One morning last September, I entered my daughter's preschool and found her usually cheerful teachers with ashen faces. The day before, a former United States Navy reservist had shot and killed 12 office workers, most of whom were having their breakfast in Washington's Navy Yard canteen. One of the victims had been the 62-year-old mother of one of my daughter's teachers. I, like all of the other parents, felt crushed, thinking of her loss. The teacher and her father were interviewed soon after on CNN; they tried to express their grief, but they just looked shell-shocked.
Some weeks later, the teacher returned to my daughter's pre-school. We hugged her and offered our condolences. Soon we saw that being with our kids was the only thing that kept her afloat. In the adult bathroom at the school the administration had put up a sheet of paper on the back of the door listing what to do if a shooter was on the premises: duck, lock doors, silence phones, call for help. After several months they took the sign down. Maybe now, after yet another mass shooting, this time in California, they will put it back up.
Over 100,000 Americans are shot or shoot themselves each year, and of those 34,000 die. My daughter's teacher's mother was not the first person I knew through association who had been shot. A close friend's aunt had been shot and killed by mistake by one of her son's friends. In college a man with a vendetta against women (like the shooter in the recent Santa Barbara killings) held a group of students hostage in a local restaurant and ended up shooting one of them dead. A few years ago my brother-in-law's first cousin was shot (and fortunately survived) by someone he worked with. They say that 1 in 3 Americans knows someone who has been shot. I seem to know several.
Most Americans don't own guns, but the US as a whole has more personal guns than any other country in the world. Guns are concentrated in about a third of the US population. Yet they are extremely accessible (online, at gun shows, in gun shops), even to people who have mental health problems, including sociopaths. Guns are the most popular way of committing suicide, and 19,000 Americans kill themselves with them each year. Apparently, having a loaded gun in the house increases your chance of trying to commit suicide.
Most Americans support stricter guns laws. What stands in the way, simply put, is the extremely powerful and well-funded American gun lobby, the National Rifle Association or NRA, and especially its lobbying wing, the Institute for Legislative Action. The NRA has been a touchstone of the conservative movement for several decades. It believes it represents the American idea of freedom, and promotes its interpretations of the law by lobbying legislators, or as some might see it, legal bribing.
The NRA has a rating system for every member of Congress and the Senate, so politicians will be held accountable to the conservative voting base that supports the NRA. NRA supporters' biggest fear is excessive government, in this case one that might try to control gun ownership. Yet these are often the same Americans who believe the government should control a woman's right to choose whether to have an abortion and should also have the power to terminate the life of a criminal through capital punishment.
The NRA headquarters are located 15 miles away from Washington, in Fairfax, Virginia, where I happen to live and work. On its corporate premises are a shooting range and the National Firearms Museum, the number one rated tourist spot in my area.
I went there one morning to see the hundreds of immaculate rifles on display with their finely chiselled carvings, silver engravings, and ivory inlays. It's hard not to be struck by their craftsmanship. There are even the rifles of the Maharani of Udaipur and Maharajah of Patiala on display. The NRA portrays itself first and foremost as an organisation of hunters, and its museum displays artistic representations of animals alongside many of the rifles.
The museum emphasises the role of guns in the development of American freedom, democracy, and the very fulfilment of its destiny. The exhibit begins with the pilgrims through to the Mexican War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and more, detailing which guns and ammunition were used. Police guns are also featured, along with mug shots of criminals. A Hollywood section displays the guns used in the most famous Westerns as well as more contemporary films. It's a good guy-bad guy narrative throughout. It is also a very white narrative. Describing the arming of the militia in May 1792, one placard informs: "Every free, white, able-bodied male between 18-45 could be enrolled in the state militia." Nearby, a rifle is referred to as a "life-sustaining tool." The hidden NRA narrative is, in fact, that whites should be able to defend themselves against non-whites — and not the other way around. The Florida stand-your-ground cases whereby white men have gotten off for killing unarmed black teenagers would be a prime recent example of this long-standing racialisation of who is considered a criminal.
A display on the second amendment to the US Constitution reminds us that the founding fathers wanted Americans to be able to "keep and bear arms" as a basic right of the people against a potentially "tyrannical government." Interpreting the second amendment has been a key aspect of the debate over guns for decades. Could the founding fathers ever have imagined a semi-automatic assault rifle on the mass market?
The NRA sees any proposed gun regulation as an assault on its notion of American-ness. After the 2012 Connecticut elementary school killings of twenty schoolchildren and six teachers, its response was to say that teachers and principals should come to school armed to better protect students.
Completely missing from the extensive displays of handguns and rifles at the museum is the pervasive, everyday role of guns in contemporary American life — from suicides, homicides, and poverty-induced gang violence to accidental shootings and premeditated mass murders in schools, movie theatres, and on streets. This reality would certainly tarnish the NRA narrative, but it would offer a more accurate, truthful picture.
The author is assistant professor of anthropology at George Mason University