By Alexander Hurst
Thursday night I sit down with my internationally diverse flatmates and start flipping through the pages of grabagun.com. I have no idea what the different range of calibers and options mean, but I have heard of nine millimeters before- so I click on that page, and we are confronted with 1,047 different options of “beginner” handguns. My flatmates—from Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, and France—are already incredulous.
The cheapest is a Hi-Point C9, for $148. We keep scrolling and then go through the filter options for other types of guns. 0.44 Magnum? That reminds me of playing Goldeneye for Nintendo 64 with my friend Paul after school during fifth grade, so I click on that. The bigger, deadlier handgun looks best in chrome: $1,405. Do I want to add a silencer? An extra $669.
But we are getting bored with handguns, and so we move on to the bigger stuff. Assault rifles. The cheap, entry-level option is a Mossberg 715T, at $213. A reviewer wrote, “Imagine being a kid and getting this as your first rifle. How cool would this be to show off to your friends? Answer: Super cool.” Hmm.
Stepping up a level, a Bushmaster—Adam Lanza’s gun of choice—is $590. A few 30-round cartridges to go with it would be just a bit over $7 each. And if we had the money, we could go all the way up the scale to the mean, serious, and military looking Barrett assault rifle, which comes with two little supports attached to the much longer barrel. $10,337. Plus a $5.99 flat fee for shipping.
But the ease and convenience of buying my gun online, and without a background check? Priceless.
America has decided that there is no price too high for the right to unchecked access to weapons that make mass murder possible.
The twenty kindergartners gunned down in January, 2013 in Newton, Connecticut wasn’t too high a price. The ten people shot and killed Thursday night at a community college in Oregon wasn’t too high a price. And the six month old baby who was shot in my hometown, Cleveland, Ohio, on that exact same day wasn’t too high a price.
“From our cold, dead hands!” the gun lobby cries. But how many actual cold, dead hands, feet, eyes, and bodies have to litter America’s streets before we are willing to truly confront our obscene and irrational national obsession with guns?
In yet another press conference addressing yet another mass shooting, Obama was both angry and defeated. How could he not have been? He’s already had to do this dozens of times this year alone. “Show America the numbers,” he challenged the media, and the numbers are astounding. There have been 994 mass shootings since Obama was re-elected in 2012, and there will undoubtedly be at least six more before he leaves office. Since September 11, 2001, 313 Americans have been killed by terrorism; over 313,000 have been killed by guns.
None of the facts and figures are anything new. With a gun death rate of 2.97 per 100,000 people, the United States far outstrips its peer nations, including Australia (0.86) and the UK (0.26)—both cited by Obama as nations “like ours” from which we could learn. Indeed, Australia has walked a similar, yet divergent, path. In 1996, after experiencing a mass shooting that killed 35 people, Australia banned semiautomatic rifles and handguns, and spent $230 million on the forced buyback of over 600,000 banned items; there hasn’t been a single mass shooting since, and both homicide and suicide rates have fallen drastically.
“Make this a political issue,” Obama challenged voters, in a moment of frank truth that is becoming more common as he nears the end of his tenure in the White House. And yet, perhaps the problem before us is not only the politicization of guns, but that following in Australia’s footsteps would require a larger socio-psychological shift than the most strident gun control proponents would like to admit.
From its own streets to its foreign policy, the United States has a flawed belief in the power of the gun; as a symbol of liberty and autonomy, and—in the hands of the mythic hero—to solve nearly any problem.
A lot has been written about the way geography has impacted the American national character: About how expansion into the vast, open west incubated a mindset of optimism and new beginning, along with an ardent individualism and skepticism of government. But all that land available for aking also produced a belief in the use—the necessity, even—of force. A nation born in a war fought largely by its citizen-soldiers looked to the gun once again as it and its citizen-pioneers annexed masses of western land.
The space and distance from the populated east meant far weaker institutions of government, and a far greater ability and need for self-reliance. Collective action becomes less important and less possible when you can retreat into the plains. Unbound by the demands of social organization, the individual becomes mythologized; master of his future, his law his gun.
This domestic belief in the power of “a good guy with a gun” was reinforced by America’s foreign policy. A nation that grew considering itself as exceptional, as being the force for good in the world, also grew with an increasing ability to successfully project power beyond its borders, while only knowing the lash of self-inflicted war during its own civil conflict.
The mythologies combine and find harmony: The individual and the nation, both firmly in the right, with the power to define their destinies and defend their ideals.
My flatmates incredulity had turned to speechlessness by the time we had finished browsing the site. They didn’t really need to say anything; by any objective standard, the ease with which I could have purchased outrageous firepower is nothing short of absurd – a unique American absurdity. It’s one we have the power to change—we can reinterpret the second amendment with more nuance, and we could pass common sense legislation restricting the sale of firearms, and to whom. It’s an issue Obama is right to call upon the body politic to greater politicize.
But before any of that can happen, we might just have to turn away from the underlying American narrative about the power of one person with a gun to stand firm and beat back evil. Because right now, the gun is beating us.
Originally published in the LSE Beaver
Featured image credit: Cerebralzero, Flickr CC. License available here.