How can a great nation leave its citizens so defenceless against killers?
The answer is that in America, stupid arguments are sometimes allowed to override sane ones, provided the organisation or person peddling the argument is powerful or rich enough. Around 3.7 million American households have a military-grade weapon similar to the one used in Sunday’s mass killings.
Omar Mateen, the American gunman who slaughtered 50 people and wounded another 53 at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June 2016, used an AR-15 assault rifle to kill his victims.
The American media have now christened this gun as “the weapon of choice for mass shooters in the USA”. Also known as "America's gun," it is owned by around 3.7 million American households, making it the country's most popular rifle. It is a “military-grade weapon” and is extremely deadly because its large magazine enables the user to reload it only once before causing a terrible massacre.
Omar Mateen was equipped with this gun, plus a handgun, when he went on his killing spree at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Florida.
It was the same type of gun that was used by a killer called Adam Lanza to shoot 26 people dead at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012; the “San Bernardino, California, terrorists”, who murdered 14 people in December 2015, also used AR-15s assault rifles; nine people were also killed at Umpqua Community College in October 2015 – with AR-15s; and in July 2012, a killer called James Eagan Holmes used it to kill 12 people at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, wounding 70 others.
Despite the AR-15's horrendous reputation, anyone over the age of 18 can own it, without a licence, in the state of Florida, where the latest killings occurred. The same goes for pistols and shotguns. So Omar Mateen was unlikely to have resorted to illegal methods to obtain his arsenal.
The question is: why does the US allow such weapons to fall into the hands of people who might be mentally disturbed and who, therefore, render invalid the argument – used mainly by the “National Rifle Association” (NRA) – that guns are necessary to enable Americans to “defend” themselves, or entertain themselves, and that guns, as such, “do not kill” but “people do”?
The answer is that in America, stupid arguments are sometimes allowed to override sane ones, provided the organisation or person peddling the argument is “powerful” or rich enough. A case in point is the progress Donald Trump is making in trying to become President of the United States, despite the many “crazy” policies he has proposed.
The NRA's argument against gun control is nonsense because although it is people who pull the trigger to kill, they could not kill anyone if there was no trigger to pull in the first place. In other words, without guns, no killer would be able to carry out his objective of murdering people, especially, large numbers of people. A person wielding a knife/machete or even an axe can kill all right, but just imagine the amount of effort he would need to be able to kill even three people, let alone 50. But a finger on the trigger of a gun with an automatic firing system can mow down dozens in a few second.
The reason the NRA is able to campaign against gun control laws proposed by American lawmakers is that it is an extremely wealthy organisation. It spends about $250 million annually to carry out political lobbying. But because America's lobbying laws are nebulous, the NRA declares its lobbying budget to be only about $3.5 million. The NRA's ability to help elect Congressmen who advocate the ownership of guns, while ensuring the defeat of candidates who oppose the ownership of guns, is hidden from the American public.
According to the BBC, the NRA' was founded in 1871 as a recreational group designed to "promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis". In 1975, it began attempting to influence policy directly via a newly formed lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action. In 1977, it formed its own Political Action Committee (PAC), to channel funds to legislators.
The NRA is now among the most powerful special interest lobby groups in the US, with a substantial budget to influence members of Congress on gun policy.
“The NRA spends about $250m per year, far more than all the country's gun control advocacy groups put together....Considerable sums are spent ... via ... independent expenditures - funds which are difficult to track.”
The BBC adds: “The NRA also wields considerable indirect influence via its highly politically engaged membership, many of whom will vote one way or another based on [the gun control] issue. The NRA publicly grades members of Congress from A to F, on their perceived friendliness to gun [ownership] rights. Those ratings can have a serious effect on poll numbers and even cost pro-gun control candidates a seat....The NRA has lobbied heavily against all forms of gun control and argues aggressively that more guns make the country safer. It relies on, and staunchly defends, a disputed interpretation of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which, it argues, gives US citizens the rights to bear arms.”
What has astounded Americans most about the latest shooting in their country is the revelation that the killer, Omar Mateen, was investigated twice by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for suspected terrorist sympathies, but that “no evidence of wrongdoing” was found relating to him. The FBI apparently focused too narrowly on “terrorist” activities by him and ignored other facets of his life that might have depicted him as dangerous to society. For instance, his wife parted from him after only five months of marriage, because (she says) she found him abusive and unstable. She even used the technical term for describing some mentally disturbed people, “bi-polar”, in relation to him. Why didn't the FBI talk to Maaten's wife? Do its officers focus too much on political crimes (of which terrorism forms a large part) while missing signs that might indicate that a person is dangerous to society generally?
In the wake of the Orlando shooting, the Police Commissioner of New York City, Mr Bill Bratton, has fiercely criticized the system whereby the US government has drawn up a “ no-fly list” and yet such people are not barred from purchasing guns.
“The idea [that] we have a terror-watch list, a no-fly list, and [yet] someone on that list can buy a gun – that’s the highest level of insanity,” Bratton told CNN. He added that the probe into the Orlando shooter would have to take in whether “there was anything from the FBI investigations that might have stopped him being able to acquire a firearm. I don’t hold out much hope for that: obviously the United States is too afraid of the NRA at this time.”
Such shootings also occur in the US because, in addition to opposition from the NRA, it appears that not enough vetting of people who want to acquire guns, to establish their mental state, takes place. Because insurance companies and other interest groups oppose universal medical care for all US citizens, it is possible for persons who are mentally disturbed to remain in the society unnoticed, posing as sane persons. Then, one day, something touches them off, and out they go to commit mass murder – and with weapons they are able to acquire because no one takes the trouble to find out whether such persons are sound enough in the mind to use the weapons they acquire responsibly.
The US needs leadership to fight off the NRA and get legislation enacted that would prevent lethal weapons from falling into the hands of the wrong people. But the country is chasing its own tail, as it were – the NRA won't allow it to elect new legislators who will pass such legislation, and those elected already are afraid that the NRA would campaign against them and prevent their being re-elected.
And so, the killings go on. The US has very tough laws against the possession and use of marijuana and cocaine and other mind-altering drugs. It has put millions of people in jail for breaking the laws that govern the use of drugs Yet it cannot legislate uniformly against the possession of guns, which are a million times more deadly than the drugs for which so many people are incarcerated. The absurdity of the situation is beyond belief. But you watch: the latest victims of the insane use of guns will soon vanish from the news – their deaths will be buried in statistics, just as the deaths of so many innocent victims of guns have been buried – in the recent past.
* Cameron Duodu is a veteran Ghanaian journalist and aut