As the United States reels from yet another school shooting, Patrick Kelleher looks at their relaxed gun laws, and questions how these tragedies can be prevented.
On Thursday 1st October, a gunman opened fire on students in Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon in the United States. During the massacre, Chris Harper-Mercer killed ten people, and injured others. The shooting comes amid heightened criticism in both the US and abroad of their gun laws, which allow easy access to firearms for American citizens. Gun laws in the US are highly relaxed, meaning that for many Americans, owning a gun is a right rather than a choice.
School massacres in the US are not a new phenomenon, with the earliest recorded massacre happening in 1764. The massacre happened when native Americans stormed a school in Pennsylvania, killing the schoolmaster and ten children. Throughout the nineteenth century, there were a number of school shootings, in which children brought guns to school, resulting in the death and injury of fellow students. It was not, however, until the 20th century, that the phenomenon of mass-shootings began.
The problems surrounding gun violence in the US are ever growing. Too frequently, shockwaves are spread across the world as guns are brought into public places, with multiple killings being the result. Often, as was the case on 1st October in Oregon, the shooter turns the gun on themselves after their rampage. What is perhaps telling is that investigators found Harper-Mercer was linked to 14 firearms. All weapons were legally obtained either by himself or his family members over the last three years. His father commented: “I had no idea he had any guns. I have no idea that he had any guns whatsoever… And I’m a great believer you don’t buy guns…”
After last week’s shooting, President Barack Obama commented on gun violence in the US. “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it… We have become numb to this,” he said. He argues for tighter controlled gun laws, however he is in a difficult position. While polls suggest that the majority of the public would welcome gun reform, he is held back by the US Congress, which is heavily against gun regulation. Congress is conservative leaning, and it is unlikely that they will allow firearm reform through anytime soon, particularly as the right to bear arms is protected in the US constitution.
The problem is that school shootings have become routine for a country where these shootings are a part of the very blocks on which the foundation of the US is built. Many Americans view it as a right to possess firearms, taking their credence from the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
It is difficult for us to know what drives people to murder. However with the regular mass-shootings in the US, it is even more difficult to understand why or even how shooters carry out their actions. A MySpace page believed to be linked to Harper-Mercer carried posters from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as a brief speculation on a previous shooting that happened in August, where two news anchors were shot on television. According to CNN, the MySpace page says: “I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are… Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” His comments may help to shine some light on what prompted him to kill. However it doesn’t explain why his country did not prevent this tragedy from happening sooner through more restrictive gun laws.
Any mention of changing gun laws have been blocked by conservatives over the years, as advocates of firearms believe it is a constitutional right to possess a gun. These conservative arguments are incredibly damaging, however, and are most clearly seen in the articles published on the website of the National Rifle Association (NRA). Titles of articles include ‘Stopping Obama’s Latest Gun Grab’ and ‘The President’s Biggest Lie’. The NRA also run several firearm museums, where members of the public can attend to look at large collections of guns. Looking at the activities of the NRA, it is no surprise that America is as gun-obsessed as it is. They treat weapons as something to marvel at rather than as something to fear.
A major feature of the commentary surrounding these shootings is the inclination of the public to blame mental health difficulties for the deaths. The first question posed by many reporters on the Oregan shooting was ‘did he suffer from a mental illness?’ A survey from mid-July from the Pew Research Center indicated that 80 per cent of respondants backed the idea that there should be a law preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns. However this conversation in itself is heavily misguided; while the gunmen involved in these shootings often suffer from mental illnesses, the cause itself is not mental illness, but rather the alarmingly relaxed laws that allow people to obtain guns easily.
It is counter-productive to claim that mentally ill people should be prevented from purchasing guns. Not everybody who suffers from mental illnesses will be officially diagnosed, and it also wouldn’t be able to prevent the current gun-owners, who may suffer from illnesses, continuing to own their own firearms. This conversation is diversionary, and only exists to shift the focus from the easy-access to guns to mental illness; if the former were fixed, the problem would be prevented.
School shootings have been happening now for not just decades, but centuries. However increasingly, the problem is that these shootings are becoming more violent, more damaging, and more frequent. The US must stand up to these aggressors, and regulate gun control. As Obama pointed out this week, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough. It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel, and it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America, next week, or a couple of months from now.” It is time that the US takes action to prevent the innumerable and pointless deaths that are caused by gun violence, before another one of these tragedies happens. Diversionary tactics from conservative quarters cannot be tolerated anymore: the problem must be faced head on. The US must fix its gun laws before another incident like that seen in Oregon happens, and claims even more lives.