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This article was first published on November 1, 2017.
Mass shootings: There were 372 mass shootings in the US in 2015, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker, which catalogs such incidents. A mass shooting is defined as a single shooting incident which kills or injures four or more people, including the assailant.
Source: Mass Shooting Tracker
School shootings: There were 64 school shootings in 2015, according to a dedicated campaign group set up in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in Connecticut in 2012. Those figures include occasions when a gun was fired but no one was hurt.
Source: Gun Violence Archive
How the US compares: The number of gun murders per capita in the US in 2012 (the most recent year for comparable statistics) was nearly 30 times that in the UK, at 2.9 per 100,000 compared with just 0.1.
Of all the murders in the US in 2012, 60% were by firearm compared with 31% in Canada, 18.2% in Australia, and just 10% in the UK.
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Can We Do Something, Anything to StopThis Madness?
By Nirupama Vaidhyanathan
I watched as details of the Las Vegas shooting trickled in. Conflicting reports in the beginning, and then the fog cleared to paint a clear picture of the developments on the Strip. A lone gunman shot at a crowd that had gathered to listen to a country music concert—the final tally—number of wounded and injured 546, with 45 people still hospitalized, some in critical condition. Fifty eight lives lost. The motive for this madness is still unclear.
As headlines screamed, television hosts nodded their heads in disbelief and as murmurs of sympathy cascaded all around me, I was shocked. Shocked by feeling inured to the unfolding tragedy. There was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness; this country will never wake up to regulating gun ownership, I thought. The NRA wields so much power that meaningful reform in gun laws was merely a pipe dream. What was the point of even getting upset with the state of affairs? I felt small, marginalized, defeated. Personally, the shocking aspect to this reaction was the level of disengagement. I did not want to read the editorials, the sanctimonious hectoring of people on both sides of the gun ownership debate, and I did not want to dwell on victim accounts. There is enough and more that we know already about the gun debate.
In a Washington Post story, Peter Holley points out that the latest public service announcement by the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence asserts:
“Americans are shot by toddlers at least once a week,” the one-minute video notes. We need to lock them up. Not the guns — that’s just un-American. Round them up. Deport them. Get them out of our country. And keep them away from guns.”
The terrible statistic stops us in our tracks with its horror, but, even here the horror turns into a nightmare only when names, families and faces come into focus. That is what happened a few months ago when I read this story. The Washington Post reported on a story where a nine year old girl Kimi Reylander was shot and killed by her 4 year old brother, Jaxon.
These were the people and the names behind that one statistic.
Joel Watson, the great-grandfather who left out the gun. Tina Watson, the grandmother who didn’t see the gun. Amanda Watson, the mother whose son reached for the gun. Jaxon, who pulled the trigger.
The scene so ordinary, the ending tragic. Kimi on the floor watching a show on her iPad, the younger brother clambering up on the bed to get a better view. Finding a gun on the dresser, the boy thinks it’s a toy and he pulls the trigger. In an instant, the bullet rips through his sister’s head and she is dead.
What happened next is the part that bothers me most. According to reporting by the Washington Post, after the shooting was termed an accident by the authorities, the boy’s mother, Amanda Watson hoisted a pistol with a scope and posted a picture on Facebook saying, “I’m pretty badass.” She followed a few weeks later with an entry into a marksmanship competition and posted a video of that on Facebook as well. To me, it is incomprehensible. This attachment to guns as a marker of identity. American identity. American culture.
It is here that we enter murky territory. Pulling us back centuries to the founding of the nation to the wording of the Second Amendment to the founding of the NRA and the politicization of the issue.
The text of the Second Amendment reads: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. Dr. Akhil Amar, constitutional historian at Yale University says that the word, “militia” was dropped from the discussion during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War and the right to bear arms morphed into an “individual” right.
Once it was framed as an individual right, the cultural markers become very different. Radically different. The word “militia” automatically conjures up a vision of a group fighting for a common cause. Once that word was removed from the discussion to focus on an individual’s right to bear arms, every argument was won in favor of the individual right. From lower courts to the Supreme Court, judgements were written and rewritten to champion the right of the individual to bear arms.
And, that is the only way that one can interpret the actions of the mother, Amanda Watson who posed alongside her gun on Facebook even as she was dealing with the loss of her nine year old daughter battling crippling migraine headaches. If we do not look at this as a war to change a country’s culture, we will be fighting an empty battle. It is a daunting battle, essentially it is a battle over the framing of an issue. But, it is a battle that is worth fighting.
The odds are stacked sky high against us. Consider this fact: the month of Obama’s election in 2008, 1.1 million guns were sold fearing strict gun control laws. The month after Sandy Hook in December 2012, that same number soared to 2 million. That is a country’s reaction to a national tragedy. More guns. Individuals asserting their rights. With their wallets and their actions.
Fareed Zakaria had a telling response to the oft-repeated claim that guns are not the problem, people are. Comparing the vast differences in gun-related violence in the United States and Britain, he says, “This disparity is the central fact that needs to be studied, explained and addressed. When seen in this light, it becomes obvious why focusing on mental health is a dodge. The rate of mental illness in the United States is not anywhere close to 40 times the rate in Britain. But the rate of gun deaths is 40 times higher. America does have more than 14 times as many guns as Britain per capita, and far fewer restrictions on their ownership and use. That’s the obvious correlation staring us in the face, as we insist on talking about every other possible issue.”
So, even as I write this, I’m still struggling to come up with a coherent explanation as to why I felt so removed when the shooting happened at Las Vegas.
I wonder—Can we change as a nation? Do we have the will to change?
Obama’s words after the Sandy Hook massacre haunt me to this day. “We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”
Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.
The children who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012:
Dare I even speak their names aloud when I do nothing?
When we do nothing?
Musings After Vegas
By Gayathri Chakravarthy
In the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, my sister made a telling comment. She remarked, “We’re getting to be an increasingly unhappy people. Steve Paddock must have been a very unhappy man.” While being unhappy can hardly absolve one from such a heinous act, understanding why he did what he did is actually important. From what we hear, this was a man who enjoyed good physical health, had money to burn, was footloose and fancy free, and yet must have been absolutely wretched to have planned and carried out in such meticulous detail, this horrendous act which he knew might well end with his own demise.
To write him off as a mentally insane outlier is taking the easy way out. This may help us take comfort in the knowledge that this was an isolated incident, well outside the mainstream in which we live and really nothing to do with us, unless we have the misfortune to be on the receiving end of this violence. But I believe there are many, many Steven Paddocks in the making in our inner circle, who may not take that ultimate step, but who nevertheless find themselves coping with varying degrees of desperation.
The University of California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis’ Sacramento campus officially launched 4th July, 2017 under the direction of Garen Wintemute, a recognized authority on the epidemiology of firearm violence. Funded with a $5 million appropriation from the state of California for five years it is the first research center to be started with public funds. The center will focus on understanding the underlying causes of firearm violence, while attempting to drill down to further identify the factors associated with an increased risk for gun violence and its effects on individuals and communities.
I lived in Australia prior to settling down in the United States and witnessed firsthand, the shock and outrage of a nation traumatized by the mass shooting at Port Arthur in 1996. In the days that followed, gun legislation was brought about at remarkable speed with nary a soul objecting. There have been no such incidents in Australia since. Sadly, I do not believe we will ever have meaningful gun-control legislation in America. Despite the sheer numbers of dead and dying at Las Vegas, the incident that shook me the most was in fact Sandy Hook. That was my personal Holocaust. To this day, I still can’t get past it. If we as a nation, with a Democratic government in power at the time couldn’t pass stricter legislation at that lowest of low moments in American history, I don’t imagine that it has much hope of being implemented now.
But this is not a debate about gun control. I found myself, along with countless others, wondering what drives people to commit these acts, which brings me back to my earlier comment about unhappy people. Are we truly becoming unhappier? And more worrisome, are we actually fostering a culture which breeds discontent and strife?
There seems to be some validity in making this premise. When I returned to the United States after a 2-year hiatus, I found that nearly all my friends had changed jobs. The number one reason given for changing jobs was not a long commute or long hours; instead, it was this: I had a boss from hell. Some common phrases I heard: these office Hitlers were: micro-managing, critical, nagging, having unrealistic expectations, pushing too hard. Some of these people left their jobs and were even willing to settle for lower-paying jobs because they felt the constant negativism they faced at work was wearing them down and they, wisely decided, it was not worth it. I was curious about what happened to the bosses. Were they still around? The surprising answer was yes, they mostly are. This is a classic example of what has now become an acceptable and even desirable trait. Pushing someone hard, almost to the point of a breakdown, is considered as increasing efficiency. Criticising people makes the critic powerful. Arrogant is the new assertive.
Another incident brought this home forcefully. My daughter at middle school shared with me that girls in her school, when asked to a dance by a boy, respond with a contemptuous “Get the f___ out, you b_____.” This is supposedly the latest smart thing to say, and is currently a hit on Instagram. Pause for a moment to think about this: A boy plucks up the nerve to ask a girl he likes, and is rejected abusively by said girl who then goes on to brag about it on social media, and receives “likes” from her faithful fan following. Imagine how angry and humiliated and gut-wrenchingly hurt that boy must feel. And we wonder why teens feel so desperately unhappy that they contemplate committing suicide.
Why would this girl, instead of gently letting down the boy with a “maybe some other time” instead feel the overpowering urge to hurt? It begs the question of who the real victim is here. Is the boy a victim of the girl’s insensitivity, or is this girl so lacking in self-esteem that she abuses people to shore up her self-worth, the actual victim?
These middle school monsters, if left unchecked, will probably go on to make those horrible managers everybody hates. I remember my school principal saying that there is no such thing as a petty crime. A petty criminal is a would-be big-time criminal. A car thief starts out by stealing pencils in elementary school.
Why have we degenerated into a society where being nice is considered wimpy behaviour, and sneering is smart? Putting someone down is clever, getting ahead by shoving others out of the way is strong. When we stop feeling shame and our conscience deadens itself, the lines between what is moral and what isn’t start to blur until one isn’t able to distinguish between the two any longer. Anything goes. Nothing matters save our almost obsessive desire to be recognised.
When my son chose to attend UC Davis in spite of being accepted at colleges with much higher rankings, we were taken aback until he explained why. Apparently, there is an informal index that measures how friendly staff, faculty and students are at university and Davis is the highest ranked for this category in the UC system. My son explained that as a freshman, it was important to him to feel encouraged and positive, and after a year there, I can wholeheartedly agree that it is indeed a very important factor and that he made a wise decision. Social niceties do matter. They oil the wheels of our daily lives, make onerous situations bearable, add elegance to our speech, help us navigate tricky waters, and quite possibly have beneficial effects on our health if Dr. Dyer on PBS is to be believed!
Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers writes about a small Italian community living in New York State whose life-expectancy was notably high. It was found that what contributed to longevity was not a Mediterranean diet or plenty of exercise, as one might have imagined, instead it was the fact that the community was open-door, with neighbors socializing with each other as a matter of course every day! Social intercourse is actually vital to our physical and mental health and makes for grounded, well-adjusted personalities. It, therefore, doesn’t come as a surprise that Steven Paddock, along with nearly every other mass murderer in history, was a sociopath.
While our Congressmen will probably let this moment pass, we as parents need not. Let’s check those Snapchat and Instagram accounts every now and then, let’s call out our kids when they sneer at someone’s accent, let’s have conversations. Let’s be that most boring and insipid word in the English language—Nice!
Gayathri Chakravarthy is a Math instructor at a Bay Area community college. She revels in offbeat theories and encourages her students to solve math problems in unconventional ways. Not surprisingly, her favorite mathematician is Ramanujam.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the current Managing Editor of India Currents.