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America’s gun culture: What makes Americans so attached to their weapons?

After opening their session with a prayer for the 17 young Floridians recently killed, state legislators then overwhelmingly rejected a ban on semi-automatic guns.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

AS HORRIFYING AS the gun massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was, it was not surprising.

There have already been eight school shootings this year in the United States. And in the aftermath of Nikolas Cruz’s rampage, the initial reaction from many commentators was that no legal or cultural change would result.

Nothing happened after the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy in Connecticut, where little schoolchildren and their teachers were killed, and even though it was mere months ago, the deaths of 58 in Las Vegas at the hands of one man who fired 1,100 rounds from his hotel room faded swiftly into the recesses of our collective memory.

But in recent days, students from the Florida school have mobilised and seem determined to force politicians to act. Only time will tell if this will prove the turning point gun control advocates desperately hope it is.

Students Return To Class For First Time After Mass Shooting At Florida School People arrive to offer support at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as student arrive to attend classes for the first time since the shooting Source: Joe Raedle

Opinion polls suggest more Americans now favour restrictions on the ownership of semi-automatic weapons and background checks on those seeking to purchase high-powered guns. That said, after opening their session with a prayer for the 17 young Floridians killed, state legislators there overwhelmingly rejected a ban on semi-automatic guns.

I – and countless others – have written on numerous occasions in the wake of mass shootings about the need for gun control measures and outlined the realities that make calling for more stringent gun laws a politically treacherous proposition.

‘Fighting for freedom of the US’

It is worth digging a little deeper, however, to get to the heart of the matter. For the truth is that, even if the courageous students from Florida are successful in their efforts (and I doubt they will be), a wide range of guns will still be readily available for legal purchase in most of the US to an extent that much of the rest of the world cannot fathom.

Why? This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. A few thoughts on what is probably a futile pursuit follow.

The second amendment to the US Constitution enshrines the right to keep and bear arms. Notwithstanding copious attempts to contextualise this provision historically and otherwise, the Supreme Court Nonts that constitute bearable arms, even those that were not in existence at the time of the founding”. What flows from gun ownership having exalted status in the country’s defining document and subsequent judicial precedent cannot be underestimated.

E008286 Reenactment of Revolutionary war soldiers Source: Getty Images

Moreover, the gun has been central to establishing and defending the freedom that a substantial majority of the citizenry would say is America’s paramount value. From the Revolutionary War and Civil War fought on home soil, to World War I and World War II, to Korea, Vietnam and subsequent armed conflicts, standing up and fighting, with guns, for the freedom of the US and its allies is a recurring theme in American history.

Americans rightly revere the extraordinary sacrifices made by war veterans. At the same time, though, this has led to a militarisation of the culture that has had hugely problematic effects.

Rugged individualism

Another distinctive element of American identity worn proudly, especially by those on the political right, is “rugged individualism” as opposed to the spirit of collectivism that prevails in Europe.

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The “rugged individual” conjures up, in the minds of many, the image of the early settlers of new frontiers. They needed guns to kill animals to eat; they needed guns to protect themselves and their families; and guns were needed as valuable tools for a lot of other vital purposes. The popularity of hunting in rural states is testimony to this enduring ideal.

The notion of the individual over the collective has an added dimension. And herein lies a perhaps unique feature of American patriotism: love country, loathe government.

The individual has a duty to himself and to those who depend upon him. No individual has a right to rely on government or on the rest of society for assistance. In fact, government, to the degree that it meddles in or interferes with the individual’s quest for freedom – or, stated more accurately, his self-interest – is the enemy.

To take it a step further, the government can be un-American. As such, gun ownership, while for some an open act of defiance against the potential threat posed by their own government, is at the very least a conscious or subconscious assertion of individual freedom over the government, and the collective it embodies.

Scaling down from these loftier heights to the realities of 2018, it is important to note that many of us don’t own guns and have no interest in them. Nonetheless, it is imperative that the rest of the world recognises that our country is very different – even if most Americans don’t. There is a gun culture that will never be vanquished.

That’s why, sadly, whatever victories at the ballot box or elsewhere are achieved by advocates for restricting access to firearms will always be Pyrrhic. In sum, and as I have closed just about every previous piece I have written about guns and the land of my birth, I despair.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.


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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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