America's gun violence epidemic

America's gun violence epidemic
Analysis: The murder of two journalists during a live broadcast and a spate of shootings in Phoenix are unlikely to usher any meaningful legislative change in a gun-obsessed country.
5 min read
29 August, 2015
America is facing a gun violence epidemic of epic proportions [AFP]
US authorities are investigating a spate of shootings at cars driving through an eight-mile stretch of the Interstate 10, an important cross-American highway in Phoenix, Arizona.

At least ten cars have been shot at in the past two weeks, with the latest being reported on Wednesday.

Officials described the attacks as "domestic terrorism", but are unsure if all the shootings are related - or whether all the incidents involve live ammunition.

They began on 29 August, when a bullet shattered the windscreen of a car, injuring a 13-year-old girl, only days after the murder of a TV reporter and her cameraman live on air in Virginia on 26 August - which shocked Americans and the world and reignited the very heated and politicised debate about gun control in the United States.

Journalist Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were gunned down while they were filming a live segment by Vester Flanagan, who went by the name of Bryce Williams, a former employee of WDBJ, the local TV station for whom the slain journalists worked.

The impact of their deaths was not due to the number of fatalities, but the fact the killings took place live on air. The killer also recorded himself shooting the victims and uploaded the video onto his Facebook page, along with commentary about his motives.
     24 people were murdered in America by firearms on Wednesday 26 August alone, excluding the two journalists killed that day.

The unfortunate reality is that two people being shot dead is rarely headline news in the US, because gun-related killings are so frequent.

According to reports compiled by Gun Violence Archive, 24 people were murdered in the United States with firearms on Wednesday 26 August alone - excluding the two journalists killed that day.

This means that gun violence has claimed more US victims in one day than terrorism did in an entire year - as only 22 Americans were killed by terrorist attacks around the world in 2013 - the year of the Boston Marathon bombing.

The numbers are horrifying. Some 11,208 people were killed in America in homicides involving firearms in 2013, three and a half times the number killed in the 11 September attacks.

The US is facing a gun violence epidemic of epic proportions - but the official response is virtually non-existent, especially when compared to government responses to terrorism.

What threat?

There is no doubt that the US, like many other countries, faces a real threat from terrorism - and every life lost in a terrorist attack is an absolute tragedy.

But terrorism is not even close to being the biggest threat to the American public.

     The country has spent approximately $150 billion a year on its global 'war on terror'

Yet, a 2014 US congressional report revealed that, since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the country had spent approximately $150 billion a year on its global "war on terror", in addition to the legislation and measures that have been passed to protect against terrorism.

Despite the staggering number of gun crimes and repeated mass shootings in schools, movie theatres and elsewhere, Congress in June extended a 1996 ruling which banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - the nation's largest public health body - from even researching the causes of gun violence.

The ban was extended immediately after nine people were killed in the Charleston massacre in South Carolina on 17 June.

The ban was instated after the National Rifle Association (NRA), America's largest gun rights lobby group, accused the CDC of lobbying for gun control - which resulted in Congress stripping $2.6 million from the public health agency's budget - the exact amount the CDC spent on gun research the previous year.

The CDC's funding was eventually restored but allocated elsewhere. "None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control," politicians later clarified.

"The CDC is there to look at diseases that need to be dealt with to protect public health," said Republican House Speaker John Boehner at a press conference in June.

"I'm sorry, but a gun is not a disease. Guns don't kill people - people do. And when people use weapons in a horrible way, we should condemn the actions of the individual and not blame the action on some weapon," added Boehner.

The sacred amendment

The issue of gun control is perhaps the most divisive political topic in the US, because it touches on the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects the rights of people to keep and bear arms.

     Conservative politicians demonstrated no such concern for individual rights and privacy when they passed the Patriot Act in October 2001

The amendment was introduced as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, in response to calls from several states for greater constitutional protection for individual liberties and restrictions on governmental power. It epitomises America's perception of its foundational philosophy.

Therefore, conservatives invariably see calls for regulations and controls on gun ownership as contradicting the founding principles of the United States, and attempts by the government to have greater control over individuals.

Ironically however, conservative politicians demonstrated no such concern for individual rights and privacy when they passed the Patriot Act in October 2001 - which vastly expanded the government's authority to spy on its own citizens, while reducing oversight and public accountability over those powers, in a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.

On the other hand, US lawmakers have yet to pass a bill requiring background checks on gun purchases.

The checking mechanism that currently exists, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which is run by the FBI, accesses criminal databases to determine whether the prospective gun buyer has a criminal record.

However it only applies to people purchasing guns from licensed gun dealers, and if the check does not come back with a result within three days, the sale can legally go through.

Gun sales between private parties, which make up 20 percent of all firearms transactions, are not subject to this background check.

The NICS cannot even force states to share their records with its database, especially those regarding mental health, which means people suffering mental illness can pass the background checks and legally purchase a gun.

This is exactly what happened in the case of Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, who had been declared mentally ill by a judge two years before he murdered 32 people.

America's relationship with its guns and gun violence is complex. But in order to effectively face the country's staggering number of annual gun deaths, it needs to start viewing the problem as seriously as it does terrorism.