In the Facebook page for Times of Israel bloggers, Barack Mandela asked last week why the United States is plagued by so many mass shootings? In the last year, there have been nearly 300.
Nobody knows the answer, and clearly there is no single answer. It would be instructive however, if we try to understand some of the contributing factors. Once we possess that knowledge, perhaps we can help the situation.
Every nation has elements that form a national character. For Americans, two of those attributes are individualism and distrust of centralized government.
The colonists who came to the US beginning in the 1600’s were brave and hardy folk. They left behind everything to start a new life in a wild, uncharted continent. Some were adventurers, but most were displeased with what they had, and willing to risk it all for a new start. It takes a lot of courage to do that, as well as a thorough disgust with their life in the Old World. For many, that included edicts and policies inflicted upon them by an unsympathetic central authority. They didn’t travel over the ocean to replicate that in the New World.
By the time of the American Revolution, these colonists had formed a new character. They were less willing to be told what to do, less willing to trust their security to others and more insistent on forging their own future and controlling their own destiny.
The colonies had their own militias. Woe to anyone who suggested that they be disarmed and the security of the inhabitants entrusted to a central authority. That authority might be days – or an ocean – away. This principle was enshrined in the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which ensures the right to bear arms. There is no doubt it reflected the national character of the time.
As Americans spread across the continent, we took those attributes with us. Nothing is more stereotypically American than the concept of settlers heading west in Conestoga wagons, armed against potential attacks by Indians and once again risking everything. They would hunt for their own food, use their weapons to protect themselves and rely on their own instincts and guile to see them through. These pioneers blazed their own trail for themselves and their families. They were not paid mercenaries working for the equivalent of the Dutch West India company which would finance them in a “for-profit” scheme to enrich people back east.
With the settling of the entire continent the frontier closed, but not the mindset. Americans remain loathe to submit their individual will to any central authority, still love to hunt and still insist on maintaining their ultimate personal line of defense – their firearms. While much of Europe banned or strictly regulated individual ownership or firearms in the Twentieth Century, that was unthinkable here.
The private ownership of firearms does have its advantages from a national security standpoint. It is a terrific internal insurance policy against overly ambitious politicians. A politician like Nicolas Madura of Venezuela could not cling to power in the United States as he is doing in his country, by arming his supporters and turning them on the general population. In America the general population can fight back.
But with the improvements in science and communications the attributes that served us well are turning against us. Now, individuals not only have firearms, they possess weaponry that can kill dozens in seconds. They also can spend hours playing violent games on Xbox that not only glorify violence but desensitize people to its horror. In doing so, they can shut themselves off from the outside and insulate themselves in their own world of payback and mayhem.
The communications revolution means that anyone can aspire to his 15 minutes of fame. The 24-hour cable news cycle means that for those who feel under-appreciated and bitter, they have a way to make themselves headline news the world over. All they have to do is kill enough people. It may not be the preferred way to go, but to the mentally unstable it means one need not die in anonymity as a nameless, faceless speck in history whose existence meant nothing.
All of these forces are coalescing at the worst possible time, right when our political system has broken down.
Since the end of the Reagan years political philosophy in American government has degenerated. For the party in power it means pure power politics. For the opposition it means pure obstructionism. While science and technology race ahead, government stagnates. Any government has problems keeping pace with the dizzying advances of technology, but one in which the parties rarely talk to each other has no hope.
In the current American political environment, any reasonable gun control proposal is stymied as each side retreats to a maximalist position. I would submit that the majority of Americans, indeed the overwhelming majority, could outline the parameters of reasonable legislation. Our shortsighted politics won’t allow it.
Americans now feel trapped. The issues dividing us on guns and other matters are not insurmountable but the politicians are incapable of addressing them. More than anything, it is this frustration that brought about the rise of Donald Trump on the Republican side and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Neither really was a member of his own party!
The current mix is toxic. We have loners and people with massive grudges who are desensitized to violence, armed to the teeth and watching the wall-to -wall news coverage afforded mass murderers. Now there need not be a reason for their target. One can just find a place with lots of people, bring his automatic weapons bought at the local gun store and blast away. It’s happening every week.
Last week America elected a new Congress. For our family this was a special day as both my neighbor and my Law School classmate were elected to the US House of Representatives as Democrats from Pennsylvania. It is they, and their fellow Freshman legislators who will set the tone for the next few years. How they go may decide how goes America.
Each new Congresswoman I know wants to go to Washington to get things done. By necessity, that will mean compromise with the other side. But each will be met with an established and intractable political class in both parties more interested in “getting” the other side than addressing our national issues. If our new legislators can stick together, face down the radicals and bitter veterans on both sides and reach some common ground, they can put the President in an untenable position. They can cause his penchant for demagoguery to boomerang against him.
If that happens, we have a chance of beginning to get a handle on this problem. If it doesn’t, I shudder at the thought of the world my teenage children will inherit and they move into adulthood.