The deadliest expression of hate
In the 21st century, cultural cohesion is an inevitable effect of the world becoming more inter-connected. Particularly in Western cities, all national, racial, religious elements of the world have found their place, mixed in and grown, becoming part of the social and political fabrics of society. However, like any society, with cultural cohesion comes cultural friction. Poverty, ignorance, marginalization, all play a role in creating such friction, marking eclectic societies with communal neighbourhoods, and both subtle and vocal elements of identity politics. We can see examples around the world, like American White Supremist groups, the English Defence League of Britain, the National Front of France and the Dutch Party for Freedom amongst others. These groups have had scuffles with immigrants, chant hate speech, hold rallies, and contest elections on right wing mandates. On the other hand, in the United States, such sentiments regularly result in fatal incidents. Four days after the 9/11 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a 49 year old Sikh, is shot and killed outside the gas station he owned in Mesa, Arizona. On the 20th of May 2003, Avtar Singh, a 52 year old Sikh truck driver was shot in his 18 wheeler in Phoenix while he was waiting for his son. The deadly shootings at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin this month by Wade Michael Page, a former US soldier and a self proclaimed Neo Nazi, which killed six people, is a shocking display of the severity of such crimes. But if there is a common social evil permeating all such multi-communal societies, why are cases in the US so severe?
The cases in the United State are not distinct because of hate. There is a bigger problem, something hate crimes marginalise, but yet it remains the most dangerous means of expressing it - guns. In the past month, the United States has been rocked by three deadly shooting incidents including the one in Wisconsin. Just three weeks earlier the Colorado shooting incident left fourteen people dead and recently, a shooting at a Texas University killed three people including a police officer. On Friday, another deadly incident took place in Wisconsin. Dalbir Singh, an elderly Sikh store owner in Milwaukee was shot dead as he tried to stop a robbery in his store. In my opinion, above all, these incidents are a shocking indictment of the lax gun control laws in the United States.
For decades American gun lobbyists and manufacturers have taken shelter under the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights which guarantees citizens "the right to bear arms". Under that banner they have successfully launched PR campaigns and lobbied politicians to promote and sustain lax gun regulation. Recent statistics from The American Department of Health and Human Services reported in the Economic Times show that Americans own over 300 million guns while over a 11,000 firearm related homicides take place every year. The United States used to have a federal ban on assault weapons in place which expired in 2004. The ban has not been renewed by Congress till date because the definition of 'assault weapons' is still up for debate. In the state of Colorado, where James Holmes went on a rampage last month, there is no limit on the purchase of military grade assault weapons and high capacity magazines. As the Colorado incident unfolded, it was discovered that Holmes was able to easily purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition online and carried out the crime armed with two .40-caliber Glock handguns, a Remington 12-gauge shotgun and a Smith & Wesson AR-15 assault-style rifle. NBC news later reported that the weapons were legally bought from the local stores of two national chains - Gander Mountain Guns and Bass Pro Shop in May.
Gun sales require necessary background checks; however the American system and its parameters are far from adequate and never up for reform. The current National Instant Criminal Background Check System primarily detects criminal records, missing important red flags like mental health. For those warnings, American states are responsible for updating data, which many fail to do. A recent study at George Mason University showed the system can only identify one seventh of the nearly 3 million people who have been involuntarily committed to mental health institutions. It cited that Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting incident suffered from mental illness and was red flagged on the state's list but was not on the national list because the authorities failed to update the national database. According to the research, James Holmes would not even be on the list despite reportedly having a mental illness as he was never institutionalized or clinically diagnosed.
American citizens have the right to drive a car, and it can be used as a weapon. Besides being less deadly than a handgun, to acquire a car there are strict rules for testing, insurance and maneuvering. It is completely absurd that acquiring a gun is much less difficult. The above cases highlight the necessity of not only an efficient system but stricter rules controlling the volume of sales and assessing the ability and state of customers. One can see the dismal nature of American gun laws when compared to the laws of other Western Nations, where the strict controls mitigate such tragedies from occurring and expedite effective policing by law enforcement officials.
In Great Britain, when a citizen applies for a gun license, police officers check the Police National Computer for a criminal record and speak to the applicant's General Practitioner for evidence of alcoholism, drug abuse or signs of personality disorder. Police chiefs can revoke certificates if they think the holder can no longer be trusted. In the period of 2008-09, almost 1,300 certificates were revoked by police authorities. Moreover, The Violent Crime Reduction Act of 2006 declared the sale and transfer of air weapons by mail order an offence, as well as the sale of primers, and realistic imitation firearms. In Canada, the Canadian Firearms Registry contains information on all registered firearms and on firearms license holders. The registry is currently accessed more than 14,000 times a day by police authorities. Similar to getting a driver's license, to be eligible to apply a gun license in Canada, applicants must pass the Canadian Firearms Safety Course consisting of written and practical assessments.
Even with three successive tragic incidents of gun violence, it is ironic that both Republicans and Democrats seem uninterested in addressing lax gun regulation especially in an election year.
After the Colorado shootings President Obama sidelined the problem, giving an eloquent yet patronising address about the value of life. He said, "If there's anything to take away from this tragedy it's the reminder that life is very fragile. And what matters at the end of the day is how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another." Beyond the proverbial sound bite, Obama has left it to Congress to decide on reforming existing gun regulation. On the other hand, the Republican party seems the most estranged from the main problem. After a shooting near the Texas A&M University this week which left three people dead, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney while campaigning in Miami said, "This is not a matter of the weapon that's used...It's the matter of individuals and the choices they make. ... I don't think gun laws are the answer."
What are the political constraints preventing stronger gun regulation? Why can't the country's political class responsibly achieve the level of regulation in other Western nations let alone is neighbour Canada? According to the American gun reform camp, the challenge is the nature of politics itself. Carolyn McCarthy, a member of Congress from Long Island New York is a champion of gun control legislation. Her husband was one of the victims of the 1993 Long Island Rail Road massacre when a shooter opened fire on people at the Merlin Avenue station. McCarthy was a nurse back then, but when her Congress representative voted against an assault-weapons ban, she ran against him. She won and has been in Congress ever since. Last year she introduced HR 308, the Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act, a bill aimed at banning the sale or transfer of large-capacity clips. The Bill is still being deliberated in Congress, yet the support for it is still very slim. McCarthy told the Guardian newspaper recently, "The problem is, politicians, legislators across this country are intimidated by the NRA and the gun manufacturers who put so much money out there to say that 'we will take you down in an election if you go against us.' Common sense will say we can take prudent gun-safety legislation and try to save people's lives. That is the bottom line."
There is no deadlier expression of hate, evil or madness than through the barrel of a gun. In my opinion, it is foolish to draft and reform hate crimes while weak regulations flood a nation with guns propagating violence and fear. American politicians and their families enjoy the best security in the world, yet their constituents face the deadly consequences of their neglect. With three successive tragedies in three separate parts of the country, I am sure American citizens worry about their safety. Obama and Romney would do well to show the people whose trust they seek in November, the common sense to state that the pursuit to amend gun laws will come straight from the President's office. Like most Republicans, while Romney has blindly sought the support of the NRA, Obama has the opportunity to do the right thing and even win hearts by championing stronger gun reform, launching a fresh salvo against Romney over the issue. It is a pertinent issue requiring the strength and integrity to tackle. Obama did it before when he broke away from the past to become the first President to support gay marriage; he can do it again by simply prioritising the right of all Americans to be safe.
More about Ayushman Jamwal
Ayushman Jamwal works on the foreign desk at CNN-IBN.
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