I visited Charleston, South Carolina with my husband for a couple of nights in 2008. It’s a refined, slightly prim coastal city with a colorful history, some charming architecture, good restaurants and a busy tourist trade. It was January, fresh and bright. White church spires split an azure sky. We went on a walking tour along streets lined with palmetto trees, ogling the grand houses with their distinctive side piazzas designed to let in the cool breezes coming off the sea. I remember driving back to Georgia, reflecting that there was something about our northern neighbor – and Charleston in particular – that felt more quintessentially Southern than anywhere else I’d been.
It was in the center of this small, historic city that last Wednesday a twenty-one year old man shot dead nine people in their Bible study class. Not in some strange impoverished backwater on the outskirts of the metro area, not in a housing project or a recognized no-go zone, but right there in the heart of the city, three minutes’ walk from the main public library, eight minutes’ walk from the downtown Apple Store.
And so, America grieves again. We contemplate the victims, the tragedy, the loss. We evoke God and healing and hope. And, this time, we talk about race. The victims were African-American and the shooter is a white supremacist, or a white supremacist sympathizer, or a white supremacist wannabe. This is a story about race – and race, of course, is the American story of these past months. Ferguson. Baltimore. It’s all intricately complex, painful and difficult, but at least we can talk about it. We talk about it endlessly, in fact, and quite rightly so because the problems are real and action is needed. Anyone who thought racism in America was over when Obama made President ate their hat and their touching naïveté a good while ago.
But Charleston was also about something else that we find harder to talk about. Or maybe not harder – maybe just tiring, boring, repetitious, fruitless, frustrating, depressing, divisive, dead-end.
My British friends shake their heads in disbelief. How can they keep on letting this happen? Why aren’t they shouting and screaming about it, demanding something must be done? Do they realize how insane they look to the rest of the world?
My British friends ask: what is it with Americans and guns?
Britain has some of the most stringent gun laws in the world. Handguns are almost completely prohibited, and next to no-one keeps a firearm in their home. Regular police don’t even carry them. To many British people, merely catching sight of a gun would be shocking. A single mass shooting would be – has been, in the form of the 1996 Dunblane massacre that prompted a further tightening of the law – talked about and etched on memories forever.
Yes, Charleston was about racism, and racism is a huge issue for the US, but every country has its racists and its bigots. Every country has its disaffected youth, its mentally ill, its weak and desperate and dispossessed. But, among comparable nations, only America has the guns, in these numbers, with this level of access and public acceptance. And, among wealthy countries with relative political stability, only America has this much murder. The evidence suggests that, if Dylann Roof was the same sort of racist, with the same intensity of anger and hatred, but living in Britain instead of America, the chances of his having murdered nine people would be vastly reduced.
Now, I don’t claim any kind of expertise when it comes to explaining American gun culture. I haven’t done nearly enough reading about it to understand the nuances and complexities and historical explanations. But I have lived for the past eight years in one of the states with the most lenient gun laws in the country, a state that, in 2014, enacted a piece of legislation known as the “guns everywhere law”, which allows firearms to be carried freely in – amongst most other places – government offices, airports, places of worship and school classrooms. On that basis, for what it’s worth, I have a few thoughts on what it is with Americans and guns.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the first thing to say is that not all Americans feel the same way about the issue. There are those who, like my British friends, feel that it’s crazy and shameful and can’t go on, and there are numerous American anti-gun campaign organizations.
But, as we all know, there is an opposite end to that spectrum, where those who love guns with a passion dwell: those who go to shows and accumulate collections; who study and cherish and polish and display; who put pictures of their weapons on Facebook and buy gun owners’ magazines. The motivations for this fervent gun-love, which is not generally regarded as especially niche or eccentric, at least here in the South, seem to be primarily symbolic and sentimental. Some see guns as representing America’s pioneer history, a patriotic symbol of resistance to oppression and anti-authoritarianism. They cite the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which gives citizens the right to bear arms so they need never be tyrannized again. It can be about class and politics too, with an overt love of firearms a defiant gesture against all the big government liberals, a howl for the sanctity of personal freedom, a cry of pride from the rural hunters aimed at the ears of the city-dwelling, soft-skinned educational and professional elites. It’s this distinction, or some version of it – this idea of ‘two Americas’ – that underpins so much of the antagonistic political discourse in this country today. And, it can be personal. The father quietly teaches the son to handle and respect a weapon; the first gun as a rite of passage; hunting trips as a bonding experience enjoyed across a lifetime. Guns as masculinity.
And finally, of course, there are reasons of fear, which have a wider reach: you don’t have to be any sort of gun-lover to want to protect yourself or your family, or to wonder whether, in a country overrun with weapons, providing that protection requires you to take up arms yourself, however reluctantly. Between the enthusiasts and the anti-gun campaigners, there’s a pragmatic space where gun ownership can reasonably seem like a real-world solution to a real-world problem. Personally, I’ve never given it serious consideration, partly, I think, because as a British person it just seems anathema to civilization. I’m fortunate to have the choice to live in a fairly safe neighborhood, and beyond that I’d rather roll the dice and take my chances – something which I think Americans maybe find it harder to do. But also I’ve never really followed the logic: if you keep your gun locked away, which you must in order to be safe, what are the chances that, in a real attack situation, things would unfold in such a way that owning it would make any difference? Wayne LaPierre, Executive VP of the National Rifle Association (NRA), famously said: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. Assuming that good guy can get into the right room of the house, remember the combination to his safe, recall the detail of that firearms training session he attended several years ago, and sustain sufficient composure to aim accurately and pull the trigger. Oh, and be the one to do it first. Still, I understand the fear.
So there’s pride and patriotism and family and fear, and what’s really important to understand is that these feelings are all propped up by a whole industry with a vested interest in perpetuating them. The NRA and the gun manufacturers run a fantastically successful PR operation, so powerful that they manage to whitewash almost all the facts and figures, and maintain a grip on public opinion that prevents the kind of widespread outcry that might actually force legislators into making some meaningful change. In an interview earlier this week, President Obama admitted that during the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, when 20 young children were brutally gunned down in their elementary classrooms and Congress responded by making no changes whatsoever, was the closest he’s come in his two terms to losing his optimism and feeling real disgust. For as long as public support maintains the awesome power of the gun lobby, only relatively minor adjustments – what politicians like to refer to as “common sense gun safety measures”, like universal background checks or tighter restrictions on military-style semi-automatic weapons – seem even theoretically possible. The kind of radical legislation that might bring America anywhere close to a British-style minimal firearms culture feels several worlds away.
Shootings like the one in Charleston last week are not inevitable. They are not natural disasters. They can be stopped, and have been stopped in other countries, by legislation that makes it a whole lot harder for people who are sick or angry or blinded by hate to get their hands on guns. Making it happen in America cannot be impossible, but would, I fear, require a truly profound and pervasive change of hearts and minds. Advocates for gun control would need somehow to roar louder than the behemoth pro-gun lobby to convince people that free access to firearms really does cause more death, and that, whatever their reasons for wanting to hold on to their weapons, the loss of all these innocent lives is too high a price to pay. And that might be the easy part. Statistically, it is highly questionable that owning or carrying a gun makes anyone safer but, in the face of fear, we may need more than statistics. In order to shift public opinion, we would have to persuade individuals that, while they may feel – may, it’s possible, even be – personally safer with a gun than without one, overall we are all less safe with the gun laws that we have in this country, and if we’re any sort of society, if America as an entity really means something after all, that’s what ought to matter to us most. Ultimately, real change on one untouchable subject may depend on confronting another: the individual versus the collective, the question of the greater good. It may, in the end, come down to empathy. And if it turns out that Americans simply don’t have enough, that’ll be one more tragedy.
Photo: Emanuel AME Church, Charleston SC by Howard Arnoff https://www.flickr.com/photos/howardarnoff/