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Monday, 23 July 2012

Americans feel entitled to their guns despite Aurora

There's no surprises, really. The perpetrator fits the profile of mass shooters: a young man, intelligent and well-educated, who is having problems with his life. There's also no surprise that it has happened in the US, a country where guns are readily available to people with no crime record, people like the ones who routinely commit such crimes as this one in Aurora, Colorado.

Many Americans will not hear any criticism of their laws, despite Aurora. On Twitter after the shooting, I engaged with one person, a US military veteran, who hurled abuse ("this guy is to blame noone else you f,n moron!") and said that "people like me ... want everyone to be a victim" when I gave the opinion that the perpetrator had a mental illness. I also blamed the National Rifle Association because of its campaigning for private gun ownership, but the guy would have none of it: "Well U cn just B a victim then i'll not, & i'll carry my .45 always, thx 2 my 2nd amendment rights." I was a bit shocked that the world "victim" appeared so often during this exchange, because there's no question that we have seen, yet again, real victims of lax gun ownership laws in the US. At least 12 of them. This time.

There will be more cases in the US, and sooner than we would wish. The Guardian has gone a bit further than most media outlets and published statistics showing gun murders globally, by country. It should be no comfort to Americans that only Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela have higher incidences of gun murders than the US. Even as a proportion of the number of people living in each country listed (murders per 100,000 of population) the US ranks higher than any comparable country, at number 28. By this revealing index, Leichtenstein ranks similarly high but then there's a big gap until you come across another OECD country, which is Switzerland at number 47. Italy is at number 49 on this index, and Australia (my country) comes in at number 90.

The numbers reveal the reason there was no surprise to hear of the Aurora movie theatre shootings. More compelling I think for most people will be the link with the new Batman movie, an original twist in the case that must have occupied the thoughts of the perpetrator for a long time. As he went about his tasks of buying an automatic rifle, a pistol, a shotgun and 6000 rounds of ammunition, plus the bullet-proof clothing he wore to go to the theatre to do his thing, he must have dwelled in his mind on the delineations of the characters and the sinister plots that makers of Batman films use to expose the darker sides of our nature. There's something circular about a young man choosing a character from popular culture to frame his murders with, as if he were merely operating to a set script in carrying them out. But the fact is that the script is readily available for anyone who has a death wish, and who can only see a resolution for their personal difficulties within such a macabre context.

We had an guy, an academic, on TV here in Australia who has studies such crimes. The incidence of such murders has accelerated since 1913, he said, when a man in Germany carried out the first public killing of this nature. The second such crime was in Australia, in 1924. It's a relatively new form of expression for men in the West. He said that the 1966 Texas University killings, when Charles Whitman killed 16 during a shooting over a couple of hours, were the most well-publicised to date but that, now, somewhere in the world, there is one about every month or so. These young men want to "go out in a blaze of glory", he opined. There is always some mitigating circumstance.

Nevertheless, ease of access to firearms enshrined in the 1791 Bill of Rights (a document modelled on the British original from about 100 years earlier) has meant that Americans are more likely to commit such crimes than people in any other developed country. Americans should not take comfort from the fact that their situation is better than it is in, say, Honduras. Hardly so. But the sense of entitlement reflected in the comments left on Twitter by my interlocutor mean that change is unlikely to arrive any time soon.

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