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After Charleston: Gun Control and American Cynicism

Will the United States ever get real about the need for gun control?

July 18, 2015

Will the United States ever get real about the need for gun control?

It is bad enough that there was a breakdown in the FBI’s background check system that allowed Dylan Roof, alleged slayer of nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina church, to buy a gun.

FBI director James Comey was more than embarrassed – “sick,” in fact. And the FBI examiner who failed to finish the investigation is “heartbroken.” Appropriate sentiments, but sentiments don’t suffice right now.

The real story here is less about bureaucratic error than it is about the “gun control system” of the United States. Simply put, it neither controls guns – nor is it a system.

Civilized nations, though, have effective gun control. And they don’t find it a challenge to establish a reliable system.

In the case of the United States, that would require two things — a broad-based understanding that gun control is fully constitutional, as well as seamless cooperation among federal, state and local levels of government.

The United States has neither. Since the 1970s, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has forcefully propagated the untruth that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses an individual’s (!) right to gun ownership.

On this point, the late and former (Republican-appointed) Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “This has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

The real American tradition

The United States values its traditions. That is to be appreciated. For that very reason, we ought to remember this historic fact of American life: For two centuries, the Supreme Court had maintained that the Second Amendment pertained only to the (collective) right of states to form militias.

At the turn of the 21st century, however, gun advocates had found their perfect case, which became known as the District of Columbia vs. Heller.

Waiting with open arms and a closed mind in the otherwise revered halls of the Court was Justice Antonin Scalia, anxious to apply his coveted theory of original intent to the Second Amendment.

The justice, in short, had an agenda that he brought to the case. How should one judge it? As imperious? Yes. Impartial? No.

That, in a nutshell, is the history of how the United States has arrived in a state of unregulated(!) violence, where a disturbed kid with a current pending felony charge can purchase a gun and kill nine innocent people because they are black.

Although it is useless to get into comparative suffering when looking at America’s gun tragedies (you name it: grammar school children, college students, African American worshippers, U.S. Marines), at least this one had that clear “motive.” This was about racism.

Make no mistake about it. Racism exists in every country. True as well, even 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the culture of the United States continues to wrestle with the legacy of its “peculiar institution” (as slavery was called pre-Civil War).

Close in vehemence to racism is the “motive” of terrorism based on religious fundamentalism. Federal officials are being cautious about characterizing the incident on July 16 in Tennessee, where a gunman, a U.S. citizen of Jordanian parentage, murdered four U.S. Marines.

However, Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center remarked on the PBS NewsHour about that “lone wolf” attack: “in a society where people can easily gain access to weapons, unfortunately we are going to face events like this.” Indeed.

True as well that every country in the world has lunatics among its citizenry. But that’s where this parallel ends: Few countries give them such unfettered access to guns.

As President Obama stated, “We have to stop being confused about this. You don’t see murder of this kind of scale, this kind of frequency in any other advanced nation on Earth.”

Enter cynicism

So the real story goes far beyond human error — and this being America – and the world of American politics – the story can’t really unfold without delving into amazing displays of cynicism and the absurd.

For instance, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, an ardent defender of gun “rights,” did not miss a beat about the South Carolina shooting: “It is disastrous that this bureaucratic mistake prevented existing laws from working and blocking an illegal gun sale. The facts undercut attempts to use the tragedy to enact unnecessary gun laws. The American people, and especially the victims’ families, deserve better.”

Readers from outside the United States probably need to be keyed in that “bureaucratic” is Republican code for “the government cannot do anything right.” Yes, that might lead one to ask why Grassley and his ilk themselves are part of government, and that is a peculiar American paradox.

Most inscrutable is his final sentence (about “victims’ families, deserve better”), inscrutable perhaps only because of its deep level of disingenuousness. Grassley is effectively blaming government bureaucracy for the murderous action.

How could peaceful African Americans, who are sincerely religious enough to forgive the alleged murderer, not want better gun laws and more competent enforcement? And the American people in general?

Here is another fact of American contemporary life: Eighty-nine percent of the general public favors universal background checks, including 74% of members of the National Rifle Association, yet the NRA officially does not support such checks.

And yet, disingenuous Mr. Grassley’s only real concern was to protect the “system” that is not a system, thanks to the likes of him and the NRA. And to protect his campaign contributions: Grassley received $60,676 in assistance for his 2010 re-election campaign through NRA independent expenditures and has received $17,850 from the NRA Political Action Committee (PAC) since 1998.

Contributions to other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee match these numbers, which are also reflected in the whole Congress.

The American people deserve better. But they must also demand better.

One has to wonder whether America will ever learn about the true scourge that the widespread availability of guns has on the rest of society.


The "gun control system" of the United States neither controls guns – nor is it a system.

Civilized nations have effective gun control. When will the US catch up to them?

Racists exists in every country but few others give them such unfettered access to guns.

Obama is right: “You don’t see murder of this kind of frequency in any other advanced nation.”

Grassley is effectively blaming government bureaucracy for the murderous action.