[Column] America's "forever war" at home

Posted on : 2021-04-02 12:05 KST Modified on : 2021-04-02 12:05 KST
John Feffer
John Feffer

By John Feffer, author and co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

The Biden administration has pledged to end America's "forever wars" overseas in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

But what about the "forever war" at home?

In 2020, nearly 20,000 Americans died of gun violence. The pandemic and economic lockdown did little to stop Americans from killing each other. More Americans died in shootings last year than at any point in the last two decades. And that number doesn't include the 24,000 Americans who used guns to kill themselves every year.

The violence hasn't stopped in 2021. Two mass shootings in a week—in Atlanta, Georgia and in Boulder, Colorado — are yet one more reminder that the United States is a warzone. Despite repeated efforts to control gun ownership, the country remains full of high-tech weapons that fanatics on both sides of the political aisle (but mostly Republicans) just don't want to regulate.

The United States has the highest per-capita gun ownership in the world. On average, there are 120 guns per 100 people. The only country that comes close is Yemen, at 52 guns per 100 people. Yemen is in the middle of a genuine war, but it has less than half the number of guns per capita as the United States. South Korea, by contrast, has .2 guns per 100 citizens.

Gun shops are still doing a lot of business in the United States. After a mob stormed the US capitol in January, Americans went out and bought more than two million guns, the third highest one-month total on record.

Of course, not every American owns a gun. Rather, many Americans own multiple guns. These gun owners wield a lot of political power. The National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful lobbying forces in the country, boasts of a membership of five million.

Because of the NRA, Congress has been unable to pass even the most modest of gun control measures. In 2013, for instance, the House of Representatives passed a ban on assault rifles that are used in many of the mass shootings in the US. This happened one month after the killings at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut that claimed the lives of 20 children between the ages of six and seven. Despite the universal horror over this loss of life, the legislation failed in the Senate.

The pro-gun lobby argues that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution protects gun ownership. The amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The NRA focuses on the phrase "right of the people" to argue that the Constitution protects every citizen's right to own guns.

But the amendment clearly links the right to bear arms to the maintenance of a "well regulated militia." At the time the Constitution was written, the framers were thinking about the importance of the individual states to maintain militias to protect against the tyranny of the federal government. The amendment has nothing to do with individual rights. It is focused only on bearing arms within well-defined militias.

The US Supreme Court backed this interpretation until 2008, when it overturned a law in the District of Columbia banning the possession of handguns. It was a 5-4 decision. In other words, the views of one Supreme Court justice have changed legal precedent on gun ownership in the United States.

US foreign policy is also part of the problem. For instance, anti-China rhetoric has contributed to the anti-Asian sentiment that played a role in the Atlanta shootings. Six of the eight victims of the shootings at three spas in Atlanta were Asian American women.

With Donald Trump blaming China for the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against Asians spiked by nearly 150 percent in 16 major American cities in 2020 — even though hate crimes in general declined last year. In New York City, hate crimes against Asians went up by a terrifying 833 percent (from three reported in 2019 to 28 in 2020).

Hate crimes are only a small percentage of the anti-Asian incidents that have taken place. Overall, there were 3,800 racist incidents targeting Asians, particularly women, during the pandemic period from the middle of March last year to the end of February this year.

America's "forever wars" have also played a role in gun violence at home. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a generation of veterans with PTSD, a small number of whom have been involved in this gun violence. Approximately 11 veterans kill themselves with firearms every day — more than 4,000 every year.

A number of mass shooters have also been veterans, beginning with a World War II veteran who killed 13 people in his New Jersey neighborhood in 1949. According to one estimate, more than one in three mass shooters have received US military training. The US military trains young people to be killers. It can be very difficult to integrate killers back into civilian life, particularly if they have experienced actual combat.

Every time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, politicians pledge to do something about it. But guns are ubiquitous. And American culture is steeped in violence, from video games and Hollywood movies to hunting and paintball parks. A "Wild West" ethos pervades the country even though the Western frontier was reached more than 100 years ago.

Gun violence won't go away until America demilitarizes, abroad and at home. The first step is to end America's addiction to war.

Maybe when we stop killing other people, we can stop killing ourselves.

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