The Maclean's Editorial

How America can change its relationship with guns

It will take time. But Americans deserve the right to live without fear of mass shootings.

Can America change? The United States has always demonstrated an endless capacity for growth, imagination and rebirth. For well over a century it’s been the world’s greatest source of economic, cultural and democratic inspiration. Many times it has completely transformed itself, out of necessity or vision—often both. The American aptitude for change has never been in doubt.

Surely it’s now time for Americans to change their own tragic relationship with gun violence.

The devastating attack last week on Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., stands as the single biggest mass shooting in modern American history, with at least 49 dead and another 53 wounded. Yet how long this grim achievement retains top spot remains an open question. The previous record—33 dead and 23 injured in the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007—occurred less than a decade ago. And it’s only been four years since another mass shooter took the lives of 20 young children plus six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. According to the online Gun Violence Archive, there have already been 139 mass shootings in the U.S. this year.

The United States is not unique in its suffering; other countries have been bloodied by public gun attacks. Britain: 16 kindergarten students and a teacher killed in Dunblane, Scotland. Germany: nine high school students, three teachers and three passersby killed in Winnenden. Australia: 35 killed and 23 wounded at the Port Arthur historic site in Tasmania. Canada: 14 young women killed and 14 others injured at the École Polytechnique in Montreal. The key difference between the U.S. and the rest of the world is that these other events sparked widespread national outrage and led directly to a political consensus on the need for changes to gun ownership rules, specifically access to handguns and the military-style rifles most frequently used in mass shootings. The U.S., alone among western nations, is apparently immune to this sort of response.

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There’s certainly been plenty of outrage and political heat generated by the Orlando shootings, but very little of it has been directed in ways that will solve the problem. Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has used the attack to lash out at Muslim immigrants, ignoring the fact that previous mass shootings, including Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, had nothing to do with religion. Democrat Hillary Clinton has sensibly called for a reinstatement of the assault weapon ban in place in the U.S. between 1994 and 2004, but keep in mind President Barack Obama used his own post-shooting comments to lament his inability to push similar gun-control measures through an intractable Congress.

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The sad truth is that most Americans prefer to talk about other things instead of summoning the courage necessary to shift their deadly national obsession with guns. This may be due to a deep love of owning firearms, or a widespread suspicion of government, or simply the sheer scale of the task at hand. The fact that nearly half of all civilian-owned firearms in the world are in the U.S. may be leading to a feeling of resignation that the problem is simply too big to tackle: there are already too many guns out there to make a difference. Weaning the U.S. off its guns is certainly a huge and daunting task. But nothing should be considered impossible for America.

In the wake of the Port Arthur shootings in Australia, for example, the federal government launched a massive buy-back program that reduced gun circulation by 20 per cent and nearly halved the number of gun-owning Australian households. Recent research indicates this led to a substantial decline in gun deaths from both homicide (35-50 per cent) and suicide (74 per cent). And there have been no mass shootings since the buy-back. A U.S. program proportionate in scale to Australia’s would remove up to 60 million guns from circulation. In Britain, the 1996 Dunblane massacre prompted a strict ban on handguns; the country has experienced only one mass shooting since then. Similarly, the 1994 to 2004 ban on assault rifles in the U.S. demonstrably reduced criminals’ access to large-capacity, rapid-fire guns.

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Besides limiting the accessibility of military-style weaponry, the other obvious issue to be confronted is mental illness. Mass shootings are nearly always the work of dangerously unstable individuals. Dealing with mental illness remains an enormous challenge for all societies, but once again, small steps are the way forward. In a modest achievement recognizing this fact, since 2004, 40 U.S. states have tightened gun laws to restrict sales to people with psychiatric problems. Consider it a start.

It may take still more time for public opinion and political leadership to finally come to terms with the horrors of gun violence in the U.S. And it may take decades to solve the problem. But someday, America will inevitably realize the right to live without fear of dying in a mass shooting outweighs the right to own guns designed to cause mass shootings.

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