20 Feb 2018 18:18 IST

​Will public shootings in America ever end?

A student and his mother look at the crosses and Stars of David placed in front of the fence of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to commemorate the victims of the mass shooting in Parkland Florida | Reuters BL on Campus

The charge against the US that it doesn’t have strict gun laws and too many guns, is misleading

Were it not for the fact that mass shootings involve loss of innocent life and limb, and if one were to only react to events based on frequency of occurrence, the recent Parkland, Florida massacre should have evoked a yawn.

A yawn because most things in the storyline were not new. For the umpteenth time, it was about a single monster who planned his attack with military-style precision. In this instance, the attacker was calm when he mercilessly slaughtered 17 high school children in the hallways of a school he knew well — after all, he was a student there recently.

And again, the cycle of post-tragedy events will play out in the coming days with clockwork precision. The President will visit; funerals will be held; candlelight vigils will be organised; flowers will be placed in the school yard. Twitter and social media will scream, political speeches will be made and the media and the left will shout the loudest.

Until the next shooting, coming soon to Someplace, USA.

What stood out

However, two things were novel. One was that the shooter tried to escape in the ensuing melee. He mixed in with the hundreds of students who were bolting towards the exits after the carnage stopped. Generally, such shooters empty the last bullets on themselves — or are killed by the police. It was amazing that he was caught. He looked like one of them — one of the victims feeling the violence that he himself had unleashed, minutes earlier.

The second thing is a lot more serious. There were plenty of clues that this youngster meant to cause harm. The FBI was tipped off as early as last September when he posted to a YouTube site, saying he would shoot at a public school. Uncharacteristically, though, the FBI took no action.

In the San Antonio church shooting as well, the US government was partly at fault. The killer in that case used to work at the US Air Force, but had been dishonourably discharged from service because he was arrested and convicted for domestic assault. By law, such convictions are reported to a federal database, but a clerk in the Air Force missed doing so. It is unlawful to sell weapons to people who feature in this database. But since his name was not in it, he was able to buy his cache of guns and kill 26 people.

The ‘against’ arguments

Gun violence in the US is a huge problem, but there are no easy solutions. The most common charge is that the country does not have strict-enough gun laws. Another accusation is that there are too many guns in America. Both these charges are often misleading.

Gun laws

Let us consider laws. The toughest challenge for lawmakers is to ensure that any law passed does not violate the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which is explicit in granting Americans a right to own guns. ‘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’. Passed in 1789, this was among 10 rights — along with those guaranteeing freedom of speech, religion, the press and a right to a court trial — which were collectively called the Bill of Rights.

But did the Second Amendment really grant a right to the Parkland shooter to carry an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle and kill innocent school children? Were we to bring back the authors of the Constitution, reasonable people would agree that this was never their intent. America in the late 1700s was alive with private armies and militias fighting to evict foreign powers such as Britain and France. You cannot mobilise a private army if people don’t have the tools to fight. A single-shot musket or rifle was essential.

Today’s ‘arms’ would have dazzled the founding fathers. The AR-15 can deliver more than three times the force as a 9mm pistol, and because it has 30 bullets in a round, can inflict a lot more damage in a short time, even before the shooter reloads.

Fully automatic carbines, like those used by the military, are outlawed in the US but a device called a bump stock lets shooters modify their semi-automatic guns into weapons that fire nearly as fast as automatic machine guns. If you want to understand the physics of an AR-15, this NBC News article by Ernest E Moore, a trauma surgeon, is a must read.

Self-defence theorys

So why can’t lawmakers overturn the Second Amendment? To begin with, there is a lot of support for owning guns. President Trump ran on a platform to protect the Second Amendment and won. Hunting is a popular pastime in America, which is still largely rural. Sport shooting is popular too. And law-abiding citizens want to own the AR-15 for self-defence against deranged individuals like the Parkland shooter.

The self-defence theory is rather simple. There is never an armed policeman or guard around when something like this happens. Wouldn’t someone in the school with another AR-15 — or even a 9mm pistol — have been able to counter the shooter and cut him down? Couldn’t lives have been saved had this happened?

The ‘concealed carry’ law

Such thinking makes sense to millions of people, which is why several States have passed ‘Concealed Carry’ laws. In Texas, all public universities, such as the University of Texas in Austin, or Texas A&M University, are required by law to allow students to carry licensed weapons as concealed carry.

Opponents argue that this is dangerous as a person licensed to carry a gun could turn on fellow students and begin shooting. Proponents say that before such a license is issued, the background check process ensures that people are mentally stable and responsible. However, there are no studies to prove either theory right or wrong.

Back to overturning the Second Amendment. As a practical matter, this is impossible. Altering the Constitution consists of securing a two-thirds vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. And by a simple majority of three-fourths of the State legislatures — 38 states.

The loopholes

Could the US then pass common sense gun laws? Of course it can — and several laws are in place (The Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004 and has not been renewed). The most common law is that before someone can buy a gun, he or she is supposed to undergo a federal criminal background check. The Parkland shooter had passed the check just as had the Las Vegas and San Antonio shooters.

But there are loopholes. No background checks are needed when you buy guns second-hand from another seller at so called Gun Shows — flea markets for guns. Also, a determined shooter can borrow a gun from someone who has a license to own it (like the shooter in Sandy Hook who got it from his mother) or just steal it.

This is why the National Rifle Association (NRA), the powerful organisation which advocates for gun owners, says that it is not guns which kill people but the hand that pulls the trigger that does. The NRA argues that anti-gun laws are not meaningful if someone wants to kill — and as long as there are bad people with guns, good people ought to have the right to own them as well.

And so the debate goes on until the next public shooting. Stay tuned.