COMMENTARY: Without proper gun control, fear will continue to engulf Americans

I kept looking at one of the open doors of the classroom while the professor was lecturing on Scatter Plot. I feared an armed man could enter at any time and shoot us down to the floor. Then, I was planning in my head what ways to protect myself and alert the professor and my colleagues to the possible danger. While this captured my mind, the lecture became a mere noise in the background. 

On Wednesday, Nov. 7, a gunman killed 12 people, mostly college students, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The 28-year-old ex-Marine, Ian David Long, entered the packed country music bar around midnight and shot at people, including a police officer, indiscriminately and mercilessly. The police found him dead after the incident. Authorities believe he committed suicide by shooting himself.

A week and a half before Thousand Oaks, in another horrific incident, the 46-year-old Robert Gregory Bowers killed a dozen people of the Jewish community during the Shabbat service at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. The list of incidents of gruesome gun violence in the United States is long and increasing. According to Gun Violence Archive, 12,722 people have been killed so far this year in 311 incidents of mass shootings. This includes 581 killed or injured children between 0-11 years old, and 2,472 teenagers between 12-17 years old.

Mass shootings have become an affliction in this country. Just in the past 10 years, there have been dozens of horrendous gun attacks in the United States. The affliction goes way back, for at least people of my age — 30 and under — to 1999 in Columbine, Colo., in which two students Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, killed 12 high school students and a teacher.

Where this routine orgy of violence results in the loss of innocent lives, it also leaves others in a cold spiral of fear and anxiety. It affects everyone because one fears it can happen anytime, anywhere: in the classroom, cinema, gym, mall. It is true the media’s reports of these occurrences adds to our collective anxiety. This does not mean the cause of fear is unreal. People are afraid because they do not feel safe. As someone who survived a decade of great and rampant terrorist violence against innocent civilians in Pakistan, I can feel the threat in the atmosphere.  

According to the Global Peace Index (GPI) 2018, the United States ranked 121 out of 163 countries in peacefulness. Syria ranked 163 while Iceland topped the list by ranking first. Produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, GPI measures the state of peacefulness using three thematic domains: societal safety and security, the extent of ongoing domestic and international conflict and the degree of militarisation.   

While 12,722 make 0.003 percent of America’s total population of 325.7 million, on average 40 Americans have died every day this year at the hands of armed gunmen. This number does not include the 22,000 suicides via firearms. Although incidents of mass shootings shape Americans' thinking about their lives and safety, it does not influence public views and, hence, public policy about top issues such as gun control. Robert Blendon, a professor in the Department of Public Health and Political Analysis at Harvard Kennedy School, said, “In describing it (gun violence), the public uses terms like 'crime,' 'violence,' 'terrorism' and least frequently 'guns/gun control.'”

One difficulty in America is giving this affliction a name: is it a national security problem, crime problem, public health problem, terrorism or gun control problem? The fact that Americans are still unsure about the nature of the threat makes it even more alarming. Blendon said there has been a sharp decline in the views that supported “more strict” gun-control laws, from 78 percent in 1990 to 55 percent in 2016. But, he argues, this change occurred as laws in many states and nationally have become stricter in certain areas.  

Mass shootings are indeed a tendentious problem. The causes and motivations are diverse and inscrutable in some cases. The mental health problem, especially PTSD is said to be one of the major causes of violent occurrences. One can also look at this as a cost of America’s prolonged wars on foreign lands. Many U.S. Army soldiers and Marines who return home from war zones develop PTSD and depression. Of course this is not to suggest that all Army soldiers with PTSD indulge in aggression, but they become more prone to it, as in Long’s case. In some cases, hostility seems to be legitimated by hate-mongering by the highest echelons in power.

While one can understand PTSD could be a cause, it is still unclear, at least to me, what exactly triggers the urge to kill others in mass. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, PTSD causes irritable or aggressive, reckless or self-destructive behavior and exaggerated startle response problems among other changes in arousal and reactivity. While investing resources in mental health programs to help PTSD victims of wars and other mentally-deranged individuals could be one solution, it is urgent to find a cure to the elephant in the room: access to guns.

Jeff McMahan, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Rutgers University, in "Why Gun 'Control' Is Not Enough" challenges the pro-gun ownership arguments. There are three main arguments in favor of private gun ownership. The gun-control opponents argue we are safer when more people have guns because armed individuals can deter crime and can defend themselves and fellow citizens against others when deterrence fails. They hold the more people are with guns, the less able the government is to control them and take over their freedoms. They also claim that “a prohibition would violate individuals’ rights of self-defense.”

McMahan debunked all three arguments. To the first argument, he replied that “when most citizens are armed, as they were in the Wild West, crime doesn’t cease. Instead, criminals work to be better armed, more efficient in their use of guns … and readier to use them.” To the second argument, he said, when individuals are armed, “domestic defense becomes more a matter of private self-help and vigilantism and less a matter of democratically-controlled, public law enforcement.” He asserted that individuals with handguns are no match for a modern and the most powerful Army in the world. It is a delusion to assume that a liberal democracy such as the United States can morph into a tyranny like Syria.

In case of a supposed conflict between government and the people, the “democratic procedures,” not an “armed insurrection," would be the best way of constraining it. Further, for police to remain effective, they have to better arm themselves, so armed individuals will be no match for the better-equipped police force, he said. McMahan also contends that the “right to self-defense” is a defective logic because “guns are only one means of self-defense and self-defense is only one means of achieving security against attack.”

Deaths from gun violence will continue and engulf the minds of people until Americans create a consensus that guns are lethal and are never going to build the desired balance of power between citizens. The political leadership needs to understand that guns are not a political or an economic issue but a human security problem. Politicizing the blood of innocent people and children is too dark a mean to power and wealth. Finally, more philosophers need to break down such difficult and contentious issues for the public. Because only when the people get the logic of the lethality of ownership of guns will they push harder for their prohibition.   

Aslam Kakar is a PhD student at Rutgers University—Newark. 


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