Cultural change may be solution to US gun crimes
By Wang Yong | December 14, 2013, Saturday | Print Edition
Editor’s note: The following is an exclusive interview of Shanghai Daily opinion writer Wang Yong with Tom Diaz, author of The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It.
Q: The September 16 shooting carnage at the Washington Navy Yard is the latest proof of what you call “a reign of terror” by gun activists who raise the false flag of constitutional rights. Will it push the US to better regulate guns?
A: It’s wishful thinking to suppose that any single incident – no matter how horrific – will inspire significant change in gun regulation in the US. No one in their right mind likes these incidents or accepts them as normal. But, as in so many other areas, Americans are dramatically divided on what to do about it, and so we do nothing.
There are two strongly held and opposite points of view.
One side understands that the proliferation and types of guns available is the crux of the problem, not only of mass shootings but of daily “routine” shootings all over the country. Even “good” people with access to guns commit terrible crimes with them.
The other side is committed to the ideological and emotional view that the problem is “bad” people, not guns.
It so happens that these sides are in rough national political balance right now, which favors the pro-gun side because inertia makes change virtually impossible at the national level.
The hope is that, over a longer term, there will be real and widespread cultural change that will favor stricter gun control. In other words, we will reach a “tipping point” that will break the deadlock.
There is good evidence that this may be happening, as younger and more culturally, racially, and ethnically diverse communities within the US “grow into” political power. Guns do not have the same emotional and ideological appeal to these groups as they do to the old line white male population, whose grip on American politics is clearly fading.
Q: What are Obama’s chances and challenges if he really wants to make the US a safer place?
A: I have not seen and do not expect to see substantial change under President Obama. He certainly has made powerful speeches. He would clearly like to go in the correct direction.
That said, however, two factors work against administration-driven change.
One is the reluctance of the political “experts” in the Democratic party to take on tough gun control legislation.
The influence of this view reaches to the highest levels in Congress and the White House, and includes those who might otherwise be thought to be “progressive” or “liberal.”
It’s safer to keep one’s head down. Mere politics prevents bold action, and ultimately empowers the National Rifle Association and the gun industry it represents.
The other is the stark national political division that I referred to earlier.
The president has only so much “political capital” to spend, as the recent budget and debt limit confrontation showed.
It took an enormously disciplined and steel-nerved will to face down those who had locked down the government.
Yes, the president (and for that matter, the Democratic leaders in Congress) could in theory decide to make gun control an all-or-nothing fight.
But given everything that needs to be done just to keep the US functioning, I doubt that this fight will be engaged.
Q: Do you campaign for an outright ban on individual gun rights, or for better regulated individual gun rights?
A: The facts of gun violence dictate certain answers. If we really want to reduce gun violence of all types, we must limit access to guns. So, yes, I favor strong restrictions on access to and possession of certain types of guns: high-capacity semiautomatic pistols, semiautomatic assault weapons, and very high caliber (armor-piercing) sniper rifles.
Unfortunately, the “gun control movement” in the US has bought into the idea of pursuing much more limited goals.
This is because, to a large extent, the Democratic political establishment does not want an abrasive fight. The phrase “gun safety” has come into political favor and “gun control” has lost favor.
There is nothing “wrong” with most of the incremental change being pursued. Better background checks, trigger locks, and other hardware changes all would have some small effect on gun death and injury. The facts, however, are quite clear.
The preponderance of the hurricane of gun violence in the United States comes from so-called “legal” guns and is committed by people who won’t be deterred by gadgets like trigger locks.
In my view, the diversion of energy to these palliatives is a serious mistake.
The proliferation of assault weapons in the US could have been cut short as late as 1994 if the Congress and then-President Bill Clinton had acted forcefully and intelligently. Instead, they compromised on a weak law that has since expired. Now we see the results at elementary schools, movie theaters and other public places.
Q: You write: “Every year, more Americans are killed by guns in the United States than people of all nationalities are killed worldwide by terrorist attacks.” As terrorist attacks are threats to human rights, would you also call gun crimes an abuse of human rights, especially in the case of racial hatred toward non-white immigrants?
A: I have no doubt that some of our domestic gun violence is driven by fear, anger and hatred that has its roots in some of the racial and ethnic theories that have stained our history. It certainly fuels the desire to own military-style guns.
However, one must be cautious and specific in how one articulates the case for calling gun violence a case of human rights abuse. To me, the key is the extent to which the government per se is complicit in the abuse, and I see little of that in our domestic problem.
The three greatest examples of human rights abuse within the United States that I would cite all involved overt government complicity: the genocide of the Native Americans, the institution of slavery and so-called “Jim Crow” laws that followed its formal end, and explicitly racist national laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and subsequent “quota” restrictions on immigration.
So far as domestic gun violence goes, governments in the United States can be faulted for passivity politically, but I can’t think of a case in which the government has overt responsibility for or encourages the violence. There is, however, a different case to be made for the gun violence that occurs in other countries because of our government’s lax controls on the export and smuggling of guns.
The citizens of Mexico, Canada and other countries all over the world have suffered because of these weak export and law enforcement policies and practices.
There are many things that the federal government in particular could have done and can do today to effectively prevent much of this traffic, but chooses not to do for pragmatic reasons. That is complicity.
Guns from the United States not only take lives and injure innocent people, they have provided infrastructures through which criminal and other non-government organizations can confront legitimate governments and deprive ordinary people of the free exercise of their human rights.
Frankly, it amazes me that none of these affected governments has made an aggressive case in international courts or elsewhere based on the theory that the United States is directly complicit in these abuses. Every now and then someone talks about it, but no one really does anything.
Q: You call for the creation of a comprehensive reporting system regarding gun crimes. Has there been progress to that effect since the publication of your book?
]A: I favor not only a comprehensive data system about gun “crimes,” but also about gun violence of all sorts, which would include suicides and incidents of “road rage” and “domestic violence,” which many people think is somehow different from cases in which someone sets out to use a gun to commit another crime and kills or injures a victim.
Only a little progress has been made, largely at the direction of the president. The NRA and the gun industry have a vested interest in preventing such information from being gathered, much less made public.
Ignorance, for them, is power.