Gurdwara shootings, IAC's fall: Failures of modern democracy

"The gunman is worse than the one at the theatre a couple of weeks ago because he targeted an entire community, Jagatjit Sidhu tells Reuters, incensed at the tragic shooting at his local gurdwara.  As a claim, it is open to debate. The body count was higher in Aurora, Colorado, so were the number of injured. Hate crimes carry a greater penalty in the United States, but it is a fool's game to pit one tragedy against another.

What matters more is what the two shooters share in common: the possession of lethal weapons. The kind that allow one individual to wreak disproportionate harm, take multiple lives in a matter of seconds, allow a person to live out his most violent fantasies. Focusing on the "hate" angle distracts from the far greater crime: the appalling state of gun laws in the United States.

Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Or so goes the tired truism used by anti-gun control advocates to dismiss any call for stricter legislation. And their Republican supporters like Mitt Romney are quick to define every shooting rampage as the work of a "deranged person." Let's focus on the man holding the gun, they insist. On his CNN program, Global Public Square, Fareed Zakaria exposes the emptiness of this argument, using data to devastating effect. "The United States stands out from the rest of the world not because it has more nutcases – I think we can assume that those people are sprinkled throughout every society equally –but because it has more guns," Zakaria points out. The United States is the only country to have more than 70 guns per 100 persons in the entire world. The precise number: 88. Yemen is a distant second at 54.

The other numbers are just as damning: "We have 5 percent of the world's population and 50 percent of the guns. But the sheer number of guns isn’t an isolated statistic. The data shows we compare badly on fatalities, too.  The US has three gun homicides per 100,000 people. That’s four times as many as Switzerland, ten times as many as India, 20 times as many as Australia and England."

Guns may not kill people, but they certainly make it easier to do so. James Holmes was armed with a semiautomatic version of the M-16 rifle with a 100-round barrel magazine, a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun and a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol. He'd also purchased 3,000 rounds of handgun ammunition, 3,000 rounds for a semiautomatic rifle and 350 shells for a 12-guage shotgun.

Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Reuters

And yet conservative commentator George Will insists: "The killer in Aurora, Colo., was very intelligent and farsighted and meticulous. I defy you to write a gun-control law that would prevent someone like this with a long time horizon and a great planning capability from getting the arms he wants. I just think that this is a mistake."

Sikhs in Oak Creek should be grateful that their shooter wasn't quite so "very intelligent and farsighted and meticulous." He didn't bother to assemble an entire arsenal before he went on a rampage. But here's the more important point: he could easily have done so under existing US law.

The legal arguments against gun control are equally specious. There is no US constitutional right to carry an assault weapon that shoot a100 rounds. "A lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals -- that they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities," declared Barack Obama in the aftermath of Aurora. Most polls confirm they do.

As the press watchdog group Media Matters points out, contrary to the conventional wisdom touted by the TV talking heads, three in five Americans support reinstating a nationwide ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004. Other polls show that 86 percent support a criminal background check for all gun buyers; 63 percent are for a ban on high capacity magazines or clips; 69 percent support limits on the number of guns a person can purchase within a certain time frame; 66 percent support a national gun registry.

And yet there has been no significant effort to institute sensible limits on gun ownership in the United States.

While many see gun violence as symbolic of America's uber-macho, cowboy culture, it is also indicative of a core flaw in modern democracy which has become captive to minority interests. In India, most citizens agree on the urgent need for stricter measures to curb corruption -- but to little avail. So why do we repeatedly see the will of the majority thwarted by a small number of influential people?

One reason is that all political debates are framed in polarising extremes by media outlets -- especially television -- who thrive on conflict. The damage is incalculable and became evident in the trajectory of anti-corruption movement. We ended up with pro and anti Lokpal talking heads yelling at each other, as opposed to discussing what kind of anti-corruption measures are most feasible and effective. We were either going to embrace the Hazare version of the Lokpal bill or have no anti-corruption legislation at all. The gun debate similarly sets up a false choice: either ban all guns or remove all curbs on ownership.

The media also like to reduce all politics to personality. “The narrative almost always gets formed around the insanity, the extremism of that particular assailant and not a broader discussion of the number of firearms or number of fatalities due to firearms. That doesn’t do much to change public opinion. Immediately the discussion shifts back to ‘He called himself the joker and he had red hair,’” observes Dhavan Shah, a communications and political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

In India, the press was only too glad to focus on Anna at the expense of the broader (and more boring) issue of corruption. Does he advocate whipping alcoholics? Is he senile? Is he fighting with Arvind Kejriwal? Soon enough, Team Anna goes from hero to zero, and anti-corruption legislation is declared DOA.

The outcome is always a stalemate that favours the status quo.

The other reason is the self-serving nature of politics and politicians. No one wants to do anything that will jeopardise their career or their party or -- in India -- their personal wealth.

"When there is an extraordinarily heartbreaking tragedy like the one we saw, there's always an outcry immediately after for action. And there's talk of new reforms, and there's talk of new legislation. And too often, those efforts are defeated by politics and by lobbying and eventually by the pull of our collective attention elsewhere," said Obama in his Aurora speech. And yet he too has no plans to propose new gun legislation in a reelection year. Be it corruption or gun control, there is a silent bipartisan consensus to do nothing.

A third reason is public apathy (as Obama gently puts it, our "attention," or lack thereof). Sure, we all want things to be better, but not enough. Americans won't take to the streets to change gun laws despite nearly 20 mass shootings a year. Neither will we once the initial thrill of hanging out at the Ram Lila grounds has worn off. The NRA, in contrast, is passionately dedicated to blocking all gun control legislation, and will expend all its energy and resources to do the same. Our political class may not be as united, but they are no less determined when it comes to blocking all reforms -- a reason why every version of the Lokpal bill has perished in Parliament.

In a democracy, those who care the most, win.  And they're often not the good guys.

Updated Date: Aug 06, 2012 18:23 PM

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