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America: Guns and Losses

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May 30, 2007 16:08 IST
When I was still new in the US and sorting out my first impressions, I had a somewhat unpleasant and unsettling encounter. Asked at a very congenial get together by a charming American lady as to what baffled me most about the US, what is it that I 'did not get as a foreigner', I had replied in all honesty that it was the freedom to buy and use guns that I found most difficult to understand.

This comment created a maelstrom which I have narrated quite some time ago in a column Guns and Roses. I did not know then of how emotive and polarising an issue this is in America. I have realised it since then, but still find it a puzzle that in this day and age, civilised people can love guns.

These thoughts came to mind once again, as with the rest of the world, I saw the images on television screen after the Virginia Tech killings. How senseless, how tragic. There was the poignant image of cell phones still ringing as the bodies of students were being taken out: anxious parents, having come to know of the shootings, calling their kids.

One can imagine their agony with phones still ringing and the uncertainty of the implications therein sinking. To use an Indian idiom, not the fate that you want to befall on your worst enemy. And for us, Indians, the heart wrenching stories about Professor Loganathan and a student, Minal Panchal.

Such a dedicated professor, such a gentle student, victims of the shootout on that fateful day. All killing is sad but the tragedy somehow comes nearer when it touches families that you can more readily empathise with.

Despite the somber mood and the shock and sorrow, some of the responses were bewildering. Predictably the newspapers and television were full of views after the shooting about what went wrong and what needs to be done.

In the babble, on the very first day, I heard an opinion that if only more professors, more students had guns for self-defence, the lone deranged gunman Seung-Hui Cho would have been shot earlier, that lives would have been spared. At first I did not believe that I could be hearing this. But over the next weeks, I heard this argument being made time and again, by pundits of a particular ilk. And a raging debate about guns, rights, and lives that is so peculiarly alien and American.

God and Gun are two of the most divisive issues, I learnt, as I tried to follow the debate with the keenness of a student of another culture.

First, the staggering numbers. In a country of 300 million people, it is estimated that there are over 240 million weapons. At least one for every able bodied adult, probably more. Since most of the kinds of people that I interact with seem to abhor guns, it must be that there are regions and households in America brimming with weapons from small pistols to assault rifles to rocket launchers.

Here is another astonishing fact. The US has fought many wars since its founding. But more Americans have lost their lives in its history as a result of random domestic shootings than all the loss of lives from all the wars!

In 2005 alone, 35,000 lives were lost in this manner. How and why has this come to pass and why especially only in the US? And how and why is this still defended?

The answers lie in a mix of history or more accurately mythology which is a form of history in the popular imagination, politics, commerce and plain blindness to reality. A potent mix from which fire erupts to consume lives, literally so.

In the actual unfolding of history, the early European pioneers who came to a large, untamed and under populated continent and 'discovered' America, used firearms for two purposes. To hunt in a country with wild animals and to fight and conquer 'the Indians', the ones with bows and arrows on horsebacks.

The land was plentiful and the new settlers too few, and as they slowly made their march westwards, they defended themselves and their property with their superior firepower. All this is misty history now, although only 400 years old. But it so came to pass that by the time America became an organised and independent State, the land was flush with firearms, groups were organised as militias in different parts and to carry and use weapons was a widely accepted practice.

This historical background led to 'the right to bear arms' being made a supreme fundamental right enshrined in the second amendment to the constitution of 1787.

The interpretation of these words in the constitution is a debate of almost theological dimensions, much more ferocious than our debate on the 'basic structure'. Apart from history, there is the mythology that to be 'truly American is to love your gun', a point that had been conveyed to me ominously by Clint the glint, as I had termed him in my encounter in Guns and Roses.

That guns are essential for liberty and self-defence seems to be a strong belief among many, though mercifully not all, Americans. An intelligent man well versed in history told me that seeing (in the movies) the scenes of Jews being led to gas chambers in Nazi Germany had led him to think that this would have never happened in America.

A real man with his gun would never surrender, would never be deprived of his freedom and dignity, would not be led to death without defending himself, and hence no Nazis, no Hitler could have done in the US what they were able to do to the Jews in Germany, he said.

These kinds of belief-systems have been reinforced by the gun lobbies, who with their size, money and influence have become a major constituency that no politician dare oppose. To talk of abolition of gun rights is a strict political 'no no' and even to advocate stricter gun control laws is fraught with political risks. Hence, the extremely cautious and conservative responses to the Virginia Tech massacre from even the liberals in politics.

While these are some of the underlying factors at work, the defence of guns takes various forms, which can seem bizarre. In the days following the Virginia Tech shootings many arguments were heard. I have already mentioned the 'proliferation advocates' -- the argument that if only every one had a gun, the crazy gunmen, Cho, would have been deterred or 'neutralised' earlier!

Then, there is the view that it was his mental condition which caused the killings; the guns were mere instruments. 'Guns don't kill, people do' is the refrain. Another variation is the futility argument, that even if there were gun controls, an individual intent on acquiring one will beg, borrow or steal a weapon and will not be stopped by laws. And statistical sleight of hand to show that many more get killed in car accidents than by guns. Why don't we demand banning cars, so goes this argument.

The 'poster candidate' for the gun lobby was soon found, however, a few days after the shooting. An 80-year-old, former Miss USA, who moves around in a wheelchair had reportedly spotted a burglar outside her home. What did she do? Call the police or raise an alarm? No. She can hardly walk but had picked up her rifle, fired shots at the car of the burglar and had chased him away. A true all American star with both barrels blazing. Her act of self-defence should shame and silence all critics, it was contended.

What can one say? To each his gun? To each country its special brand of irrationality?

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

B S Prakash