U.S. President Barack Obama gave America a harsh reality check on June 10. In the wake of two new public shootings in the past couple of weeks, Obama said in a tired, frustrated voice, “We’re the only developed country on earth where this happens.” He went on to say that Congress refuses to budge on the gun control laws and that, “This society has not been willing to take some basic steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who can do unbelievable damage.”
During his presidency, Obama has witnessed countless deaths of innocent Americans inflicted by other civilians. Twenty children and six educators alone were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting a year ago. Obama feels trapped — unable through the powers of the president to use the tools necessary to make “as big a dent as we need to.”
Though his speech was political in asking Congress to finally relent and pass some legislation that will aid in restricting gun use, it was also social. Obama pleaded with the American people to change in order to alleviate the violence. He said, “The only thing that is going to change is public opinion. If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change.” Unfortunately, Obama is right.
First of all, Americans have a warped conception of what the Second Amendment really means. When the Founding Fathers wrote that the people should have the right to “keep and bear arms” they weren’t talking about free gun ownership across a vast country with few restrictions. They were referring to the chaos that ensued before the Revolutionary War and the fear of not being able to protect oneself. The Constitution writers were concerned with small militias being able to support themselves and carry weapons for protection.
They never dreamed that America would grow to the size it is today. The territory west of the Mississippi and south to Texas was acquired long after the Founders wrote the Second Amendment. Had they known that this amendment would be interpreted so loosely and affect so many people in the future (across such a vast geographic region), they would have amended the language to make it safer and more specific. The point of the Bill of Rights was to protect people — not to put Americans in danger or fear of frequent mass shootings because of a loophole in the language.
Yet indeed, Americans have wrongly interpreted the meaning of the Second Amendment to satisfy a desire to own weapons freely. The problem isn’t that people own weapons — the problem is the lack of restrictions. Each state varies, making it easy for someone to get around the system. The ambiguities in the organization also allow for a vibrant black market, which funnels guns to anyone who wants one. Congress needs to crack down on this aspect of the legislation to bring order and discipline to America. While we live in a “free country” that does not mean you can do whatever you want.
Second, we have a deep cultural issue embedded in America now that the mass movement of public shootings has started. When I was little, Columbine was the big name that everyone talked about it in fear. It was rare and exceptional and horrifying. Children nowadays are growing up in a society where school shootings are the norm. They might hear about one every couple of months. That’s a frightening world to grow up in.
The Tipping Point, as Malcolm Gladwell has so eloquently explained, is a phenomenon whereby changes are influenced by mass culture and by an effect that spreads ideas, desires and movements like a virus across the country or across the world. He uses this Tipping Point to explain the steep drop in the New York City crime rate in the 1990s and the huge popularity of Hush Puppies shoes in the 1990s. But his theory could also explain the growing prevalence of mass public shootings. People see the horror on TV and get the idea that they can do the same. They’re only egged on more when they see the shootings picking up in frequency. Before you know it the idea of a mass shooting doesn’t seem so unrealistic because we have become used to it. As disgusting as that sounds, it makes it easier for criminals and crazy people to pursue a mass shooting when ten years ago they may not have because it simply wasn’t “popular” yet.
I don’t know the answer to this problem. It’s clear that the growth rate of the mass shootings is continuing to escalate and that several factors — including gun control — need to be tackled before that rate can decrease. But it also takes human will and cultural norms to change. People need to start reporting bizarre behavior of their neighbors and discourage the violence that has become so mainstream and accepted in American society. As Obama put it, we are the only country that puts up with this and it’s time that we stop.
Maura Levine is an LSA senior.