The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America is exceptional for its unique, deadly gun culture

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Americans woke up Monday morning to grisly news: From the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel, a 64-year-old gunman rained down fire on a crowded concert, indiscriminately killing at least 59 people and injuring more than 500 others. He then appears to have killed himself, according to local police. It was the worst mass shooting in the modern history of a country now all too accustomed to such carnage.

Details are still emerging about the assailant, identified as Stephen Paddock, and what could have motivated the slaughter; U.S. authorities looked skeptically at the Islamic State's claim of responsibility. Meanwhile, President Trump and a host of other politicians offered their prayers and condolences, lowered flags to half-mast and stood for moments of silence that only underscored their impotence in the face of such violence. Even the local sheriff in Las Vegas mused that he didn't “know how this could have been prevented.”

A gunman in a high-rise hotel overlooking the Las Vegas Strip opened fire on a country music festival Oct. 1, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

But to those elsewhere in the world who look on aghast each time a shooting rampage rocks the United States, the answer is blindingly obvious: guns.

Police say Paddock had a cache of 18 to 20 guns with him, including some rifles that were fully automatic and therefore heavily restricted by federal laws. American gun laws are complicated and vary by state, but in no developed nation is it as easy or as accepted for citizens to acquire weaponry and ammunition capable of exacting mass violence. The state of Nevada, home to Las Vegas, is particularly lax.

Not surprisingly, the firearm homicide rate in the United States far outstrips those of its peers — 16 times the rate in Germany and six times that of Canada, north of the border. The Guardian compiled a staggering data visualization of 1,516 mass shootings in the United States over the past 1,735 days. Elsewhere, sweeping measures taken to ban or restrict access to guns, such as in Australia, have led to a marked decline in homicides and the end of mass shootings, but are seen as nonstarters in the United States. Why is this the case?

The United States is simply awash in guns. There are almost as many privately owned firearms in this country as there are people living inside it — a figure that may also account for about half of the known number of civilian-owned firearms in the entire world. The sheer volume of such weaponry is testament to a long history of American gun ownership, but also the successful marketing of arms companies.

“One answer to the nebulous but compelling question of why Americans love guns is simply that the gun industry invited us to,” wrote Pamela Haag in her recent book, “The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun Culture.” “As an unexceptional, agnostic imperative of doing business . . . its marketing and advertisement burnished the gun as an object of emotional value and affinity.”

But that commercial imperative is tied up profoundly with the myths of the American republic. Gun rights advocates invoke the Founding Fathers and the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which declares “a well-regulated Militia” a necessity for a free state and therefore guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence,” wrote the venerable American historian and journalist Garry Wills in the aftermath a series of mass shootings in 2012. “Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”

As if on cue, the Republican governor in Kentucky issued a tweet on Monday in which he unintentionally seemed to suggest it would be easier to question the foundations of law than contemplate gun control.

Of course, it's unlikely the framers of the Constitution would have conceived of the sort of destructive machinery available at gun shows across the United States a couple of centuries later. More importantly, the United States is far from the fragile confederation of ex-colonies that needed to defend itself in the face of meddling European empires. Indeed, it's now the world's unquestioned hegemon, deploying its overwhelming military might around the globe and occupying countries with no pretense of extending Second Amendment protections to locals.

At home, gun politics remain highly racialized, with whites far more keen to champion the Second Amendment than minorities. It's also the subject of a sharp partisan divide, with Republicans and Democrats radically diverging on what should be done.

The leading pro-gun lobby group, the National Rifle Association, is an influential player in American politics and helps bankroll a slate of pro-gun candidates in elections. It waged a culture war during the Obama administration, casting the liberal president as a tyrannical figure intent on destroying gun rights. But even with Trump in the White House and Republicans in the majority in Congress, the NRA has only accelerated its messaging, issuing chilling videos warning that its enemies in the media seek to “assassinate real news” and undermine the president — and then deploying veiled threats against them.

Trump, whose campaign received $30 million from the NRA, knows where his bread is buttered. In his first weeks in power, he moved to reverse Obama-era regulations that attempted to make it harder for people with records of mental illness to acquire guns. In April, he became the first sitting president to address the NRA itself, engaging in his periodic bashing of the media and Hollywood liberals and promising they now have “a true friend and champion” in the Oval Office.

“Only one candidate in the general election came to speak to you, and that candidate is now the president of the United States, standing before you,” Trump said. “You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you.” The people affected by the latest atrocity, meanwhile, might wonder how he and Congress plan to come through for them.

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