The widespread enjoyment of food portions so big they would make most people vomit; the way they pronounce "route" and "thorough"; turning up to hospital and being asked for your credit card details. Of all the ways that America can seem like an alien place, none is weirder than US gun law and how it seems impervious to even the most monstrous of tragedies.
British people like to act all superior to our crass American cousins, but this is mostly just a way to make ourselves feel better about the polite awfulness of our country’s reactionary heart. Mind you, wandering into a Walmart and picking up several assault rifles with your groceries? This, I cannot understand. America, you have truly lost the plot.
Such feelings surfaced again as I watched, agog, news of the recent Florida school shooting and the fallout from it. So I called up a colleague across the sea, Harry Cheadle from VICE's New York office, to ask him to bring me up to speed with a truly baffling debate.
Simon: How’s it going?
Harry: Good here. No mass shootings today.
That's good to hear. The whole thing is so bizarre from a British perspective. American politics is always quite bombastic compared to the UK. But when it comes to gun law it's just like, 'Wow, are you serious?'
Right! Is it just like, 'Why don’t you guys just get rid of the guns?'
I mean, yeah. But I thought I’d start with the most recent headlines I've been reading, which is that Donald Trump wants to arm teachers as a solution to this. Obviously over here that sounds like a sick joke, but then so much of what Trump says comes across like that. How weird and beyond the pale is it to the general American conversation?
I would say it’s pretty weird. I think it is a bit outside of the mainstream, but not super far outside of the mainstream – and also not likely to happen. The NRA and gun advocates always say the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. So the 'solution' to a mass shooting that gets a lot of attention is generally, 'Why wasn’t there more security there? Why wasn’t someone armed to be able to stop this?' That’s the justification for expanding concealed carry and eliminating gun-free zones. So their argument would be, 'If a teacher had been armed at the Florida school where the shooting took place, then someone would have shot the guy.' There was an armed security guard on the campus, but he just wasn't around to stop the shooting.
[After this conversation took place, it was reported that an armed guard who was outside the school failed to confront the attacker.]
How persuasive do people find the idea that if everyone had guns there would be no problem?
It’s not that persuasive. I think it’s a minority of people that are in favour of that. Because that would sort of suggest that everyone should be carrying a gun all the time, which seems sort of self-evidently crazy. Even if you had a gun and there was a mass shooting going on, it’s very difficult to respond in a way that’s helpful, you know? Like, you hear gunshots, people are running, you may not be able to identify who has the gun. If there are multiple people who have guns and are trying to stop the shooting, they might think one of the good guys with the guns is actually the bad guy with a gun. There’s a lot of issues. If you shoot and you miss you can hit somebody else. There are a lot of problems.
Yeah, those kinds of objections pretty much go without saying to me.
One thing I’ll say is that gun control people don’t usually say there are cases of people with guns – like, ordinary civilians – actually stopping crime because they had a gun. Like a convenience store robbery. The customer has a gun and, like, shoots the [thief] – that does happen.
But, I mean, even in a case where it stops a crime, I think extra-judicial shooting is not OK, but in America people would be down with shooting a robber?
In the US, I would say, yeah, I think a lot of people are fine with it. You could go too far with it. I remember there was a case from a couple of years ago, or last year, where some woman fired at a guy that had shoplifted from the Home Depot, and was just kind of firing wildly at him as he went away. That sort of thing is bad, obviously.
What’s the general public opinion about gun regulation?
There's a two part answer, maybe a three part. The first part is if you look at polling on questions of different types of gun control – universal background checks, a ban on assault weapons, some waiting periods, different measures – almost all of them have a very high level of support. Maybe like 90 percent for universal background checks… it’s super high [a poll released on Tuesday showed 97 percent support].
So there’s a broad span of people who if you say, "Would you like some gun control?" they would say "yes". But, traditionally, the people that have been most energised by the subject have all been gun rights people – people who are really insistent that there should be no gun control at all. They want to expand situations where somebody is allowed to carry a gun. And these people are extremely politically active. They’re energised, they might launch a primary against a Republican politician who seems to be soft on guns.
Sometimes they’ll even oppose what you might call common sense gun control. Like if you say you shouldn’t be able to buy an AR-15 assault rifle on the ground, then next you’re going to take away handguns, and then you’re going to take away all the guns. They think it’s a slippery slope.
What might be changing is that there are more people who are activated gun control voters. With all these mass shootings that have taken place in the past year, there might be more people who are pro-gun control but also really passionate about it.
Yeah. That’s one thing that seems to be coming across on the news following this latest Florida shooting. All these teenagers marching on Washington. Is that unprecedented? It seems like people are suddenly really shocked into action.
I think the teenagers marching on Washington is a new thing. I can’t remember a time when teenagers in particular were so energised and so out in the news and protesting. That’s definitely new. There have been a lot of cases where parents of children who were at schools where shootings happened were leading the charge.
Those parents getting active has less effect than a bunch of gun-nuts acting against a soft Republican?
Sort of. I think one problem may be that they’ve definitely raised their voices in the debate, but haven’t succeeded at winning elections quite yet. If politicians – especially Republican politicians – decided that being pro-gun was a liability, they would start pushing for more gun control. But that hasn’t happened yet. So after the Newtown shooting [at Sandy Hook elementary school] there was a lot of energy and they very nearly passed a gun control bill that was actually very mild. It was only the most popular and obvious measures. And that ended up failing in the Senate.
So the consensus in the Senate is for gun rights?
Yeah, Republicans right now control not only the Senate, but also the House of Representatives. And almost all Republicans are opposed to any sort of gun control. Some Democrats are also opposed to gun control.
To an outsider it seems so simple. You guys have loads and loads of guns, and people keep getting shot. And in Europe, the UK or wherever, we don’t have many guns and fewer people get shot. Do you perceive it like that and, if so, are you frustrated by that?
Gun control advocates are frustrated by the lack of action on the national federal level, but they also are working all the time to change laws at local and state level. It is sort of maddening in a way. But I should say reducing the number of guns in the country is sort of like, that's the third rail. To reduce the number of guns you’d have to basically force people to give their guns up, and that is considered so radical that almost no mainstream politician endorses it.
Right. No mainstream political endorses fewer guns?
Yeah. Well, no one endorses actively taking guns away or forcing buy-back programmes.
Like an amnesty or something?
Yeah. You’d say cities have these programmes like, 'Bring in a gun and we’ll give you $300 or X amount of money." But to really reduce the number of guns, you’d say, "You have to bring in this gun and we’ll trade you money for it." That’s what Australia did in the 1990s, famously. That kind of thing – that’s what the NRA and all these people are worrying about.
I saw a video of this teenager asking Senator Marco Rubio if he would reject any future National Rifle Association (NRA) money. How big a deal is the NRA in American politics?
This is sort of controversial, because a lot of people attribute a lot of power to the NRA and the money it gives. They don’t give that much money, you know? I think it’s more that they can speak for a type of voter who cares a lot about gun issues and gun rights. And they can mobilise those voters against anyone they think is soft on guns. I think politicians are more motivated by being opposed by gun activists than they are losing out on that money. That question was a good soundbite way to put Rubio on the spot. But I don’t think that NRA money is that powerful – I think it’s more of the gun culture and more the gun voters. The NRA is good at speaking to them and being part of that culture.
They always evoke the constitution and the Second Amendment, right?
Yeah. The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. There’s a sort of legal debate about how broadly that right should apply. Should it apply to assault rifles or handguns, or what's the deal there?
Why can’t people get past that?
I think almost more important than the Second Amendment is just the culture of gun ownership, y’know? Which includes hunting, but also going to a shooting range and treating it as a hobby. And also this idea that you should have a gun for self defence – I think all of that is a more powerful cultural force than the Second Amendment. I think if you got rid of the gun culture side of things people would start interpreting the Second Amendment in a lot less limited ways.
The whole debate also seems to be tied up a lot in the idea of "freedom". Do you think there’s any chance of that interpretation of "freedom" being politically defeated?
I think what has to happen is voters in purple states – meaning states that aren’t super conservative, but aren’t super liberal, they’re more in between – if more people in those states, which includes Florida, start thinking of gun control as the most important issue, and then they start electing people who talk about gun control on the campaign trail, then I think laws in those states could change and, gradually, over time, there could be a shift.
I think it's sort of geographically dependent. Like, people in California or New York might be really fired up about gun control, but the people who really count are voters in states like Ohio or Florida or Nevada – places where they could adopt stricter gun laws and elect people to the Senate and House who support stricter gun laws. I think that’s where the change comes.
Does the Parkland shooting seem the thing that’s going to change that?
It’s hard to tell in the moment. I think when the Newtown shooting happened a lot of people thought that would be the moment. I mean, because there were children that were murdered for no reason. It was very emotional. President Obama cried when he was talking about it on television, there was a lot of energy behind gun control, even from politicians who had previously been really pro-gun, and nothing happened there. So it's really difficult to say whether this movement of teens will really become something that actually achieves legislation getting passed at some point. It might not be this year, it might be in a little while, but I think we’ll have to judge the shooting in retrospect for the political effects.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.