American Slaughter: It’s The Politics And The Gun Lobby, Stupid

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America remains hostage to a political system that kills people on a staggering scale, both at home and overseas. Chris Graham explains.

Overnight, at least 50 people were killed in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub called Pulse, in Orlando, Florida. They’re just the latest casualties in a political system that has sponsored slaughter around the world.

Much of that, of course, has been unleashed on other countries. Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are just a few. The death toll stands at more than 2 million.

Closer to home, there’s Sandy Hook, the Charleston Church shooting, the Aurora cinema.

We’re not even half way through June 2016, and already America has recorded 15 mass shootings. Two days ago, five people were killed in New Mexico after a man shot his wife and four daughters. The nation barely batted an eyelid.

Of course, there are a number of factors that make this latest shooting stand out.

Omar Marteen, the gunman behind the mass shooting in the US overnight.
Omar Marteen, the gunman behind the mass shooting in the US overnight.

Obviously the scale of it is one of them. Discounting the US slaughter of First Nations people at Wounded Knee in 1890 – where up to 300 Native Americans were killed – Florida’s massacre early this morning is the worst mass shooting carried out by a lone gunman in modern US history, and the third worst in world history – Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011 killed 69; Woo Bum-Kon in South Korea in 1982 killed 57; Mateen’s death toll stands at 50; followed by Martin Bryant at Port Arthur, who killed 35.

The fifth worse was also in the US – Seung-Hui Cho slaughtered 32 people in 2007, at the Virginia Tech University.

Another notable feature of this killing is the target – the LGBTI community of Orlando. It comes in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting, which occurred a year ago this week and targeted a black church, where nine people were shot dead.

On that front, gun violence impacts disproportionately on minorities in the US – Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to die at the barrel of a gun. Interestingly, white males are proportionally far more likely to be behind that gun, when mass shootings occur.

Of course, this is by no means the first time the gay community has been targeted in the US – in 1997, religious extremist Eric Rudolph, the man eventually convicted of the Olympic Park bombing in 1996, detonated a device at a gay club in Atlanta, injuring five. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs(NCAVP), around one in four lesbian and gay people will experience hate crimes within their lifetimes.

But while those crimes are still common-place, obviously this is the most deadly.

That brings with it an especially cruel irony. Like the rest of the country, Florida, as one of the United States’ biggest killers of its own citizens (it’s ranked fourth on the national list of executions) also happens to hate the gay community.

By law, gay Americans* are not allowed to donate blood. Some clinics have relaxed that law today – when you have a mass shooting in a gay club, gay blood suddenly becomes acceptable. But when this all blows over, it will likely remain much more difficult for a gay man to donate blood in America than for him to buy an assault rifle.

That obviously underscores the nature of America’s problem with guns. But what is widely misunderstood is the scale of the problem, which is nowhere near as big or theoretically unassailable as many Australians might believe.

Here’s a few facts about gun ownership in America.

In the course of a year, gun sales almost always peak in December. Nothing honours the birth of Christ like buying yourself a Tech-9 for Christmas.

Gun sales also peak after mass shootings – large-scale slaughter is good for business in the US, and this massacre will be no different.

But just how good is that business? How much money do gun manufacturers and sellers contribute to the American economy, and how much support is there for the lax gun laws?

Time magazine has a good graphic here which indicates the number of firearm background checks the Federal Bureau of Investigation completes every month. While a check doesn’t mean a gun sale, it does mean someone has applied for one. So in November 2015, the FBI processed almost 2.3 million background checks. Yes, that’s just one month. In December 2012 – the highest on record – it was almost 2.8 million.

To put that into perspective, that’s around 90,000 checks per day, 365 days a year.

What’s puzzling about that statistic is that gun owners in the US by no means make up the majority.

Gun-ownership-US

Pew Research estimates that while there are up to 310 million guns in America – that’s slightly less than one per man, woman and child – only around one-third of Americans report that they or someone in their household owns a gun.

Gun ownership also happens to be serious decline – around half the American population owned a gun in 1980.

In terms of contribution to the American economy, the number of full-time jobs associated with the firearms industry is just over 250,000, which represents less than 0.2 per cent of the American jobs market in 2014. By comparison, almost 100 times that amount – 22 million Americans – work in health care and social services.

Gun stores in the US rack up about $3.1 billion in sales annually, and generate a profit of less than half a billion dollars. World-wide, US gun and ammunition sales bring in about $13.5 billion, and the estimated overall ‘positive’ economic impact of gun sales within the US is around $43 billion. That represents about 0.2% of the American economy, which is almost $18 trillion dollars annually.

And so what is the estimated ‘negative’ impact of fatal and non-fatal gun violence? It costs $229 billion every year, or about 1.4 per cent of the US’s total GDP.

In other words, guns in the US are the ‘coal’ of Australia. They employ far less people than you might think, and they do far more damage to the economy than good, not to mention what they do to life on this planet.

And yet, they keep selling them.

So how would the US go about getting rid of them, or at least severely restricting their sale? Well, under the current US political system, it’s almost impossible.

On the conservative Republican side of politics, there’s a few reasons why elected leaders won’t take on the gun lobby. Firstly, they’re ideologically opposed to disarming a nation. The second amendment guarantees the ‘right to bear arms’, and any watering down of this amendment represent ‘tyranny’ and an ‘assault on freedom’.

Secondly, Republicans understand the impact on their voter base by restricting access to any weapons – automatic, semi-automatic or otherwise. While only one-third of Americans own guns, a substantial proportion of those vote Republican.

Finally, the Republicans are the biggest beneficiary of gun lobby donations – they receive more than 90 cents of every dollar donated to the political system by the various gun lobbies.

But here’s the curious thing: when you add it up, gun lobby donations to political parties amount to chump change – an estimated $3.7 million in 2014.

That’s a remarkably cheap investment for an industry worth almost $14 billion annually. It’s also a remarkably cheap price placed on the lives of Americans by their elected leaders… roughly $300 for every gun murder in the US each year (there’s about 12,000 of them).

The Democrats are unlikely to move against the gun lobby either. They receive a tiny proportion of political donations, but they also know that taking on the powerful gun lobby would be electoral suicide.

And again, this is despite the fact most Americans are in favour of together gun controls.

So just like Australian politics is held hostage to the mining lobby – think Kevin Rudd, and the mining industry-led assault on his carbon tax – American politics is a hostage of the gun lobby.

It might seem inconceivable to Australians that in the face of these clear facts, that strong political leadership would not emerge. But it won’t. American gun violence – and American gun laws – are not going to improve any time soon.

US president Barack Obama has sat through thousands of mass shootings in his time as President. And every time one makes the news, he delivers the same stump speech – ‘this is terrible. We have to do something’.

And then next to nothing is done.

Obama-Orland-shooting

There’s almost no reason to believe his potential replacement, Hillary Clinton, will be any different. Here she is in January, saying essentially what Obama has consistently said for almost eight years: “More than 33,000 Americans are killed by guns each year. It’s time to act. As President, I’ll take on the gun lobby and fight for commonsense reforms to keep guns away from terrorists, domestic abusers, and other violent criminals — including comprehensive background checks and closing loopholes that allow guns to fall into the wrong hands.”

Notably, Clinton said nothing about assault weapons, which are designed purely to kill as many people as possible. Instead, she promises to stop them falling into the hands of dangerous people, which, in a nation awash with guns, is impossible.

There’s even less reason to believe Obama’s other potential predecessor, Donald Trump, will tackle gun violence. Here’s what he said last month: “We’re going to cherish the Second Amendment.” In other words, the right to bear arms.

After the Paris siege late last year, Trump argued that it would have “played out differently with the bullets flying in the other direction” if Parisians had been armed.

Floridians are bang on the national average when it comes to gun ownership – about one in three. The state also recently voted in favour of ‘open carry’ laws, making it easier to wear a gun on you hip as you walk the streets. None of this appears to have saved 50 people from a mad man in a nightclub.

More importantly, here’s what Trump said this morning, reminding Americans that he’d warned of precisely of this sort of slaughter a few months back, referencing earlier remarks that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States.

Omar Mateen, of course, was born in New York.

America’s political process – the one that sponsors slaughter for the blind pursuit of power, both at home and overseas – rolls on.

* Correction: This article original stated that it was a Florda law that banned gay men from donating blood. In fact, it’s a federal law. The article has been amended. 

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Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting.

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