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Gun mania seizes American psyche ahead of debate

The state of mind that informs American gun culture may be the real mental health issue raised by the Sandy Hook massacre.

The National Rifle Association struck a belligerent tone in Washington last week, in response to the clamour for greater gun control in the United States after 20 children and six adults were massacred at a Connecticut school, Sandy Hook Elementary. The problem was not guns, insisted the NRA's deputy leader Wayne La Pierre; it was mental illness and rampant evil that "walks among us". And the NRA had the only solution: more guns.

"The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," said Mr La Pierre, advocating for armed guards to be deployed in every school. That's a pleasing prospect to the NRA's 4.3 million members, many of whom have been stockpiling weapons for years in anticipation of blowing away the "bad guys" that haunt their nightmares - and also to the $12 billion (Dh44 billion) a year US gun industry, which, of course, funds the NRA to fight restrictions on gun ownership.

But with 155 Americans having been killed in 11 mass shootings in the US this year (until Christmas at least; there's still another week), there's no denying that the incidence of such events has reached epidemic proportions. New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who chided both President Barack Obama and former governor Mitt Romney for their "deafening silence" on gun violence during the presidential campaign, was outraged. "Instead of offering solutions to a problem [the NRA] have helped create, they offered a paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America."

The looming legislative fight in Washington over measures that might restrict access to military-style assault rifles with 30-round ammunition clips - of the sort used in the Sandy Hook massacre - is going to be a bitter one. And it's not going to be fought on logical lines: gun-control advocates quickly pointed out, for example, that the Columbine school where two boys massacred their classmates in 1999 had been protected by an armed security guard.

And while Mr La Pierre warned that Americans walked every day among "an unknown number of genuine monsters - people so deranged, so evil, so possessed", he sidestepped the matter of the gun lobby's dogged resistance to all manner of arms-control measures that has made it a lot easier for these "monsters" to acquire firearms.

But as Mr Bloomberg hinted, the debate over gun control in America is a showdown between contending visions of the world. Attention has focused on the mental state of Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter. But what of the mental state of his mother, who stockpiled weapons and taught her son to use them? Some reports suggested that she had embraced the neo-survivalist "prepper" outlook, which drives many suburban and rural Americans to stockpile weapons and supplies in preparation for a social collapse or crackdown. They do not trust the state to protect them; indeed, many are arming themselves against what they believe is a totalitarian state.

The NRA's vision, as laid out in a 2006 pamphlet, sees moves to restrict access to assault weapons as part of a dark conspiracy to disarm freedom-loving Americans in the face of these nightmares.

"It's inevitable that terrorists will infest America for generations to come," the NRA pamphlet warned. "It's also inevitable that an anti-gun president will occupy the White House, and anti-gun forces will control the US House and Senate. This is when the alchemy explodes, never to be contained again ... History teaches us that their assault will be precipitated by a high-profile criminal act, like an LA riot, a DC sniper or a schoolyard shooting. All it takes is a rare, tragic anomaly to roll out a blood-red carpet for the gun-ban crowd."

A gun industry-backed survey shows that nearly two thirds of Americans who own the same AR-15 rifle used by Lanza own more than one of the assault weapon. The stockpiling accelerated with Mr Obama's first election in 2008, and again after his re-election last month. Partly, of course, this rush is based on fear that Mr Obama attempt to ban such weapons. But it is worth noting that consumer demand has been strongest among white males, a demographic that Mr Obama lost in the recent election.

Not that the arms industry is complaining: the share prices of Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger surged after the November election. Selling the guns wielded by "good guys" and "bad guys" is big business in America, and represents an ever-expanding market - in contrast to the more limited demand from the military and police forces.

But there's another dimension of the gun issue that often gets overlooked in public discussion over arms-control. The same day that Mr La Pierre spoke last week, the House of Representatives passed an annual US defence budget of $633 billion (Dh2.3 billion). That's as much as half of what the entire planet spends on weapons - six times as much as China's defence budget, for example, notwithstanding the constant claim in US press reports of Beijing's newly "aggressive" military spending.

Iran, ostensibly the looming threat of the moment, spends just one-90th of the US budget on its own military. So it may be worth asking whether there's any connection between a country accumulating firepower radically disproportionate to any real threat, and the inclination of millions of its citizens to do the same.

In short, the state of mind that informs American gun culture may be the real mental heath issue raised by the Sandy Hook shooting. And the pathologies may run far deeper than anyone is comfortable admitting.

 

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst

On Twitter: @TonyKaron

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