Pulling the Trigger

Originally posted on PinpointPolitics as:  Pulling the Trigger: Justifying Gun Ownership After A Year of Mass Shootings

The invention of the firearm in 12th Century China was the first step towards a separation of emotion from killing. The more automatic firearms became, the easier it was to kill an enemy. Long gone are the days when having blood on one’s hands was literal rather than figurative, and perhaps so too are the days in which we mourn the death of any and all.

The AR-15 style rifle, main weapon of choice for Adam Lanza in his murder of 20 children and 6 adults in the December 2012 Newtown shooting, is capable of firing 45 rounds per minute in semi-automatic mode. The civilian counterpart to the weapons used by the police and military, this Bushmaster rifle is designed to kill with the same amount of physical exertion required to open a can of Coke.

Since the beginning of Obama’s presidency in 2008, there have been 30 gun-related events termed “mass shootings”, fatally injuring 266 people.  In that same time-period, it can be estimated that over 200,000 people have died due to U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. While these figures cannot be compared – one indicates gun violence in a domestic national setting, while the other references casualties of war – we must ask ourselves when death warrants publicised mourning and when it has already become part of a numbing pattern that plays into our apathy.

President Obama personifies this striking dichotomy. In his post-Newtown press conference he spoke of how, upon hearing the news, he immediately reacted as a parent rather than as a president. Though this is understandable, it is indicative of America’s split morality when it comes to its perception of death. When white, middle-class American children have their lives taken from them before they could even truly begin, a nation weeps. When hundreds of Pakistani children won’t live to see another day due to drone strikes, the silence is deafening.

Having been awarded a general ‘F’ for his actions against gun violence in the US during his first term, Obama has also been widely criticised for continuing military involvement in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. And when the individual right to bear arms to promote freedom is placed on a pedestal at home, the leap towards the right to impose freedom by using arms abroad suddenly becomes far smaller. A glance at the U.S.’s division over gun control provides the basis for tolerance for their overseas exploits.

This is not a call to arms for us to march into the streets demanding the end to all gun violence and ushering in an age of global pacifism. No such delusion is being entertained. This is however the moment to reflect on what appears to be the unravelling of our moral fibre. It seems that we have entered an era of complacent apathy when it comes to death.

Whose death matters, anyway?

It says a great deal about a nation’s moral compass when we see who deserves media attention and who doesn’t. If every gun related death in the US – 32,163 in 2011 alone (bringing the annual rate of gun deaths in 2011 to 10.3 per 100,000 people) – were to be mentioned in the media, little else would receive airtime. Yet, it can hardly be ignored that school shootings in predominantly black neighbourhoods are filed under ‘gang warfare’, never to see the light of the 8 o’clock news. Terrifyingly, those who dominate the airwaves are actually those pulling the trigger.

After shootings, news networks immediately leap to publish as much information as possible on the killer. Though this may aid in opening debate up to issues other than simply gun restriction (mental healthcare for example), it seems to feed into a glorification of those who tread the line of society’s margin. Certain sociological theories would claim that those characters are a necessary evil to allow society to define its moral and ethical codes. Yet, when your television grazes over the death of thousands in a distant country and spends hours profiling one man, it adds to the abstraction of death. We see only the killer and never the victims.

Following the Newtown Shooting, the debate on American gun laws has resurfaced. With many calling for the outright banning of private gun ownership, and the pro-gun lobby going as far as calling for an armed teacher in every classroom. A brief glance at the Obama administration’s website that caters to public petitions shows the immense divide in public opinion over gun laws and restriction. The most popular petitions on the subject range from banning the ownership of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons, deporting Piers Morgan to the UK over his outspoken anti-gun stance, and upholding the Second Amendment at any cost.

The issue of the Second Amendment is one that dominates the gun violence debate. The pro-gun lobby and much of the Republican electorate insist that it is their right to be armed, as they have the right to protect themselves and the right to live in a free country that ensures these rights in its constitution. Yet these rights are enshrined in a constitution written at a time when the weapons of choice were bayonets rather than semi-automatic assault rifles, and gun violence was necessary to establish a government rather than to protect your family from gun-toting killers on shooting sprees because the country has failed to provide them with adequate mental healthcare.

According to the pro-gun lobby, these individual rights exist to preserve the common good. And whether he agrees with that line of thought or not, President Obama is quick to pacify those who fear that their right to bear arms will be revoked:  “Look, like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. This country has a strong tradition of gun ownership that’s been handed down from generation to generation.”

Obama has promised “meaningful action” will be taken vis-à-vis gun violence. As of yet, this has entailed charging Vice President Biden with finding a solution to the problem. Biden’s task force, however, has been met with strong opposition from the NRA, and seems to already be willing to settle for less.

At the heart of this debate is the question of where individual rights must be constrained for the greater national good and, leading on from this, the question of whether gun ownership should continue to be a right preserved in the Constitution. We must ask ourselves at what cost should all of these rights be preserved, and to what lengths must they be protected. Therein lies the conflict of opinions central to the debate: Although some argue that more guns, rather than less, are the answer, the case study of Australia’s successful end to gun violence indicates the opposite.

 Where have our morals gone?

There exists a growing distance between citizens of Western democracies and a normative ethics pertaining to death. To argue that this is a negative thing seems ridiculous. Yet we mustn’t forget the horrors that exist in the world, lest we perpetuate them. Without light there is no dark; without death, no life.

Are we becoming a generation whose moral compass now points to a North of our own creation, where what is “right” and what is “wrong” is subject mainly to our own ability to justify actions that never directly affect our lives? A generation alienated from the worth and cost of human life. A generation who can identify the world’s evils, and subsequently watch them unfold. We are becoming apathetic armchair activists, and the time has come to decide where the line is drawn when we say “enough is enough”.

It is most certainly a romantic generalisation and characteristic of false nostalgia to assume that our moral compasses were far more precise in the past. Yet we cannot ignore the significant impact that technological advances have had on facilitating a distancing of life’s difficult truths. Our moral vision has tunnelled, leaving suffering on the periphery comfortably blurred.  There are certain painful realities that we’d rather not face. Unfortunately, it seems that we are succeeding.

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