are serious about finding a solution. However, as American journalist Robert Koehler pointed out, “Legal and bureaucratic fixes will not, by themselves, rescue, let alone transform, a violent culture.” Until we, as a society, stop the glorification of violence we will continue to suffer its consequences.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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