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Obama fires back at America's gun culture

Published:Sunday | February 3, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Lawrence Powell, Guest Columnist

"It'll be a sad day for this country if children can safely attend classes only under the protection of armed guards." - President Dwight Eisenhower, 1957

In an unprecedented march on Washington to demand stricter gun-control laws, last Saturday thousands of Americans converged on the United States Capitol. They brought signs with provocative slogans like 'Protect children, not guns', 'We are Sandy Hook', 'Ban assault rifles now', 'What would Jesus pack?', 'Love, not guns' and '(N)o (R)ational (A)rgument'.

They marched together through bitter cold temperatures from the Capitol building to the Washington monument, led by activist organisations that, prior to last month's slaughter of 20 innocent children in a Connecticut school, had been dismissed by most Americans as irrelevant, oddball pacifists.

Apparently, this heart-wrenching Sandy Hook tragedy was a wake-up call for many - that their cultural fondness for guns had, somewhere along the line, morphed into a malignant obsession.

Now, following the terrible elementary-school massacre, national opinion polls suddenly show that a majority favour such measures as banning assault weapons (60 per cent), requiring background checks for all gun sales (91 per cent), increasing criminal penalties for people who buy guns for others (75 per cent), limiting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds (54 per cent), banning possession of armour-piercing bullets (67 per cent), and increasing government funding to help schools develop emergency response plans (69 per cent).

To Jamaicans, these must seem like petty complaints. After all, gun-related violence and the associated human suffering can get far worse. But when one compares the US as a privileged, modernised society with other similarly modernised countries, the American fetish for gun ownership and resorting to violence stands out as being particularly uncivilised, given the high levels of affluence and material advantage most Americans enjoy.

According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime statistics, for example, in 2009-10, there were 9,960 homicides attributed to firearms in the US. This compares with only 30 in Australia, 18 in the United Kingdom, 142 in France, 173 in Canada, 18 in Sweden, and 11 in Japan.

Similarly, in terms of gun ownership, there were 89 firearms per 100 residents in the US. This compares with 15 per 100 in Australia, six in the UK, 31 in France, 31 in Canada, 32 in Sweden, and 0.6 in Japan.

Among advanced industrialised countries, then, the 'American exceptionalism' is unmistakable when it comes to gun ownership and gun-related homicides. If American social life is so advanced, a model for other countries to follow, why so many guns? Why the excessive violence?


So you would think that, in the wake of a horrific massacre in which innocent young schoolchildren died en masse, Obama would now have an easy time making the case to Congress for major gun-control reform legislation, right?

But not so fast. As described in an earlier Gleaner article ('Terrorism begins at home', December 23, 2012), all such well-meaning attempts sooner or later run up against strong cultural currents of resistance - that have deep, long-standing roots in the nation's history, symbolism, and constitutional structure, not to mention the weapons-industry lobbyists with their powerful presence in Washington and the state legislatures.

Undaunted by those traditional obstacles, Obama has nevertheless boldly (perhaps, naively?) proposed several things. On January 16, he put forth the following general principles for reform:

  • A more extensive ban on assault weapons (The previous partial prohibition on assault weapons was allowed to lapse in 2004.)
  • Stronger background checks for all gun sales (including closing loopholes that allow gun-show sales).
  • Ammunition magazines limited to 10 rounds.
  • Get armour-piercing bullets off the streets.
  • Law enforcement given additional resources to prevent and prosecute gun crimes.
  • Lift the ban on federal gun violence research.
  • Improve school safety with emergency response plans, resource officers, counsellors, more nurturing school climates.
  • Ensure easier access to quality mental-health treatment coverage, with special emphasis on the needs of young people.

In unveiling this ambitious prescription for change, Obama put aside his first-term role as the cautious compromiser (which never worked with Republicans anyway), thus paving the way for a fierce political fight with the enormously powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) and its Republican congressional supporters - who will resist what they see as a fundamental threat to their constitutionally protected gun rights, and to industry profits.


At the White House press event announcing his new proposals, Obama surrounded himself with schoolchildren and relatives of the deceased Sandy Hook first graders. Responding to that opening salvo, the NRA - signalling vicious political fights to come - immediately began airing a negative attack ad that accuses Obama ("just another elitist hypocrite") of a cruel double standard because his daughters receive Secret Service protection, whereas no such armed protection is available to the rest of the nation's children. The political battle has only just begun.

Historian Richard Hofstadter once pointed out, in a now-famous Oxford lecture, that there is a distinctly "paranoid style" to American sociopolitical life, accompanied by an obsessive "culture of the gun". Affection for guns, and the right to own them, are recurrent themes of the nation's history, and central to American identity.

As cultural symbols of power and masculinity, guns were a prominent feature of the Revolutionary War against the British, and later of frontier settlement and Wild West imagery. This cultural fascination with gun symbolism continued with the 1930s Depression-era glorification of gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone and John Dillinger. The gun fetishism was further promoted in World War II morale-boosting films that identified it with patriotism, and it continues to the present day in the violent fantasies of Hollywood action movies and video games.

To many Americans, this cultural obsession with owning guns symbolises defence of their freedom against a tyrannical government. Within that symbolic universe, to take away their right to own and wield a gun feels equivalent to taking away their freedom. Moreover, this prerogative is enshrined in the second amendment to the American Constitution, which guarantees a right to bear arms. So it's no accident that one of the most popular slogans at recent rallies to preserve gun rights has been 'What part of 'shall not be infringed' do you not understand?'


All of this suggests that President Obama, Senator Dianne Feinstein and others, though well-meaning, may have got in over their heads politically. With such a long-standing 'culture of the gun' to overcome, with centuries of accumulated historical symbolism behind it, with a constitution that leaves little leeway for restricting gun rights - to propose blocking access to firearms could blow up in their faces.

Or, just maybe, Obama will again somehow defy the odds of American historical experience, as he did with the landmark health-care legislation during his first term, and bring this destructive cultural gun fetish back to sanity.

For his sake, and the sake of those who might otherwise die needlessly, let us hope it's the latter.

Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and a former senior lecturer in the Department of Government at UWI, Mona. Email feedback to and