June 21, 2016
American Gun Culture and Its Failure to Protect Its Citizens

The latest mass shooting tragedy at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, reflects the United States' continuing failure to put in place common-sense policies that protect its citizens.

by Mario Rustan, Columnist
Issues // Politics and Society
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Many American progressives have gotten tired of it. Breaking news of a mass shooting somewhere in the United States. After killing at least a person, the suspect is arrested, or shot dead by the police, or the suspect kills himself.

Politicians and news anchors say that their thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. If the shooter is white (or East Asian), then he will be labeled as “mentally ill”. If the shooter is a Muslim, then he will be labeled as a “terrorist”. If the shooter and the victims are blacks, then the case will be forgotten.

Many American progressives are also tired of the futile political dance that follows. On one side you have celebrities and academics, even President Obama, calling for stricter gun control laws including bans on rifles and the likes.

On the other side, the National Rifle Association and the Republican politicians that it backs, would say that evil people are to blame, not the gun or honest Americans who use gun responsibly. Assorted right-wingers on the Internet, often using aliases, would sneer at the “SJWs” (Social Justice Warriors) for making excuses for terrorists (i.e. all Muslims) and for failing to understand the gun culture.

Outside America, we are confused. How can America keep letting these shootings happening again and again? Is it true that you can purchase guns in a hypermarket? How can some Middle Easterners be rejected from getting a home loan or a job, but not a gun? Why does the US not follow the successful policies of the United Kingdom and Australia that ban arms weapons for civilians?




It may be not the only country to do so, but US Constitution is infamous for including gun ownership as a fundamental right, just like free speech. Ten years before the Second Amendment was ratified, thirteen colonies of British America won a revolutionary war and created a new nation, which would be expanded and pacified with guns for the next hundred years.

Throughout the history of United States, there are always legal debates on the relations between the amendment and the capability of the government to regulate firearms.

Meanwhile, to 19th century American civilians personal firearms were part of daily life. They feared Native Americans, black slaves and the return of British soldiers. As the US expanded westward, its pioneers needed guns to get their food and to remove any kind of perceived danger or obstacle, be it wild animals, Native Americans, or other white people.

In 1996, both the UK and Australia were shocked by high-profile mass shootings, although there had been precedents throughout the 1980s. Governments in both countries reacted by banning automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shotguns and tightened the criteria required to own and operate a gun. Australian federal government also bought back a million pieces of firearms from its citizens throughout 1997.

Global media reach made urban Indonesians aware about the details of the Columbine mass shooting days after it occurred. Columbine sparked debates on several aspects of American culture – gun ownership, video games, Goth subculture, home Internet (which was still new), anti-depressant, bullying, and so on.

One year later, new laws prohibit the sale of gun for minors and criminals, but the US did not follow in the footsteps of Britain and Australia in restricting firearms. For the next two decades, gun supporters in the US accept any angle of the debate regarding mass shooting – except gun control.

Mass shootings in the US rose sharply in this decade, which is strange considering there was a recession in the previous decade, and so did the public fear and anxiety following the 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror.

Since 2006 there have been at least 10 million applications to buy a gun (and the subsequent criminal background check) processed every year. It seems for millions of Americans, owning a gun is as essential as owning a car or a cell phone.

Gang wars and violent crimes that plagued the US in the 1970s and 1980s did not happen under Obama administration (contrary to many Americans predicted), and in fact there was a surge of fatal shootings against African-American men by police officers or civilians in 2010s.

Comparisons were made between white mass shooters, who were described to have been struggling with mental illness and social acceptance, and black victims of police shootings, described as troublemakers who were not completely innocent.

American firearms manufacturers and the National Rifle Association certainly maintain steady profits from America’s gun culture (which includes family-friendly gun shows, where the background check procedure is looser). Republican politicians risk angering their voters when they support stricter gun control. But what about the consumers themselves?

I am certain that gun culture in 21st century America is still driven by its 19th century mindset. Many gun owners are certain that their firearms can help them stand up to African-Americans, or brown-skinned people (either Latinos or Arabs), or even the authoritarian federal government.

People around the world enjoy the zombie genre for several reasons, but one factor to its popularity is the anxiety of many Americans (and other people worldwide) that life as we know it will collapse and people have to survive by killing others – and gun is the most effective weapon around.

Even for us, who live in a violent and crime-ridden country, American obsession with gun is puzzling. We have not heard any news where “good people” with guns stop a mass shooting or act of terrorism.

Mass stabbings happen outside United States, but with rarer frequency, due to the simple fact that it is easier to kill more people with a gun than with other weapons. Surely farmers and hunters in rural America do not need an assault rifles to protect their farmlands or homes from intruders?

President Obama has failed to make a significant breakthrough in changing America’s gun policy. I am pessimistic President Clinton will do better. Until then, we might hear more mass shootings in the US, and we will take pity on it.

Read Mario’s take on mass violence and male entitlement and follow @mariorustan on Twitter.
Mario Rustan writes opinion pieces for The Jakarta Post and is working on some other online projects and was featured in Guardian Football and SBS Radio. His dream job is still teaching High School History by day and writing for feminism by night.