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Navy Yard shootings and U.S. gun culture

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President Obama can't pass gun safety measures

The recent shooting death of 13 Americans at the Navy Yard military centre in Washington, D.C. is a tragic but commonplace occurrence. Mother Jones magazine says that there have now been five mass shootings in the U.S. this year, with more than 40 people injured and killed. In 2011, there were 11,000 gun-related homicides in the country. It begs the question: is there no way to prevent Americans from killing one another with firearms? Writing in The Walrus magazine, American writer Chris Hedges says, "Violence, at home and abroad, has been a constant in America. The gun culture Canadians and Europeans find hard to fathom is its natural expression." So is he right?

Sadly, the ritual is familiar. There is a jarring media announcement about a mass shooting. Police provide forensic details, and public officials offer condolences and prayers. Then the anguished funerals occur, such as those in Newtown, Conn. after 20 young children and seven adults died in a horrific killing spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But nothing really changes as a result.

The perpetrators often show signs of mental illness, as did Aaron Alexis at the Navy Yard. But why do Alexis and others have such easy access to assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns? Following the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook, one American politician asked why and how weapons used to kill on the battlefield are so easily available to U.S. consumers.

Granted, the number of gun-related homicides has declined in recent years, yet the U.S. rate is still about six times more than that of Canada and 30 times more than that of the U.K.

After the horror in Newton, U.S. President Barack Obama finally found his courage. "We can't tolerate this anymore," he told the press. "These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change." Obama also appointed U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to lead a task force to make recommendations. The most likely first step would be to resume a ban on assault weapons with high-capacity magazines.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is lobby central for the $11.7-billion gun industry. Even after the carnage at Sandy Hook, the NRA came out swinging at Obama and anyone else supporting stronger gun safety laws. Americans already own an estimated 300 million guns, according to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, the leading source of international information about firearms. Nevertheless, the NRA and a good number of politicians actually claim that the country would be safer if more people carried them.

Obama says that 80 to 90 per cent of people agree with him, and yet he still cannot get legislation for stricter gun safety laws enacted. Perhaps, as economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has put it, vested interests have captured the legislative process, repeatedly frustrating the desires of ordinary Americans.

This is unpleasant to contemplate, but it's a less disturbing conclusion than that of Chris Hedges -- that Americans, themselves, have a persistent and savage addiction to firearms.

This article appeared on the United Church Observer blog on September 26.

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