The birthright of every American is not the guaranty that they can keep and bear arms; it is the right to a ticket in one of the most peculiar lotteries in the world. You might call it a perverse lottery, since the ticket holder is hoping that their number not be called. A drawing is conducted every day to see which Americans on that day will be maimed or killed by firearms. As national lotteries go, particularly the Powerball lottery that drives Americans to a frenzy whenever the jackpot reaches $300 million or more, the odds of “winning” the Gun Lotto are much, much higher. Each day, on average, 293 Americans are selected to be either killed or injured by gunshot. Of these, 86 will die, most of them by suicide, but 35 of them will be homicide victims.
This is a universal lottery. Just by residing in America, you are issued a ticket, and it is good for as long as you live in America. You cannot escape the Gun Lotto. Its winners are selected whether they are rich or poor – the rich, in fact, have a higher chance of committing suicide with a gun. You cannot escape the Gun Lotto if you own a gun or even multiple guns and are adept at using them only for defensive purposes. Gun owners occupy a special category of winners: those who die by accidental handling of their own guns.
The Gun Lotto, because it is particularly grim, is not televised or broadcast on the radio. Quite the contrary, if the winners get any attention it is only locally, usually among family and friends. Like any lotto, partial prizes are awarded to many more people than those directly killed or injured in the Gun Lotto. Partial winners receive their prize every day, usually for the rest of their life. They live with the emotional loss of a loved one through suicide, or they deal with the consequences of a spouse who is dead or injured, and who no longer can provide for the family. For the direct winners who may have failed at suicide and be brain damaged, or for those who are paraplegics or quadriplegics due to spinal cord injuries, the partial winners face a lifetime of caring for the direct winners. This can mean giving up the rest of your life so you can feed your relative, turn them over daily to avoid bed sores, change their colostomy bag, and otherwise feel as if you, too, were a direct prize winner in the Gun Lotto.
On average, the Gun Lotto awards up to five times as many partial prizes as it does direct prizes. That means about 1,500 people are selected every day to be full or partial winners in the Gun Lotto. The financial effect ripples throughout the economy. It is estimated that a typical handgun costing the owner $50 costs the rest of society over $600 in direct and indirect expenses, such as lost wages, immediate and ongoing medical care, higher insurance premiums for everyone, and family disruption.
Some countries don’t even have a gun lotto. Japan has never had one, and Australia, after a spate of gun deaths several years ago, outlawed guns almost entirely. In both countries, the government has a near monopoly on violence perpetrated by guns. It is not that gun deaths don’t occur, but they are so rare that residents do not fear having their number come up in a gun lotto. Japan, with a population somewhat over a third of the US, on a yearly basis had 11 deaths from guns according to the most recent data, compared to 11,000 deaths in the US just by homicide alone.
In the United States, the government is constrained by the Constitution from exercising a near-complete monopoly on gun violence. The 2nd Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms as a member of a state militia, and in 2008 the Supreme Court extended this right to all citizens regardless of whether they are participating in a militia. The origin of the 2nd Amendment is debated by historians, but some of the state legislatures which argued in favor of the amendment were concerned about a possible invasion of their state by the federal government. The concept of a federal government binding together a confederation of sovereign states was novel in 1791 when the Constitution was first approved, and since the states, when they were colonies of Great Britain, were deprived by law from owning firearms, there was a strong desire to open up gun ownership to local militias. These militias were, after all, among the principal sources of insurrection against British colonial control.
There are other reasons why Americans may wish to own firearms – self-defense against criminal attack being one of them – but surprisingly, 240 years later, quite a few Americans obsess over the possibility that the federal government will invade their community, steal their guns, and render them defenseless. The fear is of course ridiculous. The federal government has a vast number of levers of control over the states, certainly on any matter having to do with sovereign protection against military attack. The only reason some Americans are still concerned about this arcane possibility is that they are taught to entertain such fear.
One of the principal propagandizers is the National Rifle Association, the main gun lobby group that boasts over four million members. The NRA is constantly mailing its members with pleas for money to help ensure that the federal government keeps their hands off privately-owned guns. They also subtly stir up racial fear, since white gun owners are susceptible to suggestions that African-Americans can riot at any time and invade white neighborhoods that would be unable to fight back without their guns. The election of an African-American as President was an absolute Godsend for the NRA, which now pushes both the racial button and the federal-takeover button to induce fear in its members.
America’s gun manufacturers sell guns, but they lavishly fund the NRA because nothing sells guns more than fear, which is the NRA’s product. This is why Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, in his press conference last week responding to the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacres, did what he has done for 40 years – he sold fear. It is instinctual. Rather than address any possibility that guns or ammunition should be further regulated, he accused the United States, in other words all Americans, of not doing enough to protect their children. The fault in these mass murders lay, in his opinion, with the victims and their parents, who were not afraid enough and did not appreciate the danger their children faced. There should have been armed police at the school at all times; the NRA has now promised to lobby for armed police in every school in the nation.
As with all such NRA proposals, there was no suggestion that NRA members and gun owners pay for these additional protections, which in this case were estimated by experts to be $6 billion or more each year for the US. This is always the pattern with the NRA and the gun lobby; the entire nation should bear the costs of the minority who exercise their right to bear arms. These costs are palpable, such as financial expenses, but there are more important costs that are not easily appreciated. Every expansion of the 2nd Amendment comes at the expense of a contraction of other parts of the Bill of Rights. The right to redress grievances to your government was made more difficult after the assault on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in Tucson. No congressman after that experience is willing to hold public sessions with constituents without heavy security clearances being imposed on the citizens attending. The right to peaceably assemble has been severely restricted after massacres at shopping malls, high schools, elementary schools, and movie theaters. The most fundamental of American rights – to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence – have all been significantly reduced by the expansion of the 2nd Amendment and the institution of a Gun Lotto that randomly can deprive any American of all of these rights.
The NRA has had no trouble intimidating and in essence bribing Congress to approve every expansion of the 2nd amendment, because the American public’s acceptance of a diminution in other fundamental rights has been growing, especially after 9/11 instilled tremendous fear in the general public for their own safety. Now the NRA has an ally in selling fear – the massive apparatus of the federal government, including the White House, the new Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense, which had already been on a campaign to militarize American society from the start of the first Gulf War.
There are a few countries that run a more militarized society than the US, but not many. Americans are taught to reverence their military and to accept without question whatever violence the military wishes to inflict on other nations. American television offers popular prime time shows featuring military settings, often with help from the Department of Defense, which easily finds the money within its $600 billion annual budget to allocate specialists to Hollywood who ensure that scenes of terrorist battles in Afghanistan, or of aircraft carriers, are accurate. American generals and admirals are treated as royalty and allowed to live like CEO potentates, with mansions, private aircraft, and an entourage. Americans have hardly noticed that the Department of Defense has off-loaded tens of billions of dollars of surplus assault rifles, body armor, and armored vehicles on thousands of police forces across the country. All major and most medium-size police departments now have SWAT teams and plentiful riot gear, even though their odds of dealing with a hostage crisis or a riot are small.
The police, in short, are being turned into paramilitary organizations. This was the first sight which greeted the children at Sandy Hook Elementary school who were allowed to leave the school when Adam Lanza shot himself – policemen in full military gear who were given all this gear to protect the school from the very thing which happened. Police in military gear are also a sight that anyone who wishes to protest in public now must face. When NATO held a summit conference in Chicago this past summer, Mayor Rahm Emanuel managed to procure tens of millions of dollars from the federal government for the purpose of advanced military riot equipment to meet the protestors, many of whom were promptly arrested anyway and posed no threat to the public.
Americans are supposed to feel safer with their police forces acting like occupying armies, but it doesn’t work that way, because the police are never fully capable of thwarting the plans of mass murderers, much less anyone with a handgun who wishes, as an example, to kill their spouse in their home. Most Americans are completely unaware that the Founding Fathers were very concerned that the Revolutionary War army might become a standing army. Fortunately George Washington was in agreement that the army should be disbanded, and local order be maintained by police, or local militias. More recently, President Eisenhower wrote of a similar concern – that the massive army formed during World War II not transform itself into a standing army. His concern was ignored, just as his warnings against a military-industrial-Congressional complex were ignored, much to the country’s peril, as we now can appreciate.
The military-industrial-Congressional complex is more entrenched than ever and completely untouchable, even in a modern era of budget cutting and fiscal cliff negotiations. Should the Congress and the President fail to reach agreement by 2013 on the fiscal cliff, you may be assured that the draconian cuts to the military budget that are then called for will never come to pass. Neither political party is willing to stand up to the military, and so the militarization of America will continue. It will continue to inure Americans to the omnipresence of guns and the ensuing violence, but it will do nothing to providing additional protection for Americans. In fact, it is not supposed to. State and local police are in a perpetual losing arms race against their own citizenry, which is entirely to the liking of the NRA, the US military establishment, and gun manufacturers.
This is why putting policemen in schools will not make Americans safer; it is not intended to do so. It is a knee-jerk response to the incessant expansion of gun ownership, with ever more powerful and lethal weapons finding their way into public hands. It is intended only to give the illusion of safety, while the carnage is allowed to continue on an accelerating trajectory. The weekend after the Sandy Hook disaster, dozens of Americans were killed or injured by firearms, just as if it was a normal weekend. On Christmas Eve, a 62 year old ex-convict, who is not legally allowed to own firearms, lured the local fire department to a home he set on fire with his sister inside of it (she had already been murdered). He then proceeded to shoot and kill two of the firemen, and injure two more firemen before killing himself. This news has already pretty much disappeared from the headlines, as will the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre eventually.
Republicans have said further gun controls will not stop these events from happening, and in a highly self-serving way, they are right. They created the conditions where it is impossible to stop these events. There are at least 200,000,000 firearms in the US, and perhaps much higher – nobody knows for sure. The restrictions on semi-automatic weapons in the hands of civilians lapsed under George W. Bush. The background checks imposed on gun purchasers have been a failure, and as Nancy Lanza has proven, someone who loves guns and uses them responsibly (we presume she did – we don’t know for sure) cannot prevent a disturbed son or relative from using them for horrendous purposes.
Pandora could not cram back the ills of the world into the box she opened, and neither can the US overturn 40 years of purposeful and reckless gun mania. If the United States, for example, wanted to create a society like Japan, Australia or Israel, where firearms are virtually outlawed, it would take another 40 years of effort, the first 20 of which would consist of changing public opinion on the 2nd Amendment (and overturning the recent Supreme Court ruling on District of Columbia vs. Heller). The US is not capable of long term planning, as evidenced by its refusal to deal with climate change. Businesses think out only to next quarter’s earnings, and politicians think out only to the next election.
The best that can be hoped for is that the US does indeed begin the long hard steps back toward limiting gun ownership, and therefore limiting the Gun Lotto. Perhaps a restriction on semi-automatic rifles and on the ammunition magazines that provide 100 rounds of rapid-fire bullets might be a good start, but this would limit only the mass killings. The day-to-day killings would continue, especially from handguns, and the Gun Lotto’s odds would not decrease much.
If you are an American, you really have only one option: prayer. You must pray to God every morning that you are not one of the 1,500 people who are selected that day to be forever changed, either directly or indirectly, by firearms. You must then go about the rest of your day in fear – not in trembling, cowering fear (unless your number is called), but more of a back-of-the-mind fear, which is revived every day or so when you hear or read about some murder or suicide or accidental death. This is the American lot in life – the Gun Lotto. It is the invisible accompaniment to the American passion for expanding the 2nd Amendment at the expense of all other freedoms. It is what has turned the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave into neither of these things.