October 21, 2015, by Guest blog

Race and Rights: American Atrocities and British Smugness

By Peter Ling

The Oregon shootings, in the wake of the Virginia shootings, in the wake of the Charleston shootings, in the wake of the Ferguson killing, and the Sandy Hook school massacre drew global media to the issue of American gun control, yet again. A clearly frustrated President Obama was shown lamenting the fact that such incidents were becoming almost “routine.” Yet if such atrocities are routine, why are they still newsworthy?

Mass shootings in the United States, defined as those that claim five or more victims happen approximately every two weeks on average and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) acknowledges that its database probably logs no more than 54% of such incidents because local police choose not to report the most common form of mass shooting which is the family massacre where typically a father kills his wife and children and then himself. Thus, there is already a filter on which atrocities make the record, let alone the news. Mass shooting themselves account for a small fraction of US homicides, the bulk of which are comprised of individual murders, most commonly linked to personal interactions whether that is a family dispute or a soured drug transaction. By looking at US gun violence through the lens of mass killing on campuses, in churches, in schools or as in Aurora, Colorado, at the movie theatre, we are looking at a-typical crimes.

Of course, they expose the reality that mass shootings are predicated on the widespread availability of guns in the United States. With an estimated 300 million firearms, America has a gun for every man, woman and child, even though collectively less than half of Americans own a gun. A recurrent thread within President Obama’s rhetoric in response to the horrific mass shootings is that the ease of access to guns is what makes such events possible in the US with a frequency that is not replicated in other advanced societies. At the same time, as the details of each event unfolds, the profile of the murderer tends to feature pathological characteristics ensuring that it is reasonable to conclude that massacres are the work of sick madmen. For some, what America needs therefore is not tougher gun control but better and more accessible psychiatric services. Equally, some observers note that the attacks occur in public places where armed security is likely to be limited. There are remarkably few attacks on government buildings and financial institutions where the latter is present; a point that is seized upon by pro-gun advocates who insist that the massacres would not have happened if the public was more generally armed. An armed society is a polite society, they claim.

If the lens through which we observe American violence is switched, however, to the more common individual fatalities, we may strengthen both the argument that America really does need more effective gun control and maybe, just maybe, realize that there are aspects of the story that should cause British people to examine conditions here rather than simply enjoy the inward thought: “thank God, we are not Americans.” If most violence in the US involves people known to each other, if it involves estranged partners, disgruntled employees, and the many small moments of conflict of daily life, then it is not so different from the pattern in the UK in its origins. But what in Britain may lead to the under-reported incidents of domestic violence, or workplace bullying, or drunken brawling, in the US, due to the presence of lethal weapons, is more likely to be shooting with fatal consequences.

Our emphasis on the mass shootings enables us to feel comfortable in the belief that we are so very different. America becomes a freak show with a huge cultural iconography of images of frontier and gangster violence that predisposes us to see the US as the home of the gun. Think of it. We send them Downton Abbey and they give us Breaking Bad. For decades now, British national identity (insofar as it exists) has included the proud boast to the world that we are so much more sophisticated than the Yanks and our coverage of these outrages seems intent on proving it –to ourselves. We might do better to consider that violence in Britain is not absent from our campuses, schools or homes. We can be grateful that guns are less readily available (although this too is a continuing challenge to ensure), but the periodic campaigns against knife crime, for instance, should underscore the fact that we are more like our American cousins than we like to think.

Peter Ling is Professor of American History, Head of American and Canadian Studies, and a Research Associate with the Centre for Research in Race and Rights

Photo credit SS&SS CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Posted in American and Canadian Studies