If the US does not recognise its glaring gun problem after the deadliest mass shooting, it never will

Published: October 4, 2017

People run from the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada after a gunman opened fire. PHOTO: AFP

“Why are they not calling it terrorism,” was the text of the WhatsApp message I received from my wife as the news of the latest and deadliest mass shooting in Las Vegas spread.

I replied by saying that terrorism by definition is a deliberate act conducted for achieving some political and ideological end. This kind of shooting cannot be called terrorism as it is more likely to be an outcome of a mental disorder. It was an inhumane and horrific act, but still cannot be called terrorism.

But I understand as to why she, and for that matter many other Muslims, wanted it to be framed as terrorism. The word ‘terrorism’ is loaded and in the post 9/11 USA, evokes strong reactions and unfortunately has become largely associated with Muslims only. Even an extremely violent act, if not framed as terrorism, does not evoke the same kind of reaction than a less violent act framed as terrorism.

Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock. Photo: AFP

She texted back saying,

“Thank God, he was not a Muslim, because in that case, even if he had a mental disease, it would have been called terrorism.”

Here I had to agree with her, completely and wholeheartedly. I remembered the Orlando shooting where the shooter was also reported to be mentally ill, but most of the right-wing sections of the media merely highlighted the role of his faith.

The Orlando shooting ended up giving a further boost to Donald Trump’s election campaign and his promise to ban Muslims from entering the US started to resonate with a large number of people. In fact, the backlash is far more severe whenever a Muslim is involved in any such act and the entire community is accused for the act of one individual.

Muslims living in the US feel, and with justification, that when a white person conducts a mass shooting, he is only labelled as a ‘lone wolf’ whereas a similar act by a Muslim somehow becomes a collective responsibility of the entire Muslim community.

As mentioned earlier, I personally do not think that the Nevada shooting can be called a terrorist act because for an act to be technically labelled as such, it needs to meet a certain criteria. However, there is absolutely no doubt that if he had been a Muslim, then the hue and cry, particularly from the Republicans and right-wing media outlets such as Fox News, would have been deafening.

Las Vegas shooting. Photo: AFP

Yet, the most important commonality between the Nevada and Orlando mass shootings, in fact literally all the mass shootings, is never talked about by these quarters. No matter where the mass shootings occur, guns are a common denominator. Mass shootings and gun violence in the US is completely out of sync with the rest of the developed world.

People run for cover at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival after gunfire was heard on October 1, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: AFP

The US has the highest per capita gun-related homicide rates in the developed world, far exceeding countries with similar economic and social characteristics. For example, in the US, the death rate from gun violence is about 31 per million people, which dwarfs other developed countries. In comparison to Germany, the death rate from gun violence is only two per million people, whereas it is only one per million people in England and Poland.

All European countries have similarly low rates. On an average, gun homicide rates in the US are 25 times higher than the rest of the developed world. Likewise, the US has 5% of the world’s population and yet accounts for 31% of mass shootings.

Terrorism which shocks many of the right-wingers pales in comparison when human loss from gun violence is taken into consideration.

For example, between 2001 and 2014, the US witnessed 440,095 deaths by firearms, while deaths by terrorism during those years were merely 3,400. And yet, the level of outrage is the other way around.

These numbers are staggering, but the answer is plain and simple – the US is a gun-obsessed country. The right to bear arms is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. Guns are easily available and Americans, particularly white men, love to own them.

Globally, the US is already an exception in terms of prevalence of gun ownership at household levels. According to the Global Small Arm’s survey, US have an extremely disproportionate civilian ownership of guns – an average of 88 per 100 people.

The magnitude of this gun ratio becomes even more obvious when we consider that Yemen, ranked second, is way below at 54.8 guns per 100 people. The US has 5% of the world’s population, and yet, has roughly 50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns. More importantly, in the US, civilians can also legally own assault weapons, which set it apart from other developed countries.

This extremely high ownership of guns is the result of a gun culture supplemented by a legal framework which gives relatively easy access to guns. But what has always dumbfounded me and many others is that despite a clear correlation between this high predominance of gun violence, the US has not been able to implement a tighter gun control. In other developed countries, far fewer mass shootings have resulted in extremely tight gun control measures.

For example, Australia imposed extremely stringent measures after the infamous Port Arthur massacre in April 1996, when a young man killed 35 people and wounded many others. These measures included the banning of automatic and semi-automatic assault rifles, the tightening of licensing and ownership rules, and initiating an expensive government-led buyback program which ended up taking about 650,000 guns out of circulation.

In Canada, two mass shootings in the 90s drove substantial legislative changes including the 1995 Firearms Act, which made the obtaining of owner license compulsory while banning several types of weapons. In the UK also, two to three mass shootings in the 90s led the government to adopt extremely restrictive gun legislations, making licensing compulsory and effectively banning semi-automatic rifles and even hand guns.

In contrast, despite having some of the most extremely high profile gun shootings, the US continues to have some of the most relaxed gun laws in the world. In fact, after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, in which 18 elementary school children were killed, the gun laws barely changed at the federal level as then president Barack Obama’s proposed bills to implement tighter laws were defeated.  On the state level, they became even more relaxed.

The gun lobby in the US, spearheaded by the National Rifles Association (NRA), has been able to thwart any efforts to impose meaningful gun legislation by funding individual senators belonging to both the parties. Furthermore, it has been successfully able to frame the issue in a manner which links gun ownership of even assault weapons as a constitutional right.

Over the years, gun violence has just become a “normal” occurrence which the US population takes for granted. The same right-wing media outlets, which demonise the entire Muslim community around the clock due to a few individual terrorist acts, become hypocritically silent when a tragedy involving guns unfolds.

In a recent show, Sean Hannity expressed anger on the leftist politicians for shamelessly “politicising” the tragedy in Vegas and yet he was at the forefront in praising Trump’s Muslim ban.

People scramble for shelter at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival after apparent gun fire was heard. Photo: AFP

I hope, although given the past there is not much reason to hope, that this tragedy will eventually lead to some meaningful steps towards gun control. As for someone who has been living in the US since 2011, I have become emotionally attached to the country and therefore, I want these mass shootings to stop.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    From what I understand and correct me if I’m wrong, the issue of ‘ the right to bear arms ‘ as per the oft quoted Second Amendment was much debated and finally CJ Robert’s made a ruling which was a victory for the ‘ gun lobby ‘. Although individual states like California have on a local level adopted measures to control this madness…. Justice Roberts court has done the damage…..and America especially the clear thinking ones and there are a lot of them, are furious because they feel the system has let them down.Recommend

  • The Dude

    Regardless of the historical and legal arguments, it simply is not possible to ban guns. In fact, nobody sane actually does argue for banning guns, because that would be impossible. What some people are arguing for is that some people be allowed to use guns to take away guns from other people. They argue that people in government be allowed to use guns and to take away guns from people who aren’t in government employ.

    Either we get rid of guns completely (impossible, I think) or we simply live with it and hope they do more good than harm. Ask a policeman or soldier if his gun does more good than harm, and try to understand that is is the same for all.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    The Americans do have problems with regulating gun laws but would seem that among them they also have evangilist anarchists who have no patience with popular music festivals. The moron was apparently prepared to escape and had planned further carnage in other music festivals. it is simply a semantic whether he is called a terrorist or simply a ruthless cold blooded killer who has shattered the lives of so many in Los Vegas. We offer our condolences to the loved ones.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Sane

    Was that a christian terrorism? If not, then why? If a Muslim does any such act even much smaller than this then why it is termed as Muslim terrorism?Recommend

  • Sane

    Those who trumpet Islamic terrorism, owe an answer as why this is not Christian terrorism?Recommend