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The Real Problem with Gun Control in America

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When Nikolas Cruz was dropped off by Uber at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida at 2:19 pm on Wednesday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, he was carrying a black duffel bag and backpack, the usual gear in which kids carry sports equipment and textbooks. He was wearing jeans and a burgundy Stoneman Douglas school logo polo shirt. After all, he had been a student there before being expelled. Which means he also knew the campus well. Nikolas easily entered the 1200 building of the sprawling campus. Classes were set to end soon, and the gates to the parking lots of the more than 3,000 student high school were open to allow buses and cars to enter. He wasn’t carrying the usual baseball bats and balls in his duffel bag, though. Instead he had a legally purchased AR-15, the semi-automatic version of the M-16, an automatic rifle used by the United States military designed to kill soldiers in war. His backpack contained a vest with additional magazines for the “assault-style” weapon known as “the most popular gun in America,” by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

During his English class that Wednesday afternoon, Freshman Chris McKenna, 15, left to take a bathroom break. The restrooms were closed on the first floor, so he took the stairs to the second floor. He found Nikolas in the stairwell loading his rifle. “Better get out of here, things are about to get messy,” Chris said Nikolas said to him.

Chris ran outside where he ran into assistant football coach and security monitor Aaron Feis at a school gate. Chris told Mr. Feis what he had seen. Feis then drove Chris in a golf cart to the baseball field about 500 feet away, told him to stay there, whereupon the coach returned to the school.

Meanwhile, nineteen-year-old Nikolas pulled the fire alarm on the first floor and as students and faculty began exiting classrooms he began firing his rifle into the rush. The time was 2:21 pm. Code red went into effect.

Lockdown. That we, as a first world society understand the concept of a lockdown, can picture it as easily as a morning traffic jam, is a complicit normalization and acceptance of the issue. We are civilians living in towns and cities in times of peace, not soldiers in war zones. We should not have to deal with probabilities that include active shooters carrying “assault-style” weapons originally designed to kill people in war settings. The word “lockdown” in relation to our schools, and our civilian public places should be as incongruous to our habitual thinking as green eggs and ham, and rocking-horse people eating marshmallow pies. “I was born into a world where I never got to experience safety and peace,” Justin Gruber, 15-year-old survivor at MDS, told President Donald Trump during the February 21st listening session at the White House. Justin was talking about being in school, not on a battlefield.

In that hallway where Nikolas Cruz first began shooting, assistant football coach Aaron Fies, was one of the first ones killed when he stood in front of three female students, shielding them from gunfire. Nikolas then began shooting into classrooms 1215, 1216 and 1214. He then went back, firing into classrooms 1216 and 1215 again, then into room 1213. He passed by seven other classrooms on the first floor without shooting. Geography teacher Scott Beigel, 35, unlocked his classroom door to allow students caught in the hallway access to safety. He was shot and killed attempting to close the door behind the students he’d let in. “He one-hundred-percent saved my life,” said Kelsey Friend, who had just left the class and turned back to enter when she heard shots. Friend told CNN she was among the last people to see Beigel alive. “If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here right now.”

Nikolas then walked up the stairs at the building's west end to the second floor where he shot into room 1234. He passed 10 other classrooms without firing before ascending to the third floor, discarding his rifle and backpack, and joining other fleeing students, pretending to be one of them as they exited the buildings.

According to the Broward County Sherriff’s Office, the time was 2:25 pm. Broward County Law Enforcement reports Nikolas Cruz fired approximately 100 shots.

The entire incident took about six minutes. Six minutes into an eternity from which seventeen souls, assassinated where they sat, or stood, or as they ran, will never come back; six minutes into an eternity that left 14 wounded, their bodies riddled by bullets moving at the speed of 2,182 miles per hour, 3,200 feet per second, from the barrel of a gun that should never have been in the hands of a mentally unstable, possibly suicidal young man like Nikolas Cruz.

Six minutes into an eternity that has forever changed the lives of nearly 3,000 other teenagers and faculty members who suddenly became unwillingly subjects of a savage violence that too often causes trained soldiers in war settings to suffer post-traumatic stress disorders that stay with them for years after their exposure.

Six minutes into an eternity that should have been prevented.

“He shot the girl next to me,” Catarina Linden, a 16-year-old sophomore told AP News, Caterina said that when she was finally rescued from math class, the air was foggy with gun smoke. “I stepped on so many shell casings. There were bodies on the ground. There was blood everywhere.”

The students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school and their families

will never be the same again. And though we can sympathize at the horrifying tragedy of what happened to them on a day that was supposed to be a national celebration of love, we will never, ever, ever understand the carnage they saw, the fear they felt, or the pain they are going through, and will continue to go through, for the rest of their lives.

The Parkland, Florida shooting is now among the 10 deadliest mass shootings in the United States. According to Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit organization that tracks law enforcement reports of shootings, in 2018, the number of school mass shootings in the U.S. is seven, so far. The total number of mass shootings this year stands at 34. So far.

It’s only March.

The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, and 31% of global mass shooters. However, data shows that it isn’t just assault-style weapons in the hands of mass shooters that are the problem. According to a BBC News report from January 2016, entitled Guns and Violence in the US: The Statistics Behind the Violence, so many people die annually from gunfire in the United States that the death toll between 1968 and 2011 eclipsed all wars ever fought by the U.S. Research by Politifact, states there were about 1.4 million firearm deaths in that period compared with 1.2 million US deaths in every conflict from the Revolutionary War to the Second Persian Gulf War. The statistics are shocking and unbelievable.

Though the United States has more mass shootings than any other country in the world, those account for only 3% of firearm deaths. The FBI reports that the majority of murders caused by guns involve handguns. And it may surprise the four in every ten American citizen who neither own guns nor live in a home with a gun to know that just because it’s called a handgun doesn’t mean it’s not a semi-automatic weapon. The definition of a semi-automatic firearm is any that fires one shot with a pull of the trigger and automatically reloads the gun's chamber with another round from a magazine, enabling that gun to be immediately fired again. This includes the myriad of models of semi-automatic handguns having high-capacity ammunition magazines that can fire and re-fire as rapidly as a shooter can pull the trigger. This includes virtually every handgun on the American market today, as well as any number of common hunting rifles and military-style assault weapons like the AR-15 used in the MSD High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, and Pulse Club massacres, as well as the “tricked-up”, bump stocked AR-15s used by Stephen Paddock at the Route 91 Harvest Festival slaughter in Las Vegas, Nevada last year. Firearms that aren't semi-automatic include bolt and lever action hunting rifles, and certain types of revolvers.

How many firearms are there currently in the United States? Nobody really knows. According to Quartz Media, the U.S. has between 270 and 310 million guns to a 323 million population. That’s an average of 89 firearms for every 100 residents. To put that in greater perspective, American civilians own 42% of the world’s guns. The rest of the world combined holds only 58%. And these are just estimates, because states have passed laws making once-public data on gun ownership now confidential. Currently forty states, do not allow access to gun permit records.

American gun owners are passionate about their guns. It is a relationship with a long, complicated past, nostalgically tied to idealized notions of cultural history like the indomitable settler protecting his land, the cowboy, and the perils of the wild, wild west and spurred on by deeply-routed yet inaccurate understanding regarding the meaning and origins of the 2nd Amendment. It stems from a survivalist mentality that is outdated, obsolete, and inimically tied to our cellular identity. Even those of us who don’t own or even like guns can identify with this. We’ve grown numb to the shock of it. And, that’s the real problem behind enacting lasting, effective gun control in the United States. We Americans do not understand the gravity of what unregulated gun ownership costs us; if we did, we would willingly accept the regulation of gun ownership and the elimination of assault-style rifles.

The NRA, the nation’s biggest gun lobby, has been able to tap into these basic core themes successfully, inciting the fear of gun owners losing the right to bear arms, aided and abetted by the current President and Republican Congress, afraid of losing the NRA’s backing and that of its 5-million-members.

“There are terrorists and home invaders, drug cartels and carjackers, knockout gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers…I ask you: do you trust the government to protect you? We are on our own…The things we care about most are changing,” declared NRA CEO Wayne La Pierre at the 2014 annual convention. It is an erroneous narrative to which many gun owners respond, and one into which the American survivalist story fits well. It has put America at a virtual standstill when it comes to passing gun control laws. “The translation, based on fearmongering is more guns make you safer. If more guns really made you safer, America would be one of the safest places in the world,” Guardian’s Gary Younge wrote in his October 6, 2017 article, Why Americans Won’t Give Up Their Guns.

Though guns seem inexorably connected to American cultural norms, Quartz Media reports that only 81 million U.S. households actually have guns. That means all the guns in the nation are owned by only one quarter of Americans. A Quinnipiac University Poll from February 20th, shows that 66% of American voters actually support stricter gun laws, including universal background checks (97% among gun owners), and mandatory waiting periods for all gun purchases. Fifty-nine percent believe that if more people carried guns, the U.S. would be less safe. Seventy-five percent said Congress needs to do more to reduce gun violence.

Congress may be forced to take action soon, as the teenage survivors of the MSD massacre take the unprecedented lead, redirecting their grief and anger into patriotic militant activism by challenging both country and government to pay attention to the national gun violence crisis. Beginning by establishing the #NeverAgain movement, two days after their school shooting, demanding accountability from the Florida legislature and the President, determined to open dialogue with politicians to begin the change that will bring about responsible gun control laws. Their grassroots effort gains momentum daily, and now includes the March for Our Lives for Gun Control on Washington D.C, March 24, 2018. Sister marches are being planned in cities nationwide. Attendance is expected at over 500,000 people in Washington D.C. alone. The march has collected over $2 million in donations, including $500,000 from George and Amal Clooney and $500,000 from Oprah Winfrey. Robert Disney, vice president of organizing for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said, “These kids are the most important thing to happen to gun violence prevention in a generation.”

Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, gives a speech calling out elected officials for failing to take action on gun control. 

Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, gives a speech calling out elected officials for failing to take action on gun control. 

“We’re going to be the kids you read about in textbooks,” said senior Emma González one of the leaders of #NeverAgain and MFOL. “Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because we’re going to be the last mass shooting!”

As an American who does not own a gun, I believe enacting gun control is vital to our evolution as a people, and our continued leadership as a country in the free world. In 1996, two weeks after a mass shooting killed 35 people in Port Arthur Tasmania, all six Australian states unanimously passed the National Firearms Agreement. This sweeping reform included comprehensive background checks, longer waiting periods to buy guns, presenting a "justifiable reason" to own a gun (other than “self-protection”), raising age limits to purchase firearms, a ban on all semi-automatic assault-style rifles, and a government buy-back program for gun owners. The enactment of such a national ban translated into the end of mass shootings.

Could we as a country ever be ready or unified enough to vote for such large scale, comprehensive legislation like those that changed the course of gun violence in Australia over 22 years ago?

In a February 23rd New York Times op-ed entitled, Australia’s Gun Laws Are Not a Model for America, Aussie A. Odysseus Patrick wrote this:

Australia introduced comprehensive gun control after a massacre in Tasmania 22 years ago, and mass shootings here dropped to zero. Experts regard it as the most effective gun control in the world. But the Australian model won’t work in the United States. Here’s why: we Australians have a profoundly different relationship with weapons. Americans love guns. We’re scared of them. This difference explains why a conservative prime minister was able to confiscate 650,000 privately owned firearms and ban semiautomatic weapons without a single reported act of violence.

"We have an opportunity in this country not to go down the American path," former Australian Prime Minister John Howard said before passing the NFA. How many more mass shootings and gun deaths will it take for Americans to break through the fear, lethargy, and cultural egoism that rules us when it comes to guns and take ourselves off this deathly “American path”? How long are we willing to wait, our kids and families targets, before the next Nikolas Cruz comes along?

M.G. Poe is a social commentator, activist, cat woman, time-traveler, anarchist Ursula le Guin-style, deliberately dismantling authority one thought-byte at a time. Read more of her writings and eclectic observations on life at and follow her on Instagram @darkvikingqueen.