It happened a few days back on New Year's Eve. A 16-year-old boy in New Jersey, US, killed four members of his family on December 31, just a few minutes before the brand new year dawned. He used a semiautomatic rifle to fatally shoot both of his parents, a sibling and his grandfather's partner. Yet despite the time and date of the grisly murders, the news did not shock me that much. Gun violence has become a routine occurrence in America and it's hard not to come across reports of gun-related deaths in the media almost every other day. Although I did not react to the news of the teenage murderer at first, I couldn't help thinking about the incident one day later when new details emerged. Let me explain why.
I am currently teaching a creative writing class in the undergraduate programme at Rutgers University in New Jersey. It's a core course that brings students from all academic and racial backgrounds to my class every semester. Last semester, I made my students critique articles written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof on gun violence in America, in the aftermath of the Las Vegas mass shootings that left 58 people dead and more than 500 injured. Kristof made some practical recommendations on tackling the problem, taking into account that firearms cannot realistically be banned in his country because of the Second Amendment in the US Constitution.
The Second Amendment gives every American citizen the right to “keep and bear arms,” a powerful constitutional right that many Americans take very seriously, even though it was adopted in 1791. My students, who are in different years of their undergraduate study, were asked to read the articles carefully and argue on the points Kristof made. Needless to say, they were at first uncomfortable to discuss the issue since it was a contentious topic that often leads to heated discussions. I was prepared to hear both sides of the debate—pro-gun and anti-gun arguments—but was a bit taken aback when two of my white, male students admitted to owning guns.
Let me call them, student A and student B. Student A, who is a senior, dominated the discussion. He explained that he owns guns because he grew up with guns in his house as his father was an army veteran. He firmly believes that firearms are necessary for protection and one needs them to be prepared to fight against any potentially tyrannical government. He pointed out that things are a bit crazy right now with the US government—“anything can happen at any time!” Student A mentioned the example of Nazi Germany, and how Hitler and his army were able to coerce the German population into obeying orders because the ordinary citizens had no weapons to fight back the despot.
On the other hand, Student B, a reserved sophomore, shared a personal story about his grandmother bravely shooting down a mugger with her own gun for self-defence when he was little. A story that he was obviously proud of and that influenced his decision to own a gun. “You never know when you might need it!” he cautioned.
The New Year's Eve quadruple murders made me reflect on my recent class discussion, mainly because my students are only a few years older than the 16-year-old perpetrator, and the gun enthusiasts in my class were introduced to guns in high school. Many interesting perspectives and arguments came up during the discussion and their writing assignment titled, “thoughts and prayers aren't enough.” But I was a bit sad to note that my students like, many Americans, have accepted gun deaths as a grim but unavoidable reality. They don't believe there is any feasible solution to this unique American problem. The majority of my students grew up with the belief that “guns don't kill, people kill,” so they think that banning guns or imposing stricter regulations wouldn't work. Instead they feel, the focus should be on mental illness and keeping firearms away from those who can use them to harm others. They argued that the Islamist terrorists have resorted to using vehicles to mow down people in crowded areas, but that doesn't mean we should ban vehicles.
A catchy headline caught my attention while I was doing research on this topic. A Newsweek report states, “There have been more mass shootings in the US than days in 2017.” Published on August 29, 2017, the report used the Gun Violence Archive as a source to point out that there have been 244 mass shootings in the first 240 days of 2017. And this report was published before the two major mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas. Gun Violence Archive (GVA) is a non-profit dedicated to compiling the accurate number and information about firearms-related deaths in the US and is often cited as a source by American news media and politicians. The GVA defines mass shootings as an incident in which four or more people are shot and killed, not including the shooter. The report further states that until last August, the death toll from firearms was 10,223 and the number of injuries from guns was 20,530. This number rose significantly after the report came out taking into account the mass shootings that occurred in Las Vegas, Texas and other places.
There is some discrepancy about the accurate number of gun deaths last year, which is understandable since 2017 ended a little more than a week ago. PolitiFact published an interesting article on October 4, 2017 titled, “Is Las Vegas mass shootings the 273rd this year? Or the Seventh? Or somewhere in between?” According to PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the day after the Las Vegas mass shooting that many news media and social media users were calling the tragedy the 273rd mass shootings in 2017.
PolitiFact pointed out that the number of deaths varies depending on the sources cited, as there is no universal definition of mass shootings. Some organisations include all shootings from bar fights to school shootings, while others are more selective when counting numbers. PolitiFact gives a clear example to explain the confusion—the non-profit, Every town for Gun Safety, counted 156 mass shootings in the US from 2009 to 2016, which is an average of 19.5 mass shootings per year.
Washington Post counted 131 mass shootings dating back to 1966, which is an average of less than three per year. Washington Post didn't count gang killings, shootings that result from robberies or murders that only involve the shooter's own family.
So, which number is accurate? PolitiFact feels that the truth is somewhere in between. No matter how broadly or narrowly mass shootings are defined and what the accurate number of gun deaths is, there is no denying that many people in the US have easy access to firearms. Whether they are psychopaths or just normal people who want to protect themselves is another matter. But one thing is for sure, the standard response after mass shootings by US politicians—"thoughts and prayers for the victims of mass shootings”—is not enough. There needs to be concrete action for change, not meaningless words.
Lavina Ambreen Ahmed teaches creative writing at Rutgers University, USA and is a freelance journalist covering contemporary issues in the USA and South Asia.