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Why the Orlando massacre won't be the last

By B S Raghavan
June 14, 2016 08:47 IST
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The Orlando masscare

IMAGE: A makeshift memorial at the Stonewall Inn in New York where a vigil was held after the massacre at the Pulse, a gay Orlando nightclub, June 12, 2016. Photograph: Monika Graff/Getty Images

62 mass murders carried out with firearms across 30 US states.
Of these, 12 were in schools, 19 at workplaces, the other 31 cases took place in shopping malls, restaurants, government buildings and military bases.
The average age of the killers was 35, with the youngest only 11 years old.
B S Raghavan on how the killings will continue until America confronts the urgent need for gun control.

The horror and savagery marking the cold-blooded shooting of innocent people in Orlando, Florida, have no doubt shaken people all over the world. But, alas, one can be sure, that it will not be the last, so long as the United States administration and the US Congress do not act fast to put in place legislation banning the indiscriminate and uncontrolled sale of all kinds of firearms by the innumerable gun stores in every state to whomsoever walks into them and wants to buy them.

From available figures, it is obvious that such gory mass shootings have been occurring close on the heels of one another and are actually on the rise in recent years.

According to one study as of 2012, there have been, since 1982, at least 62 mass murders carried out with firearms across 30 out of the 50 states in the US.

Of these, 12 were in schools and 19 at workplaces, while the other 31 cases took place in locations including shopping malls, restaurants, government buildings, and military bases.

The average age of the killers was 35, with the youngest among them being only 11 years old.

Since 2005, such multiple-victim shootings are said to have occurred every 5.9 days in the US, with 87 people dying of bullet wounds each day.

The most dangerous city for mass shootings is Chicago which has seen 17 shootings, including 13 in public places, causing 30 deaths and 72 injuries.

New Orleans, Kansas City and Philadelphia were all tied for the second bloodiest American cities, with nine shootings in the seven-year span.

As one of the talk show hosts, himself a former Republican Congressman from Florida, put it: 'The violence we see spreading from shopping malls in Oregon, to movie theatres in Colorado, to college campuses in Virginia, to elementary schools in Connecticut, is being spawned by the toxic view of a violent popular culture, a growing mental health crisis, and the proliferation of combat-style weapons.'

President Barack Obama usually visits the scenes of the massacres and plaintively asks, (as he did at one such visits) '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 (people) year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?'

A resounding 'yes' will be the answer of the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbies, dead set against any fettering of the US citizens' right to purchase and possess what firearms they please. It has long been its unabashed slogan that 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people'!

In the wake of one such equally horrendous massacre (the Sandy Hook Elementary School, New Town, Connecticut) some years ago, the NRA had the temerity to say that if only all the teachers and pupils had carried arms, the tragedy would not have happened.

Another lobbying group, the Gun Owners of America, is reported to have declared that the members of the US Congress who voted to ban guns from schools had 'blood on their hands', adding, 'They are the ones who made it illegal to defend oneself with a gun in a school, when that is the only effective way of resisting a gunman.'

The NRA has become powerful only because it reflects such opinions of a large number of Americans for whom any sort of gun control is anathema.

Their mindset is still frozen in a context in which the Founding Fathers were convinced that an armed population, or the militia, was the only means of averting the possibility of a tyrannical government and adopted the Second Amendment to the Constitution stating: '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.'

This is the provision that has turned out to be deadly. The NRA, and champions of rigid adherence to the provision, have interpreted it to stubbornly demand that the right to keep and bear arms should be unconditional and unregulated, even though the provision itself talks of 'a well-regulated militia.'

Indeed, it has become, in their eyes, an inviolate and inviolable fundamental right, without which life, liberty and pursuit of happiness will themselves be negated.

This fixated mindset has made a fetish of the Second Amendment. That is what needs to be changed before anything like the stringent conditions that had always been part of the law in Britain, which is no less a democracy than the US and equally committed to citizens' rights, are imposed in the US as well.

No one can keep firearms in Britain (as also in India, on the same model) without a licence which is issued only after exhaustive background checks. Sale of certain types of firearms, such as handguns and automatic weapons, is totally banned. Of course, illegal arms, pipeguns etc may still be had if one looks for them hard enough, but one still risks arrest and punishment under the law.

Jolted by the Sandy Hook shooting, some prominent US lawmakers have proposed the appointment of a national commission to go into the feasibility and necessity of adopting similar safeguards, and, at the same time, scrutinise the mental health system and the role that violent video games and movies might play in shootings.

The US already has two precedents in this respect. Following the assassination in rapid succession of President John F Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King and Senator Robert F Kennedy, then President Lyndon B Johnson set up a national commission on the causes and prevention of violence.

Contemporaneously, the US witnessed widespread riots, most notably in Watts, Newark and Detroit, and the appointment of the commission on civil disorders followed. Study of violence became a whole new brand of science, called polemology, with a new breed of scientists researching the subject.

On gun laws too, a national commission can be of great help in at least creating a consensus and preparing the ground. The sooner such a commission is set up, the better.

The other problem with the US is that, while it may ride roughshod over the rights of other nations in the pursuit of its geopolitical and strategic interests, and as part of the realpolitik practised by it, within its own borders, its police, investigative and enforcement agencies are extremely leary of interfering with individual rights and do not ordinarily resort to high-handed actions.

In respect of the Orlando killer too, he had been under observation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation which had earlier investigated him three times for suspected connection with Islamic State, the barbaric jihadi outfit. But it could never bring itself to bar him from buying and holding a licensed firearm and even to buy a semi-automatic rifle a few days before he went on his shooting spree.

So long as the US doesn't boldly grasp the nettle of this dilemma between upholding the self-evident truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution on the one hand and confronting the cruel realities of the present-day world, such shootings will continue to occur.

Mr B S Raghavan -- who joined the IAS in 1952, has served among other positions as chief secretary of Tripura. director, Political and Security Policy Planning at the Union home ministry and secretary, National Integration Council during the terms of India's first four prime ministers -- is currently patron of the Chennai Centre for China Studies and adviser to the Indo-Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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