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Despite this year averaging one mass shooting a day, and pleas from the president for legislative changes, the United States clings to its literalist interpretation of the right to bear arms. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Mass shootings rife as Americans stick to their guns

It was summer in Texas. Hot, humid, the sky vacated of cloud. Claire James was a freshman, walking arm in arm in with her partner, Tom Eckman, across their university campus. She was eight months pregnant. As they walked leisurely across the mall, Claire stopped abruptly. It felt as if she’d “stepped on a live wire” – as if thousands of volts had suddenly, implausibly entered her. Neither of them knew it then, but Claire had been shot in her abdomen. It was a sniper’s bullet. 

“Baby–” Tom said, reaching out to her. It was the last thing he said. The sniper had turned his rifle on him. As the two lay bleeding on the hot campus path, Claire realised he was dead. “The shock was so great,” Claire told Texas Monthly decades later, “that I didn’t feel pain; it felt more like something really heavy was pressing down on me.” 

That day the shooter killed 14 on campus and its surrounding areas. There were victims in streets and shops many blocks from the university, such was the distance and murderous accuracy of the shots. Students hid behind trees and hedges; the injured lay frozen, feigning death. Others went home to get their guns, and returned to fire upon the sniper’s nest. 

There were two preceding murders. The night before the massacre, the shooter had stabbed his wife and mother to death in their respective beds. “It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company,” he wrote in a note. “I love her dearly and she has been as fine a wife to me as any man could ever hope to have. I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reason for doing this. I don’t know whether it is selfishness, or if I don’t want her to have to face the embarrassment my actions would surely cause her. At this time, though, the prominent reason in my mind is that I truly do not consider this world worth living in, and am prepared to die, and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to kill her as painlessly as possible.” 

It was a long note. Some of it typewritten, the rest scribbled in ballpoint pen. It expressed bewilderment about his murderousness, but chillingly accepted its inevitability. “I don’t really understand myself these days… After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder. I have had some tremendous headaches in the past and have consumed two large bottles of Excedrin in the past three months.” 

The shootings on campus lasted 96 minutes before the gunman was shot dead by an off-duty police officer. The following day, the president of the United States issued this statement: “The shocking tragedy of yesterday’s event in Austin is heightened because it was so senseless. While senseless, however, what happened is not without a lesson: that we must press urgently for the legislation now pending in congress to help prevent the wrong persons from obtaining firearms.” 

The sniper was Charles Whitman, a 25-year-old former Marine and University of Texas student. The year was 1966. His vantage point was the campus clock tower. The president was Lyndon Johnson, even if the words could comfortably fit Barack Obama today. It was Whitman’s massacre that introduced the unholy phenomenon of mass public shootings to America. Since then, that phenomenon has been alarmingly replicated – in the past 1000 days there have been almost as many mass shootings. Since 2013, there have been almost 150 school shootings alone. It wouldn’t be true, though, to suggest that since 1966 nothing has changed – perversely, though, the changes are largely ones that have entrenched the slaughters. 

‘We have become numb to this’

Weary and appalled, President Obama made yet another speech on a mass shooting this week. It was a response to the Oregon massacre, committed when Chris Harper-Mercer strode into a community college bearing six guns and body armour. He murdered nine people. 

Harper-Mercer was, by various accounts, sullen, isolated and living with his mother. He had loose dreams of being a financier or filmmaker, but perhaps his greatest passion was guns. He and his mother would frequent the shooting range, a practice about which his father – long divorced from Harper-Mercer’s mother and living in another state – apparently knew nothing. Harper-Mercer’s murderous spree began when he entered the class of his English teacher and summarily executed him. An avowed atheist, it has been reported that the killer targeted Christians – asking his victims about their religiosity as he pointed his weapon at them. 

Having spoken when 20 preschoolers were slaughtered at Sandy Hook in 2012, then watched as subsequent gun-control laws were rejected by congress, Obama’s speech after the Oregon massacre contained a compressed resentment. “Earlier this year,” Obama said, “I answered a question in an interview by saying, ‘The United States of America is the one advanced nation on Earth in which we do not have sufficient commonsense gun-safety laws – even in the face of repeated mass killings.’ And later that day, there was a mass shooting at a movie theatre in Lafayette, Louisiana. That day! 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.”

It is not for the US president to confess futility – but you would be forgiven for detecting it in his irritation. A Gordian knot exists between him and reform. “What’s become routine,” he said, “is the response of those who oppose any kind of commonsense gun legislation. Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: We need more guns, they’ll argue. Fewer gun safety laws.

“Does anybody really believe that? There are scores of responsible gun owners in this country – they know that’s not true. We know because of the polling that says the majority of Americans understand we should be changing these laws – including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.

“There is a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America. So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer? We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work, or just will make it harder for law-abiding citizens and criminals will still get their guns, is not borne out by the evidence.” 

Professor Thomas Adams is a historian at the United States Studies Centre in the University of Sydney. He watched Obama’s speech while in the US. “His reaction was like most Americans’. And he’s had a lot of practice at this now,” Adams says. “Importantly, Obama challenged the media on how they report this issue. He asked them [to] compare the numbers of Americans killed by guns versus terrorists. There’s no comparison.” 

Rise of the NRA

When Charles Whitman took the elevator to the top of the tower, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was principally a gun-control organisation. Formed after the Civil War, the NRA promoted gun safety and was crucial to Lyndon Johnson passing the Gun Control Act of 1968. It hadn’t created the gun-soaked frontier culture of Texas, it simply reflected it – the police officer who killed Whitman on the tower’s balcony had to avoid the killer’s bullets, but also those coming from armed students below. In 1966, the NRA’s raison d’être was “the dissemination of gun-safety literature”, says Adams. “The NRA wasn’t this massive, well-organised lobbying force. That didn’t come about ’til around the 1970s, when they reconceived themselves significantly.” 

Arguably, the greatest influence of the NRA has been to shift many, many decades of legal interpretation. During the ’70s, the NRA embraced a literalist interpretation of the Second Amendment – that the American people had the constitutional right to unencumbered possession of firearms. “This was a transition,” Adams says. “They lobbied hard, but what they really did was place the Second Amendment as a key plank of a larger counterattack upon what they – and conservatives – saw as liberal detours away from the constitution. From what they saw as the judicial activism of the ’60s, when decisions [were made] on abortion, segregation, bussing – these civil rights decisions were handed down.

“This centred on originalist interpretations of the constitution. Most historians, I think, and the bulk of legal interpretation, had until then considered the constitution a living, contextual document. That the constitution offers principals, but not direct rules, and that the Second Amendment is grounded historically – that is, to help mobilise civilian militias in lieu of a standing army. The NRA helped change this. Theirs was a self-conscious, originalist interpretation of the document.” 

Blaming the victims

The Republican presidential candidates each made statements about the Oregon shooting this week. Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon who is polling well, said: “There is no doubt that this senseless violence is breathtaking – but I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” 

Which is extraordinary, given that one of the reasons for removing that right might be to prevent your loved ones becoming a “body with bullet holes”. In Carson’s logic, the guns themselves are preferred over preventing the consequence of them. He said this of the victims: “Not only would I probably not co-operate with him, I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say, ‘Hey guys, everybody attack him. He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’ ”

It requires robotic obedience to your base, or a dizzy chutzpah, to blame victims of a massacre. The belief that an English teacher, surprised by his killer in a classroom, should have heroically prevented his own execution is bizarre. That a presumptive president might suggest the teacher was somehow complicit in his own murder is appalling. 

Carson now suggests kindergarten teachers should receive weapons training and carry guns to class. “If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t.”

The response of an Australian police officer to me was a mix of disgust and incredulity. “Really? Jesus. Do you realise how difficult it is for an experienced member to engage in a gunfight with a volatile, armed offender? Much less a civilian? These are complicated, highly stressful situations. You don’t just send someone to a shooting range then expect them to be Critical Response.” 

Carson’s policy suggests both the heroic individual and a rejection of an overbearing state. Which is par for a Republican candidate: let the individual protect themselves against rogue elements. But Carson’s policy is essentially a reformulation of a Hollywood action script – a childish fantasy that all individuals, suitably armed, can prevent atrocity. It also unwittingly acknowledges that the state has failed its citizens in mitigating mass murder. That job’s up to you, the childcare worker. 

In America, guns are always the answer to guns. Despite there being as many firearms as people, apparently there’s an insufficient amount. The inevitable response of the gun lobby is that “guns don’t kill people, people do”, which glibly ignores the fact mass killers are enabled by the lethal efficiency of semiautomatic weapons. People may kill people, but they struggle do so to mass effect with a knife. And yet such is the saturation of guns in the US, it has given rise to a persuasive, if perverse, logic: a sensible person would be armed. For decades now, the American people have engaged in an arms race against themselves. 

This week, Fox host Tucker Carlson confused Australia with North Korea, saying: “[Australians] have no freedom, you can go to prison for expressing unpopular views in Australia and people do… The idea that taking guns away from the law-abiding will make us safer is insane and childish.”

Carlson presumably believes liberal freedoms are entirely dependent upon an unencumbered right to possess multiple machineguns. And if our prohibitions are childish, then we all are: there is massive support for John Howard’s legislation. Carlson also made use of that common rhetorical gambit of gun enthusiasts – the confused analogy. “When there’s a driving accident, you don’t ban cars,” he said, “you try to prevent drunk people from driving.” 

Yes, we abhor drink-driving, and recognise that a vehicle driven by a drunk becomes a weapon. We seek to discourage drink-driving – while recognising we can never expunge it – by law and booze buses. Carlson’s comparison does, in fact, work – just not in the way he thinks it does. The equivalent gun policy would be to prevent the unstable or violent from acquiring weapons. 

Carson and Carlson love espousing American exceptionalism, but conveniently elide one grim fact of it: the country’s staggering rate of gun crime. This year, the United States is averaging one mass shooting a day. So they’re arguing inside a vault. A vault that can’t be breached by the fact that America experiences a staggeringly disproportionate amount of mass public shootings. Intellectually, they’re unresponsive to its unique regularity. 

‘Little political will to change’

Almost half a century since the University of Texas shootings, the campus is again at the centre of the nation’s gun debate. The Texas legislature has recently passed a bill – informally known as Campus Carry – that would permit students to carry concealed firearms to university. It comes into effect next year. But the school’s chancellor, a former Navy SEAL, is worried about how the Second Amendment might inhibit the first – freedom of speech. “I absolutely understand the Second Amendment,” he said this week. “I have spent my life fighting for the Second Amendment. You know, you have to ask yourself why did the founding fathers put freedom of speech as the First Amendment? They may have done that because freedom of speech is incredibly important, and if you have guns on campus, I question whether or not that will somehow inhibit our freedom of speech. If you’re in a heated debate with somebody in the middle of a classroom and you don’t know whether or not that individual is carrying, how does that inhibit the interaction between students and faculty?”

The arms race continues. Adams believes it will require a change to the Supreme Court’s composition to see any legislation that might halt it. “Probably just one vote would do it,” he tells me. “To reset the court’s decision to what it was prior to about the 1980s – and what it was for 200 years – and that’s treating the Second Amendment historically. I think the Supreme Court is the only way this will change in the next decade or so. There’s little political will to change, despite the majority of Americans wanting some change.” 

As it is, Chris Harper-Mercer acquired his arsenal legally. As did John Houser, the unstable man who entered a movie theatre in Lafayette and murdered two. So too Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot nine dead in a church in June. The list of mass killers with violent histories who legally purchased their weapons is long. And as Obama’s sallow exhaustion suggested, it won’t be shortened any time soon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "Sticking to their guns". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.