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America lives in fear

Gun culture is embedded in American life. Half of all Republicans, who are traditionally for guns, feel that America needs to live with mass shootings.

SUNIL SHARAN | New Delhi |

Mass shootings are aucourant in the United States. US President Joe Biden has just signed into law a gun control bill, but Democrats (whose party Biden belongs to) fret that it does not do enough. And well they may be right. The fourth of July is America’s Independence Day. It is celebrated with fireworks throughout the land. The sad part is that fireworks sound an awful lot like a gun going off. Highland Park is a tony Chicago suburb. A 21-year old man, Robert Crimo III, legally bought a high-powered rifle and shot dead seven people and injured dozens of others in a machine-gun style assault on people watching a parade. Biden’s signing comes just over a month after a mass shooting at a Texas elementary school that killed 19 children and 2 adults.

That attack came 10 days after a racist mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket killed 10 black people. From 2017-21, there have been 31 cases of mass shootings (mass shooting is defined as when a gunman slaughters four or more strangers in a public place), more than in any half decade going back to 1966. Mass shootings are clearly on the rise in America. So is their scale. Invariably they are committed by a man, not a woman, although women have equal access to guns as men in America. Many women serve in combat roles in the American military and know how to shoot but somehow they refuse to partake of their fair share of mass shootings. Men are laden with testosterone and go for it. The shooter’s race seems to matter. Most mass shooters are white males, while some are black or Hispanic.

Other ethnicities don’t seem to relish the thrill of the kill. Victims though can belong to any race. A number of Indians have been killed in the US because the shooter thought that they were Arabs or Iranian. What is happening in the US? The problem stems in part from Hollywood. Hollywood people are liberal in general and all for gun control, but what they depict in their movies is altogether different. Murder and mayhem sell like nothing else. Actor Alec Baldwin actually shot to death a cinematographer on set. As children, Americans are exposed to mindless violence on cinema and TV. There are war movies, murder movies, movies of humans fighting aliens, blood and gore everywhere. Just recently, after many years, I thought of going to the theatre to watch a movie. Apart from the de rigeur chick flick, all the other movies were full of violence. I decided not to go.

Gun culture is embedded in American life. Half of all Republicans, who are traditionally for guns, feel that America needs to live with mass shootings. Growing up in India, I read a lot of westerns, in which two people often duel themselves to death. It’s hard to imagine such duels taking place today, even in America, but they have left embossed on the national psyche an admiration for guns that just doesn’t seem to go away. When I first came to the US in 1990, I was a callow 21-year old out to do his PhD. The first gulf war was impending. I went to a senior American post-doctoral fellow in the lab and asked him if war would take place. He responded, absolutely, we are a very warlike people. A mass shooting on the fourth of July.

How American! But the shooters leave nobody. I have taught at an elementary school in America. The little ones, they are doing no harm to anyone. The shooter at the Texas elementary school mentioned earlier shot dead 19 children and 2 adults. How callous! And the response of the nation was Biden’s flimsy gun safety law. Biden’s law expanded background checks on people between the ages of 18 and 21 seeking to buy a gun. But Crimo, the fourth of July shooter, was 21. He had had two previous encounters with law enforcement – an April 2019 emergency-911 call reporting that he had attempted suicide and another in September of that year regarding alleged threats “to kill everyone” that he had directed at family members. Police responding to the second incident seized a collection of 16 knives, a dagger and a sword amassed by Crimo in his home, though no arrest was made as authorities at the time lacked probable cause to take him into custody.

Yet, despite all this background information on him, Crimo was able to legally buy a high-powered rifle. I too have had my encounters with guns in America. The first was when I was eating at a Taco Bell on my college campus. A big, hooded man entered with a shotgun, and shouted to everyone to go down. All of us customers fell to the floor. I thought that he would come to each one of us to pick our pockets. But he had no time for all that. He went straight to the cash register and made away with his booty. All of us were shaken to the core. The second time was when by mistake I cut in front of another driver. He followed me for four miles. Then while at the same level with me on the road, he pulled out a revolver. I was petrified. He was waving the revolver three feet away from my face. I asked him about his heritage.

He told me. I praised his heritage and told him that I loved his people. Only then did he relent. It was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Now in America, I refrain from going to cinema theatres for fear of terrorist bombings. I avoid large crowds. I go to the supermarket but make it an in and out affair. What kind of crazy country has America become? Or maybe I am going crazy. Or maybe all those politicians who are in hock to the National Rifle Association. Or maybe even Biden, the most powerful man in the world, who cannot curb mass shootings in any way.