The horrific slaughter of 26 people, including 20 children between six and seven, in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, once again brings to fore exigent social issues related to easy accessibility. In an incident that has stunned people across the globe, a 20-year-old gunman first killed his mother at home, picked out a .223 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle (one that is similar to a weapon that is being currently used by American troops in Afghanistan) and other guns from his mother’s collection and carried out the carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School before turning the gun on himself.
Ironically, this maniac’s mother was infatuated with guns and owned an arsenal which included, apart from the rifle, two potent handguns and two hunting rifles. She had apparently rubbed off some of her gun-culture onto her son, being known to have often taken him to the firing range for shooting practice. Most significantly, all the guns had been legally purchased and registered with the authorities.
The Newtown tragedy reveals the reality that America is her worst enemy and does not require imported terrorism to unleash death and mayhem. There has not been a single attack of terrorism on US soil since 9/11, testifying to the effectiveness of the measures taken by the law enforcement authorities to ensure internal security. Yet, time and again, America has shown that it is impossible to guard society from within, particularly from citizens who allow bigotry to get the better of them, or have slipped through the bounds of sanity.
In August, Wade Michael Page, a die-hard racist who believed in a typical neo-Nazi manner in white supremacy, had gunned down six Sikhs at a gurdwara at Oak Creek in Wisconsin and injured others, including a policeman.
In July this year, a man called James Holmes walked into a movie-theatre in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, Colorado, and opened fire on the audience during the premiere of the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, leaving 12 people dead and 58 injured. Such gruesome slaughters had then raised questions about the ease with which guns could be purchased in the US, and roused a protesting chorus against prevalent gun laws.
However, the nation then was in the midst of campaign for the presidency, thus even candidate and President Barack Obama, a known opponent of these lax laws, refrained from expressing his opinion on them in fear of further estranging the predominantly white pro-gun lobby.
That has been the crux of the problem in the US, for even some moderates, let alone powerful organisations such as the National Rifle Association, the weapons-manufacturing industry, White supremists as well as fringe elements in society swear by the Second Amendment of the American Constitution which categorically states that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.
More than anyone else, Obama will comprehend that any attempt to shackle this right will raise the proverbial hornet’s nest in his nation, despite tragedies like those of Newtown and Denver. No doubt he has reacted to the shock the horrendous massacre of six to seven-year-olds has roused to assert that such “tragedies must end”, and he would “use whatever power this office holds” to work towards that end.
Yet it is more probable that like the prior periodic massacres which have made the US one of the most unsafe places on the planet, the Newton massacre, too, would sink into oblivion with the passage of time and things remain as they were, given the numbers stacked against the Democrats in the US House of Representatives. As for the public outcry at present gripping the US regarding the Newtown massacre, simultaneous reports also tell of long queues being formed in gun-shops across the nation by people clamouring to buy the .223 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle and other assault weapons in anticipation of a probable ban on their purchase in the coming months.
Those who are against the American gun-culture are of the opinion that the ease with which firearms of the most deadly variety can be purchased, almost off the counter, will ensure that the lives of ordinary Americans will continue to remain in danger coming from most unexpected places. Reportedly, statistics seem to bear them out. In 2011, more than 9,000 people were killed in the US, with 75 per cent of the deaths being due to gunshot wounds as opposed to only 10 per cent gun-deaths in the UK.
However those who are against stringent gun laws, opine that it is society which creates dysfunctional human beings, rather than the easy accessibility to guns, which is responsible for such tragedies. They argue that even if guns were harder to come by, a potential assassin would find ways and means to get his hand on one, no matter what the laws are. They point to the case of Norway, which has far more stringent gun-laws than the US, where Anders Breivik gunned down no less than 69 people to drive home their point. By putting the onus on the social system they imply that ease of accessibility is not a significant factor for social malaise of any nature.
Thus, the argument will drag on, not only in far off America, but all across the world. There appears to be no conclusive shutdown to the debate with incontrovertible arguments stacked in favour of any side. One can cite the easy availability of prescription drugs over the counter in India to illustrate the pros and cons of the issue. Given the sorry state of government hospitals and dispensaries in India in conjunction with the exorbitant cost of medical treatment in the private sector, even educated and otherwise enlightened individuals have taken to self-medication for mostly minor ailments.
This has led to overuse or misuse of life-saving medicines like antibiotics, with germs and viruses developing increasing resistance and emerging into antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”. Had there been a properly monitored healthcare system such “misuse” may perhaps have been nipped in the bud. But since even doctors in government-run medical facilities meant for the economically weaker section of society demand bribes, and those in privately run hospitals call for numerous and costly tests even for minor ailments, many will prefer a system of medicine availability without having to spend the time and money to visit a doctor and obtain a proper diagnosis and prescription.
At the same time, there are numerous instances to show that easy availability does exacerbate a social malaise. For example, closer at hand, we have the case of Manipur, where the drug problem as well as the ancillary problems like HIV has become endemic in certain segments of the population. It is salutary to note that Manipur lies on the fringe of the notorious drug-production “golden-triangle” and is also a nodal point for smuggling of narcotics to other parts of the world. Thus, the spill-over effect is responsible for that state’s travails. Similarly, in a metro like Guwahati, according to police reports, a majority of street crimes and accidents are alcohol- related, this city being reputed to have far more liquor shops than those selling books or medicines!
However, scepticism continues to prevail among a large segment of society whether easy availability is the actual cause of social malaise, or is such availability the result, in the first place, of inadequacies in a specific society or the perception of a society’s citizens of what they assume is needed. Psychologists, too, are ambivalent on the issue, for not enough research has been done for a conclusive assertion. Clearly, it is the old “use of a knife” syndrome. One can shove a knife in someone’s stomach or peel potatoes and make French fries with it, the knife being in no way responsible!