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America is a bizarre country. To be an American – or to live in America – is to accept a few things that defy common sense. For starters, pizza is considered a “vegetable” under federal law. Two tablespoons of tomato paste on the dough is enough to make the pie healthy enough to be served at every public school cafeteria. Speaking of health, emergency rooms across the country routinely turn down trauma patients who fail to produce proof of health insurance. Facing skyrocketing healthcare costs, the uninsured are left for dead and the insured are worried sick about rising deductibles and annual premiums. Not bizarre enough? Here's another good one: gun shootings have become so commonplace that the evening news no longer reports them unless they are a “shooting rampage.” And each time after a massacre, gun enthusiasts line up outside Wal-Mart to stock up on assault weapons for fear of tougher gun laws. That’s right, in America you can buy a military-style semi-automatic rifle off the shelf at your neighbourhood Wal-Mart, the same way we pick out a frying pan from Sogo.
America is obsessed with guns. The FBI estimates that there are over 200 million privately-owned firearms in the United States. Including those owned by law enforcement agencies, there is about one gun per person in the country, the highest in the world. America’s love affair with firearms is rooted in its history. Early settlers needed weapons to defend themselves against native Indians. Disputes among neighbours and romantic rivals were often settled by a pistol duel. During the War of Independence from 1775 to 1783, local militias armed themselves to overthrow British rule. The Second Amendment to the Constitution, enshrined in 1791 along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, guarantees the right to bear arms. Today, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a well-funded organization with 4.3 million members from coast to coast. Like the American Frozen Food Institute that worked vigorously on Capitol Hill to make pizza a vegetable, the NRA is a powerful lobbying group that wields great influence over lawmakers to protect the multi-billion-dollar gun industry.
Ironically, the NRA’s biggest enemies are neither gun law advocates nor the so-called liberal media. Their worst nightmare is the occasional depraved heart who storms into schools, shopping malls and government buildings and sprays bullets on the innocent. Names like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora and Oak Creek are now synonymous with mass murders and forever etched into the nation’s psyche. Two Fridays ago, 20-year-old Adam Lanza joined the growing list of crazed gunmen and killed 26 teachers and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Lanza was armed with three semi-automatic assault weapons, including two handguns and a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, the type of combat weapons used by Mexican drug cartels and African warlords. Another shotgun was found in Lanza’s car and three more firearms were uncovered in his house. All seven weapons were legally obtained under Connecticut state law by Lanza’s mother, whom he murdered prior to the school shootings.
The Newtown shooting shook America to the core. For those living in the Tristate area, including my brother Dan and his family, the tragedy brought the issue of gun violence much closer to home. Days after the shooting, Dan received an invitation from his daughter’s school principal to attend a town hall meeting to discuss school safety. Later that week, Dan’s eight-year-old daughter Kimmie went through a “lock-down” drill at school. Kimmie and her fellow third-graders learned all the places in the classroom where they could hide: under the desks, inside the cabinet and behind the piano. They also learned how to stay quiet, refrain from crying and keep clear of the classroom door during an “emergency situation.” So while students in Hong Kong go through fire drills and Japanese children learn what to do in an earthquake, kids in America are taught tricks to evade armed gunmen like some bad Halloween movie. It is absurd, but hey, it is America!
Gun control, abortion and same-sex marriage are the “Big Three” social debates of our time. Gun law reform is especially controversial because of the economic interests involved and the cultural nerve it touches. Advocates on both sides of the debate cite their own studies and statistics and are backed by their own scholars, celebrities and public interest groups. The for-and-against arguments go something like this. Supporters of tougher gun laws say “enough is enough.” They blame gun violence on easy access to firearms and question the recreational value of semi-automatic weapons like the Bushmaster XM-15. On the other hand, gun-rights advocates say “guns don’t kill, people do.” They use the classic slippery slope argument: what’s next after banning assault weapons? Pistols? Kitchen knives? Sharp pencils? Should China ban knives because some whack job in Henan Province stabbed 23 children at a primary school? But the NRA goes one step further. They believe that more guns is the solution to gun violence. At a press conference last week, NRA chief Wayne LaPierre said defiantly, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” He urged every school in America to hire armed security guards like they do at airports and court houses. The fact that LaPierre's proposal will boost gun sales is, I suppose, just a happy coincidence.
While gun law reform is stirring up passion in America, it is something of a no-brainer for the rest of the world. Here in Asia, we watch what happened in Connecticut in horror and listen to the ensuing social debate with disbelief. For most of us who didn’t grow up with firearms in our house, it is self-evident that restricting gun access is a direct, logical and effective way to curb gun violence. Discussing gun control with my colleagues and friends in Hong Kong makes for a deeply disappointing debate, for everyone seems to be on the same page. What confuses us, however, is why a great country like the Unites States – the superpower that put a man on the moon, beat the Soviets in the Cold War and invented the iPhone – can be so backward when it comes to such an obvious issue. We don’t understand how a population of 300 million can let a small minority of trigger-happy fanatics drive the national agenda. And when we hear the NRA’s proposal to fight gun violence by flooding the streets with even more guns, we don’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for these people. One of my readers puts it best: “I don’t understand this country, and I never will.”
But gun control is not the only debate coming out of the Newtown massacre. It also thrusts the issue of mental illness to the forefront. The gunman Adam Lanza was reportedly autistic and suffered from a personality disorder. That Lanza somehow fell through the cracks in the healthcare system is forcing the government to re-examine the support it provides the mentally ill. And if healthcare for the body is as scarce as it is – remember the uninsured at the emergency room – then what, if any, is left to treat diseases of the mind? Too often the mentally ill have to choose between institutionalisation and fending for themselves. Adam Lanza chose the latter and his illness festered. A broken healthcare system, combined with a brutal school culture that bullies and alienates the misfit, creates a recipe for disasters. None of these factors excuses what Adam Lanza did at Sandy Hook Elementary, but it might well have contributed to it.
Still another debate coming out of the Newtown shooting is the role of the media. Within hours after the first shot was heard, teams of reporters descended upon the Connecticut town like a plague of locusts. What followed was around-the-clock, wall-to-wall coverage of what happened and what the reporters thought had happened. They interviewed victims’ families who would rather have been left alone. They asked inane questions like “What went through your mind when you heard the gunshots?” and “What would you like to say to the gunman if he were still alive?” The line between journalists and paparazzi blurred. Critics argue that this kind of ambulance-chasing reporting actually encourages gun violence by glorifying the perpetrator’s act and giving a sad nobody his 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps. But journalism is a tricky business: too much reporting is sensationalism, but too little of it becomes neglect. I asked my brother Dan if he was offended by CNN’s non-stop coverage of the Newtown shooting. He said “no.” He felt that public attention needs to be drawn to the incident in order for changes to be made. He didn’t think the country should stop talking about a tragedy just to avoid putting the gunman in the limelight. “Attention is a form of respect,” he said. I tend to agree.
The debate over mental health and media coverage notwithstanding, the national focus in the aftermath of Newtown should stay on gun law reform. Too many lives have been lost for lawmakers in Washington to continue to kick the can down the road. It's time the country got serious about having a sensible dialogue on sensible gun laws, no matter how ugly the political fight will get. There will never be enough laws on the book to eliminate gun violence, but let’s talk about the loopholes in the background checks at gun shops and other points of sale. Let’s talk about the types of weapons that should be banned altogether. And let’s talk about concealment laws, secondary market sales and mandatory child-safety locks. For every day we wait, 35 more people are murdered with guns. Politicians should for once listen to common sense rather than lobbyists and their skewed statistics and dubious studies. America may be a bizarre country, but there is a difference between bizarre and absurd.