The epidemic of mass shootings in the United States continues unabated. Since the beginning of this year—that is, in less than three weeks — the country’s media has reported more than thirty such events. There are definitional disputes among US academics and officials about what violent acts involving guns can come within the ambit of mass shootings. Fine distinctions are drawn on the number of dead in a shooting incident for it to qualify as a mass shooting event. What is relevant though is that in most cases the victims are either unknown or casually known to the perpetrator. There is no deep-seated motive that can be attributed to a perpetrator for selecting a specific person or group as targets.
One of the most horrific mass shooting events that has ever occurred took place on May 24 last year at the Robbs Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. An eighteen-year-old former student of the school killed nineteen children and two teachers. America was deeply shaken with President Joe Biden articulating the sentiments and anguish of many when he addressed the nation after the incident. He said inter alia “As a nation, we have to ask: When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby? When in God’s name will we do what we all know in our gut needs to be done”. Legislation was passed in the US Congress making it somewhat more difficult to get guns especially by those who have mental health issues. However, these measures do not even scratch the surface of the problem which is to ensure that the constitutional right of US citizens to hold and bear arms is done away with. It is this right, the relic of an era when US authorities could not guarantee the security of their citizens in a country in the making, which is considered sacred and has become part of the cultural ethos of a large section of the population.
Gun making is a lucrative industry. Hence, the gun lobby in the US is powerful and has great political support. But money alone cannot explain such issues; behind them lie a cultural addiction. The fact is that like individuals, not only groups but large sections of a society and a country can develop addictions to goods, substances and even attitudes. In any case addictions are difficult to root out and these difficulties increase manifold if they become part of a culture either secular or sacred.
While US gun laws cause death and injuries to people in that country alone there are addictions which are worldwide and cause havoc. In some cases, like narcotics and psychotropic substances they are considered so harmful that there is international cooperation to combat them. However, there are other addictions which, as a totality, take the toll of an enormous number of lives but are not combatted with the same intensity as are narcotic drugs. Tobacco falls in this category. Its use is discouraged but the industry yields great profit to multinational companies manufacturing cigarettes and to smaller companies which manufacture tobacco products which are chewed or inhaled. Yet tobacco cultivation is allowed and the industry continues.
The tobacco case is particularly interesting. For a long time the major tobacco giant companies, based in the west, combatted the idea that its use harmed human health. They did so politically through lobbyists and legally through enlisting the help of medical practitioners. These doctors despite the great and growing evidence asserted that there was insufficient science to substantiate claims that tobacco was responsible to a host of cancers. Today, the use of tobacco is discouraged the world over but in varying degrees. The irony is that the poorer countries are getting more addicted to tobacco products while its use is falling in the more affluent world.
The case of the Chinese wet markets where exotic wild life is sold for human consumption had attracted a great deal of attention at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020. It was widely believed that the origin of the zoonotic virus was in a Wuhan wet market where the virus found in bats had jumped to humans through an animal intermediary. No definitive proof of the virus’ origin in China has been determined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) because of China’s lack of cooperation. However, in the wake of the pandemic China announced that it would control its wet markets.
What is pertinent is that the origin of wet markets goes back to times of severe food shortages and even famine in China when the people were forced to source food from unconventional sources. The government did not stop these moves. However, once the people began to use exotic wild animals some of them developed an addiction which has continued even when unconventional food sources are not required. This again shows that what may begin as a necessity once it becomes an addiction among the people causes great misery and continues even when its original need is over.
It is here that political, social and sometimes even religious leaders are needed to de-addict their people. While this is true for guns and substances and food it can apply equally to popular attitudes and approaches which may be relevant in an era but which harm the national cause later on. As a general proposition, if an idea impairs social cohesion, it should be treated as a social addiction and should be put down, if necessary, with a heavy hand.