On July 16, the confessed perpetrator of a 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in the Denver suburb of Aurora, Colorado, was found guilty of twelve counts of first-degree murder. On the same day, a heavily armed 24-year-old man went to a military recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and opened fire, killing five servicemembers. One week later, on July 23, the jury in Colorado had progressed to the sentencing stage, and was debating whether to recommend a death sentence or life in prison for the man they had convicted of the 2012 Aurora theater massacre. That same evening, a 59-year-old man entered a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, and fired on the patrons assembled to watch a film. The shooter murdered two and wounded nine in that theater.
This is the norm in the United States of America. Gun violence, often on a mass casualty scale, is so commonplace that we as a nation are no longer shocked, which should be the natural reaction, when a gunman slaughters multitudes of innocent people at a time. The United States is, as President Barack Obama has repeatedly stated, the only advanced nation on the planet with such staggering levels of gun violence. In fact, any American who has traveled abroad and spoken about this topic with locals in another country can attest, there is a widespread view around the world that the United States is the Wild Wild West. While visiting Japan earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with a Japanese woman who informed me that she was reticent to ever visit the United States, citing the volume of guns in this country. I found it difficult to counter her point.
In most states and on the federal level, laws regulating guns are largely permissive on account of years of brutally effective campaigning and advocacy on the part of the gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association (NRA). The Lafayette movie theater murders illustrated just how lax these sparse laws are. The Louisiana shooter, whose name I will not state in keeping with my practice of omitting the names of perpetrators of his ilk, has been characterized alternately as “disturbed,” “radical,” a “drifter,” and “a little off, quite obviously.” He was arrested in 2005 on a domestic violence complaint, but a case did not materialize; the victim declined to prosecute. The Lafayette perpetrator applied in 2006 for a concealed weapons permit in Phenix City, Alabama, where he resided until last year, but said application was denied on account of the domestic abuse complaint. Officials in Phenix City, where the perpetrator purchased the gun, have nonetheless stated that the sale of the weapon was lawful.
Incidents of mass gun violence and massacres like those in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999, in Blacksburg, Virginia, in 2007, and in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, among so many others, attract the attention of the country, and rightly so. But these tragedies are not the end of the story. Not even close. This nation’s permissive gun culture yields consequences on a scale not seen, as indicated earlier, in any other advanced country. According to Gun Violence Archive, in 2014, there were 51,685 incidents of gun violence in this country, with 23,012 injuries and 12,551 fatalities resultant therefrom. Take a moment to reread the previous sentence and let register the enormity of the numbers. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that “one in three people in the U.S. know someone who has been shot,” myself included. By the starkest of contrasts, the number of gun murders in the United Kingdom for the 2013-2014 financial year, according to Citizens Report in the UK, was 619.
So, at what point do we declare as a nation that enough is enough? At what point do we reject such mind-numbingly pervasive gun violence as the American Way? At what point do we cease to accept the unacceptable?
The massacre of twenty first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, sparked action in the form of legislation from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) to extend background checks on firearms purchases, the purpose of which was to close the loophole that exempts vendors at gun shows from performing background checks. Support for universal background checks is so vast that it includes, in a 2014 survey, 92 percent of gun owners and 86 percent of Republicans. Yet an all-hands-on-deck NRA lobbying effort succeeded in defeating the legislation from Sens. Manchin and Toomey.
Universal background checks represent the bare minimum that we as a society should do toward the goal of keeping guns out of the hands of those who should not be in possession of a lethal weapon. The assault weapons ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004 should additionally be resurrected. There is no need for a private citizen to possess a semiautomatic or automatic assault weapon; these spectacularly deadly firearms belong in the hands of the military and some divisions of law enforcement, such as SWAT.
America is, indeed, the Wild Wild West. Here’s hoping more in positions of power take note.