Another week in America, another mass shooting. This time, at least 59 people have lost their lives following an attack on a country music festival in Las Vegas. The perpetrator was a wealthy, white sexagenarian, the latest in a long line of mostly white males who massacre their fellow Americans. This is, sadly, a regular occurrence here in the United States.
I write for a mostly international audience, and several people on Twitter have asked why this seems to happen in America more frequently than anywhere else in the Western world. I’ve spent much of the past week grappling with this question, trying to figure out a way to summarise exactly what makes America so exceptional when it comes to massacring our own.
The answer, it turns out, is both simple and complex – one that is both born of the present and rooted deep in America’s past.
There’s the obvious: we have the most guns, and the most lax gun laws, of any developed nation. Following the Port Arthur massacre, Australia banned automatic and semiautomatic weapons, instituted a gun buyback scheme, and hasn’t had a mass shooting since, save for the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis which saw 3 people killed and 4 others wounded. That’s small potatoes compared to an average American mass shooting – and certainly compared to Las Vegas, where over 500 people are reportedly injured, many critically.
Of course, Australia doesn’t have a Second Amendment, which enshrines “the right to bear arms.” Leaving aside the semantic and constitutional arguments about whether the Framers ever intended for that to extend outside state militias (the equivalent of which is modern-day state National Guards) or whether they anticipated the advent of modern weapons of mass murder, this law does seem to give Americans an inalienable right to own firearms. And it’s one that many people take very seriously.
To understand why, you have to understand something about the American character. In a 2016 speech, former president Barack Obama said that Americans “are not inherently more prone to violence.”
He was wrong. Americans are more inherently prone to violence. Violence is ingrained in our national DNA.
The United States of America was born in violence. We gained our independence through a bloody revolution in which we waged war to throw off the yoke of British rule. But before that, we were founded on white settler colonialism which saw us enslave Africans to work our plantations and exterminate the Native Americans of the Eastern Seaboard, Southeast, and Midwest in order to “settle” those lands.
This continued when we pushed westward. A cultural narrative of “us-versus-them” sprung up vis-a-vis white settlers and Native Americans. From the Bear River Massacre, where nearly 250 Shoshone Indians were killed to Wounded Knee, where close to 300 Lakota were slain by the US Army, the story of the West is one of violent conquest.
The imperial colonisation of the West also gave rise to the belief in “rugged individualism,” which has permeated the American psyche ever since. At its most basic, “rugged individualism” is almost anarchist in its belief that the state won’t take care of citizens and so citizens must take care of themselves.
In the Old West, this was somewhat true – settlers were often far from the protections of the state and had to fend for themselves against the elements and outlaws, and yes, Native Americans who were trying desperately to protect their homeland against the invading colonists (and make no mistake, that’s what white settlers were). But somehow, as the West was tamed by federal and state law enforcement, Americans never gave up their guns.
This is hardly surprising. Slaveholders in the south needed guns in order to keep enslaved African-Americans in line and avoid slave insurrections. One of the only things that kept slaves – who greatly outnumbered slaveholders – from rebelling en masse was that they did not have firearms whereas the masters did. Then came the Civil War, where the South took up arms against the federal government in order to preserve slavery. After that failed – in what is to date the bloodiest war in American history – they used guns to help enforce Jim Crow laws, which subjugated Black Americans for another century.
There is another lesson to be drawn from the Civil War, though – one that many left-wing Americans won’t accept but that is extremely important to consider. The reason the South was able to so quickly raise an army to fight the federal government was that they had guns. And for many, many Americans – especially white Americans – this is a primary reason for clinging to their guns.
They see firearms as a fail-safe against a potentially tyrannical government which would usurp their liberties. This is certainly how many racist slaveholders saw the election of Lincoln, and it is how many – again, mostly white – Americans view guns today.
After all, as I said, this was a country born in violent revolution. From the Whiskey Rebellion to the Civil War to the Miners War, the right to bear arms has been something the citizenry has used to fight back against what they’ve felt is government tyranny.
Of course, this right has only ever extended to white people. Prior to the 1970s, the National Rifle Association (NRA), America’s gun lobby, had broadly supported gun control measures. This began to change in 1967, when gun control measures supported by then California governor Ronald Reagan (yes, that Ronald Reagan) would have banned Black Panther members from carrying arms.
Opposing the law, members of the Black Panther Party carried their guns into the California capitol demanding their right to bear arms. Reagan commented at the time that “there’s no reason why, on the street today, a citizen should be carrying a loaded weapon.” He changed his tune by the time he ran for president in 1980.
Following the turmoil of the late 1960s, in which urban Blacks – in particular the Black Panther Party – began arming themselves against violent white oppression, the NRA saw an influx of rural members who quickly turned the organisation from a gun training organisation to a strict defender of the Second Amendment – and of gun rights laws.
They didn’t do it because of any desire to support the rights of Black urbanites, though. They actually felt that gun control laws on Black people were unduly affecting them. Over the past four decades, the NRA has routinely failed to protect the Second Amendment rights of Black Americans, most markedly in the case of Philando Castile, a Black Minnesotan who was shot and killed by police when he acknowledged the presence of a legal firearm in his car. The NRA said nothing.
That’s the long way around. But if you want the abstract of this piece, it’s this: America was born in violence, and that violence is as much a part of our national DNA as is a belief in individual liberty. Indeed, they’re inextricably connected for many Americans.
This isn’t just about the War for Independence. The way we settled this continent was, to be frank, a genocide against the Native population. We did it with the labour of enslaved Africans and their descendants. For 400 years white America has used firearms to defend themselves, yes, but more to the point, to subjugate people of colour in order to conquer the North American continent.
The belief that government is tyrannical is still rife within our populations. This is born from the Calvinists who fled England in the 1600s and continues to this day, with Americans who have an innate distrust for authority. Many Americans still feel that there will be a second American Revolution – just look at the likes of the white nationalists who died at Ruby Ridge, or Timothy McVeigh, who committed the deadliest act of domestic terror in US history when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City. Look at the militia movements around the country. Look at the people who elected Donald Trump who were ready for battle if Hillary Clinton won and tried to take their guns (which she never planned to do).
Some have countered that these mass shootings, with “lone wolf” white men killing scores of innocent people don’t fit into this narrative, as there has been no political motive. But the shooters at Columbine and Virginia Tech both left manifestos. The shooter at Pulse seemed to have a motive – whether homophobia, Islamic radicalism, or both – as did Dylann Roof when he killed Black churchgoers in Charleston. Elliott Rodger, who killed six people in the 2014 Isla Vista, California massacre, was motivated by deep misogyny. The Umpqua Community College shooter was described as a “hate filled” white supremacist. And no one can argue Jared Laughner didn’t have a political motive when he shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed six people in Tuscon, Arizona in 2011.
The truth is, contrary to what Barack Obama said, America is more inherently violent than other Western countries. Our nation, perhaps uniquely amongst the Western democracies, was forged in violence – both against the colonial motherland and against the indigenous and enslaved populations.
America has never reckoned with its violent character and utter distrust of government, and until it does, gun violence will continue to be a problem we cannot avoid – one that will continue to claim countless innocent lives this country is ready to sacrifice on the altar of the Second Amendment.