In the wake of the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, lawmakers are in the process of drafting legislation amidst a fierce nationwide gun control debate. Implementing practical measures that could reduce or eliminate our country’s scourge of mass shootings should certainly be a priority. But we also need to look at the bigger picture by expanding our discussion of this epidemic of American violence to include a critique of government-sanctioned force.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once called the U.S. government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." When he spoke those words, the American military was in the process of slaughtering millions of innocent people in Southeast Asia. In recent decades, the U.S. has killed an estimated 1.3 million during the so-called "War on Terror." Global American warfare, coupled with persistent U.S. support for barbaric regimes and organizations, has produced the overwhelming global view that the United States is the greatest threat to world peace.
Domestically, we are barely beginning to understand the full scope of police violence. However, thanks to statistics recently compiled by journalists at The Guardian, ProPublica, Vice, and other investigative news outlets, the veil is slowly being lifted from this gruesome phenomenon. The data is clearly complex (and incomplete), but, based on even the most conservative estimates, law enforcement officers have indeed killed more Americans than mass shooters in recent years.
King’s statement was true in 1967, and it is true today. We should certainly consider any proposal that shows promise in preventing mass shootings, but banning bump stocks won’t stop the police from murdering unarmed black men, just as limiting magazine capacity won’t stop the wholesale butchery of Middle Eastern and African civilians. If we’re not concerned with the most flagrant offender, how can we be concerned with the crime?
This aforementioned conduit of death and destruction also governs in the richest country in the history of the world. But, strangely enough, the U.S. has one of the lowest standards of living of any industrialized democracy. When half of the population is living in or near poverty and 45,000 people die each year due to lack of access to healthcare, this can be seen as a form of violence as well. Therefore, we should also include in our discussion the extent to which four decades of neoliberalism have contributed to a society plagued with isolation, hopelessness, despair, and suffering — and how these conditions might contribute to instances of gun violence.
Lastly, aside from the well-known nature of America’s pervasive and long-standing gun culture, we should also discuss our nation’s legacy of white supremacy and our culture of hyper-masculinity that glorifies violence, sexual assault, and patriarchy.
This is America, and whether we like it or not, guns are here to stay. And, just like the various illicit substances outlawed in the War on Drugs, access to these vessels of lethality may be more complicated than changes in the law. Addressing underlying cultural and societal issues can certainly be uncomfortable, but it could have more long term significance than any quick-fix legislation.