After Connecticut: the myth of America’s ‘gun culture’

The obsession with the guns used in school shootings overlooks the cultural factors behind these modern outbursts of nihilistic violence.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Following the horrific massacre of 26 people, including 20 children, at a school in Connecticut, there has been more heated debate about America’s so-called gun culture. In the eyes of most observers, it is a given that it is the availability of guns in the US that leads to these mass shootings in schools. Apparently, the ease with which guns can be sourced – thanks to the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees Americans the right to bear arms – makes it inevitable that American kids will run the risk of being slain by gun-toters.

Is this true? Really? Even a fleeting glance at some of the statistics on school shootings – especially the fact that multiple-victim shootings were extremely rare before the 1980s – should reveal there is more to these outbursts than the availability of guns. After all, guns have been around in the US for a very long time, but it is only over the past 30 years that mass shootings in schools have become relatively common (‘relative’ being a crucial word here). The fetishisation of the means through which school-killers carry out their acts is really a way of avoiding confronting the cultural factors that might shape such acts. The obsessive focus on the technical execution, the guns used, looks like a massive displacement activity, brought about by an unwillingness to examine the potential cultural underpinnings of the school-massacre trend. The ‘gun culture’ is the wrong culture to be talking about.

The post-Connecticut commentary gives the impression that America is in thrall to The Gun. A writer for the New York Review of Books summed up the rather elitist East Coast view of the problem when he described the gun as ‘our Moloch’ – a modern-day version of the pagan god to whom children are sacrificed. Strikingly, he depicts the gun almost as a sentient force, godlike indeed. ‘Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned’, he says. Here, the shooter’s moral agency, or the broader cultural influences he may have been subjected to, are downplayed in favour of depicting the gun itself as the determiner of events and judge over life and death. In a desperate effort to get around the inconvenient fact that guns are mere tools, no more responsible for evil in our societies than knives are, the writer goes into denial. ‘The gun is not a mere tool [or] bit of technology’, he insists. ‘It is an object of reverence.’

The idea that America reveres ‘the great god Gun’ has been widely expressed post-Connecticut. You can see it in the very phrase ‘gun culture’, which suggests guns, inanimate objects, have somehow conquered America. You can also see it in the childlike claims that greater gun control would solve many of America’s problems. As a British writer says, ‘I am so sick of listening to even liberal Americans being apologists for their nation’s absurd gun laws. No guns = no gun killings. Simple.’

That s-word gives the game away. It is what the ostentatious head-shakers over backward Americans’ alleged worship of guns continually strive for: simplicity. Or, as some of us might prefer to describe it, naivety. Because in truth, it is not obvious at all that the shooting in Connecticut was the inevitable byproduct of the availability of guns. And to argue this is to ignore some complex and profoundly important cultural factors.

Firstly, there’s the fact that shootings in America’s elementary schools, like the one in Connecticut, are, in the words of Slate, ‘very, very rare’. Of the 191 school shootings that took place in America between 1979 and 2011, just 18 – nine per cent – happened at elementary schools. In a 17-year period – July 1999 to June 2006 – 116 people were killed in ‘school-associated homicides’, and just 25 of them were elementary- or middle-school students. For older students, too, getting killed at school is extraordinarily rare. A 2004 US Department of Education report looked at trends in the mid-1990s, a high point in school shootings, and found that where students aged 15 to 18 had a one-in-14 chance of being threatened with a weapon at school, and a one-in-seven chance of getting into a physical fight, their chances of dying in school, whether by homicide or suicide, was one in one million, a statistical insignificance. The shrill critics of America’s ‘gun culture’ depict US schools as Moloch-ruled hotbeds of violence, but such perverse fantasies do not accord with reality.

Secondly, and even more importantly, the argument that gun availability leads inevitably to mass school shootings overlooks the fact that these bloody spectacles are a modern phenomenon. If you look at a long, comprehensive list of shootings in American schools from July 1764, when four American Indians entered a school in Pennsylvania and shot and killed the schoolmaster and 10 children, right through to Friday, when the horrors unfolded in Connecticut, what is striking is how, for the great part of US history, shootings in schools were just an extension of crime in general. They largely involved the killing of one or two or three people, as part of gang-related skirmishes, or acts of revenge against presumably ruthless teachers, or crimes of passion by one young person against another. It isn’t really until the 1960s and 70s, and more notably the 1980s and 90s, that mass school shootings, where the aim is simply to kill a lot of young people for no discernible reason, become more common.

Clearly, there’s something other than ‘gun culture’ going on here. There must be other ‘cultures’ at play, ones which have their roots in something newer than the Second Amendment. Those cultures, to my mind, are today’s profound culture of atomisation, which can have the effect of wrenching individuals from the communities they live in and from the social and moral norms that once governed everyday life, and the destabilising culture of fear, whose treatment of every school shooting as an epoch-defining event which destroys American values does nothing to quell such acts of violence, and in fact could act as an unwitting invitation to other loners who want to make a massive impact and hold the modern world to ransom.

No one knows what was going on in the mind of the Connecticut shooter. But what was striking about his shooting spree, like that which occurred in Columbine High School in 1999 or at the West Nickel Mines Amish School in 2006, was the utter lack of restraint, the absence of any moral code saying ‘It is wrong to violate a school’ or simply ‘It is wrong to shoot a six-year-old child in the head’. Such a dearth of restraining morality is something new, springing more from today’s culture of estrangement, and the individual nihilism it can nurture, than from the 200-year-old Second Amendment. School shootings are better understood, not as the end product of American revolutionaries’ insistence on the populace’s right to bear arms, but as part of today’s trend for highly anti-social, super-individuated acts of nihilistic, narcissistic violence – from so-called ‘Islamist attacks’ carried out by British men on the London Tube to Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of 77 of his fellow Norwegians last year. What such assaults share in common is a profound sense of cultural disconnection. They are, in many ways, the most extreme expression of the narcissism of our age, in which there is the constant promotion of self-obsession over socialisation, and individual identity over collective citizenship, giving rise to a sometimes volatile atmosphere – through both removing individuals from any sense of a meaningful social fabric and imbuing them with a powerful sense of entitlement, where one’s self-esteem counts for everything, and thus any undermining of it is a slight of the most dire order. To try to explain mass school shootings through the fact that guns exist is like trying to explain the al-Qaeda phenomenon through the fact that aeroplanes exist: it fetishises the technical means as a way of avoiding grappling with cultural factors.

Then there is the culture of fear, the tendency to inflate every threat facing society. Largely courtesy of anti-gun liberal observers, there has been a palpable moral panic about school shootings in recent years. This was particularly the case following the Columbine massacre of 1999, when two students shot and killed 12 of their fellow students and a teacher. As one author puts it, the mass media overlooked the rareness of what occurred – they ‘emptied out the social and historical complexity of what was taking place’ – in favour of depicting ‘youth as pathological aliens’ and the Columbine killers as indicative of ‘The Monsters Next Door’: white, middle-class kids who at any minute might massacre your children.

The problem with such coverage is not only that it exaggerates the problem of school shootings, but worse that it has the effect of amplifying the actions of one or two attention-seeking individuals. In recent years, a warped symbiotic relationship has developed between mass school shooters and the mass media. Indeed, from the Columbine killers to the Virginia Tech shooter (who murdered 32 of his fellow students in 2007), shooters have started to make their own videos or to write their own manifestos, sending them to media outlets before they carry out their violent acts. They seem to recognise that, courtesy of a fear-fuelled media, they will become stars, legends, symbols of the rot at the heart of America, as soon as they start firing their guns. They recognise that bringing a gun to school is all you need to do to hold American values and the whole modern world to ransom. In short, they’re aided and abetted by the culture of fear, by the media itself, which in effect completes these shooters’ acts by dutifully transforming them into terrifying symbols we must all bow before and search our souls in response to. This can act as an unwitting invitation to other glory-hunting individuals likewise to bring America, and the world, to a standstill simply by shooting some kids.

The post-Connecticut blaming of The Gun is shot through with elitism, with ‘gun culture’ seen as springing from those communities which also cleave to ‘religious fundamentalism’ and ‘deny global warming or evolution’. You know who this means: Them, rednecks, whose gun lust is apparently poisoning even decent, middle-class America, places like Connecticut. Yet a closer look at the school-shooting phenomenon might reveal that it is more a product of the very modern, even liberal-promoted cultures of individual identity and fear-stoking, than it is the fault of Texans or Moloch.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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