I write this in sorrow and anger. Over the last couple of months I attempted several pieces of writing for this blog and every time I was overwhelmed at the state of the world and the issues that surround us. But this time, I felt compelled to write, compelled by the deaths of those small children in Uvalde, Texas. What did you feel when you heard about the shooting in that primary school? Shock and horror? The thing is though, these dreadful shootings occur so often, does that feeling fade, will we forget that horror? Do our thoughts slide away, do we avert our eyes and say, I just don’t want to know the why’s, the how’s. And, is it inevitable that we say, albeit with a sense of sadness, ‘what can we do’?
Well, I am not turning aside. I therefore aim to look closely at some of the issues that surround these shootings and the things that prevent any change. It won’t, of course, be an answer, it is just my take on the context and getting to some kind of understanding, so here goes.
The way I am tackling this issue of mass shootings and, indeed, gun ownership is to look at the differences between the UK and the US, because while these two countries might be united through language, there are many differences that divide us. In fact, this piece is, to some extent, dedicated to a childhood friend who married an American and has lived in the States for many years who thinks about some issues very differently to me and I promised her I would one day write about this divide between America and Great Britain. As you already see, I write some of this in anger and I apologise to all of you and to her, as, of course, she is utterly entitled to her differing views. But recent events dictate how I write these words.
The only book I’ve read on American history is the one written by Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States. I got it because I took a short course on ‘The Other America’ some years ago at the WEA. For those of you who know about this book you know where I’m coming from. We were taught by an American living in the UK whose PhD was in Native American History, so perhaps you can see where he was coming from. Those tutorials were fascinating and eye-opening. We learnt about the cultural richness of the native population of America and its ultimate downfall at the hands of the white population.
Then the tutorial on slavery, which was, as you would imagine, hard to listen to. Our teacher’s view was that slavery has tainted the entire body politic and nation of America. The denial that was necessary to treat people as less than human, he argued, continues to this day. And indeed, some years after that course it can be seen being acted out with the banning of so-called critical race theory, which I believe is not critical of people at all, as some think, instead it is institutions like the criminal justice system, education, and the labour market and so on that are seen by this theory as the places where racism is embedded.
Mind you, denial of difficult issues is something many nations do, including the United Kingdom, especially in its reluctance to have any debate on how our Empire came about. Furthermore, there seems to be no debate whatsoever on its successor, the Commonwealth, some members of which were not quite as keen on our recent Jubilee celebrations as we apparently were.
Did I know anything about Native Americans? Not much, apart from a superficial view of Red Indians versus the brave new Americans in their covered wagons moving ever westwards to a new life and land, all gleaned from the many ubiquitous ‘cowboy and Indian type films and television series (Laramie, Waggon Train and so on) that I watched through my childhood in the ‘50s. Ah yes, the ‘cowboy’ who was not always a John Wayne type as so many of the films seemed to imply, instead, nearly half the cowboys were Black. Now that was something I did not know. And, always, the Indian was the enemy, the tricky one never to be trusted, a native, a savage, bloodthirsty and violent. But after that course, I could not visualise the birth of America, from Columbus onwards as anything but devastating, and utterly, utterly mired in conquest, dispossession, untrustworthy treaties, violence and guns, above all, guns.
Before you say now hang on, Penny, who are you to say all of this, you of all people with your Empire that was not a benign entity but without a doubt founded on conquest, dispossession, misappropriation of wealth and violence. And what about Ireland and the awfulness of the Northern Ireland troubles?
My answer would be please, absolutely critique my country, because I believe all countries should be looked at forensically, and for precisely this reason, the first difference I write about is gun ownership and the second is reproductive rights with an aside about religion.
Guns do not feature at all in British life. We don’t own them, period. There may be a few guns owned by farmers to take pot-shots at birds and posh boys own them, again, to shoot at birds (and, occasionally, deer mainly in the Highlands of Scotland) but ordinary people, no. It’s not a thing at all. But don’t think that this means we are a non-violent society as some urban areas are crippled by gang life, and they use knives as their weapon of choice. Stabbing is the way our young die in these areas, bleeding to death in the city centres and suburbs. Occasionally in the larger urban areas (I’m thinking Birmingham and Manchester) some gangs do acquire guns and a gun is used in a shooting and sadly an innocent bystander is killed. But that’s rare and there are never any calls for ordinary citizens to protect themselves with guns.
Once upon a time even our police were unarmed and most of them still are to this day. Those of you who live across the pond, can you imagine that? But there is a move towards arming some police especially in London around what are considered targets like the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street and out of 135,301 full time police officers in England and Wales, 6,543 of them are armed officers.
What is interesting is that these armed officers hardly ever use their guns. Out of 18,262 operations, 92% involved an Armed Response Vehicle. And hark this, there were 4 incidents in which police firearms were discharged. Four! And that, people, has to be THE difference between our two countries.
A further difference is that we do have mass shooting incidents, but they are few in number. One was in Hungerford in 1987 when the perpetrator shot 16 people and injured 15 more, before shooting himself. He had a shotgun and two semi-automatic rifles. The next year the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 was passed which banned the ownership of semi-automatic fire rifles and reduced the use of shotguns with a capacity of more than three cartridges.
Sadly, a second shooting, and the only one exclusively in a school, was in 1996 in Dunblane where tragically 16 primary school children were shot dead along with their teacher. Consequently, there was a huge debate about gun control and a call for a total ban on guns, which would be, I’d say, the view of the majority of people in the UK – why have them at all? There was a major review and a report, and a year later the Conservative government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 which banned all cartridge ammunition handguns, with the exception of .22 calibre single-shot weapons in England, Scotland and Wales. After the general election that year the Labour government passed the Firearms (Amendment) (No2) Act 1997 banning the remaining cartridge handguns as well.
That wasn’t the last shooting as there was an incident in Plymouth in 2020 where 5 people were shot dead by a licensed gun owner. Possession of firearms in the UK is usually strictly controlled and you must have a licence. Individuals are assessed by their local police force and must have ‘good reason’ to own a firearm. There is no right to bear arms, not at all. However, what I did not realise until I looked into it, is that anyone over the age of 14 may use a Section 1 firearm if they hold a valid firearms certificate. Fourteen? Incredible! But persons who have been given a prison sentence of three years or more are banned from possessing a firearm or ammunition, so that’s good.
I was intrigued though to find out which firearms are coverd by Section 1 and there is a long list which I won’t recount, but you can take a look here.
It does seem to include a wide range of arms including a blunderbuss, a musket and musketoon, an air pistol, humane killers, flare pistols and all sorts of sporting guns and rifles, so one rather hopes that the police force knows what they’re doing when they ask why the person wants the licence.
Which is better than nothing, as that appears to be the situation in the US when apparently anybody can buy a gun from anywhere, at any time, with no consequences or checks whatsoever. Tell me if I’m wrong but that’s the impression we get in the UK media, that anyone who wants to own a whole arsenal of guns can, and nobody will stop them as that is their right according to the Constitution. Also correct me if I’m wrong but I thought that part of the Constitution was about joining a militia to defeat those beastly Brits? We could now have a huge debate on what the Constitution entails and what it means today rather than centuries ago, but I don’t feel I have sufficient knowledge, but is your Constitution so sacred that school children are to be sacrificed again and again and again on the altar of ‘rights’? Forgive me if that sounds harsh but that’s what it looks like from outside the States.
And yet I do hear that there is a large majority in the US asking for checks and balances, but I also read about the Republicans in the Senate, who will block anything that comes along to do with gun restriction. They will use the filibuster. Consequently, unlike the UK, legislation will not be passed to restrict gun ownership to at least the sane. But nevertheless, I have to say to any American readers, the system has to change. This is for you and your political system, and you have to deal with it.
Forgive me if this sound unwarranted, uncalled for, and too critical, I mean who am I to say all of this? But I can’t let those sweet innocent children go without saying all of the above. And if you’re reading this some years after I post this, who am I referring to? Who are these sweet children? Let me remind you, they are the 19 children and 2 adults shot dead in Uvalde, Texas. They were primary school children for goodness sake, so young. Why? Why, because a teenager, was able to buy a gun with no fuss or questioning whatsoever. It’s madness. Truly madness, that must stop, somehow.
Furthermore, I rather wonder whether the politicians who block the legislation regarding gun control are the same ones who wish to legislate against women having freedom and control over their bodies. Freedom and the right to bear arms? Take away our right to wear and bear and collect and horde our arms you’d be taking away our freedom, but freedom for women to choose how they live in their body? Oh no, that’s not possible. Yes here, I am now talking about abortion.
Abortion is not a thing in the UK, nor, may I add, is religion, which I believe is the key issue for the US with the intertwining of the views of the religious right and abortion. An aside about religion.
For the majority of people in the UK Sundays are for mowing the lawn, washing the car, cooking a roast dinner and visiting relatives. Church is not part of this day. Churchgoers here are very much in the minority. According to faithsurvey.co.uk UK membership has declined from 30% of the population to around 10%. It is predicted that if that trend continues by 2025 membership will fall to 8%. The fall is particularly acute in England where being a member of a church is forecast to decline to 4% of the population. On a personal note, I have opened my front door to the occasional missionary from America, sadly for them, I don’t think they get much joy from me or anyone really. And this point is especially for any Americans reading this post, if a politician professed any interest in religion they would be viewed with the utmost suspicion.
I will give you that for the majority of churchgoers in the UK religious services are quite formal and solemn events, and priests even in the Church of England (which is Protestant) wear long robes and church ceremonies are ritualistic and always the same, apart from the weekly sermon. We do have evangelical sects in this country, which are increasing their membership, but unlike the US it is a rare occurrence for anyone to set up a church. Instead, despite the low numbers of people attending church there are C of E churches in every town, along with Catholic churches. Then there are the Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist halls as well Muslim and other places of worship.
A couple of weeks ago I watched the film The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the biopic of Tammy Faye and her husband Jim Bakker. To a Brit it was mind-boggling, religion as entertainment? Incredible! And all that ‘please, send us your money’! The whole purpose appeared to be about the wealth and riches of the main protagonists, which seems light years away from what I know of Christian principles. Here in the UK, I believe we do have one or two religious television channels, but they would be watched by a very small percentage of the population.
Back to abortion in the UK. Abortion in the UK is legally available up to 24 weeks, and in limited circumstances after 24 weeks, through the Abortion Act of 1967 in England, Scotland and Wales, and the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No2) regulations 2020. Unbelievable that it took so long in Northern Ireland, but the Northern Irish campaigners got there
It is not an issue with us. At all. Public opinion is absolutely on the side of women. A recent (April 2022) YouGov survey finding showed that 86% of the population was in favour of the right of women to have an abortion. However, the small minority who are against abortion do demonstrate outside abortion clinics and cause a lot of distress to the women entering these clinics. These people (usually Catholics) do everything to resist any attempt to stop them harassing women including, for example, fighting a lengthy battle against a London council in the courts to prevent a buffer zone being set up around their clinic.
What madness is this I always think, how dare they. The right for a woman to control their body is fundamental. I mean abortion if it was ever banned here in the UK would continue to happen. I wonder how many of the protestors have nursed women after a crude and illegal abortion done before our legislation allowed abortions? Well, I have. Do they want to go back to those days? Yes, it seems they do.
It’s all mad, mendacious and medieval to not want to permit an abortion if there is a risk to life of the pregnant women or, indeed, to demand that a women or child carry an unwanted baby to full term. All women need access to the ‘morning after pill’ or abortion done in clean clinical surroundings. I am outraged that women’s rights appear to be going backwards especially in the States. I am so angry but also fearful that this loss of rights and the potential repeal of Roe V Wade might trickle over into our political system and encourage the minority to increase their demands and their harassment of women here in the UK.
I mean should it not be the case that every child is a wanted child? If the child being carried unwillingly to term is born in a land of plenty where health care is free, and schools are safe I’d say (up to a point) fine. Yes, let’s bring those babies to term and nurture them with the infrastructure of the state supplying a platform of care and safety under which no-one falls. But is that so in the US? I think not, as whenever possible Republicans block all measures where the federal government might step in. Did this not happen in a recent vote to ease the shortage of baby milk?
It is all so very political.
I’ve read somewhere (and apologies as I cannot remember where) that the Democratic Party still sees itself as a political party, the Republicans? Not so much. They stand for power and the continuation of their power, and for capitalism, for money and they cling to their power by capturing the votes of many disparate sectors including the religious evangelical right. What’s more they fight an ideological cultural war against the Democrats. I quote from the American historian and professor, Heather Cox Richardson,
“Aided by talk radio hosts, they increasingly demonized political opponents…a political action committee associated with House Republican whip Newt Gingrich gave to Republican candidates a document called ‘Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.’ It urged candidates to label Democrats with words like ‘decay’, ‘failure’, ‘crisis’, ‘pathetic’, ‘liberal’, ‘radical’, ‘corrupt’, and ‘taxes’, while defining Republicans with words like ‘opportunity’, ‘moral’, ‘courage’, ‘flag’, ‘children’, ‘common sense’, ‘hard work’, and ‘freedom’. Gingrich later told the New York Times his goal was ‘reshaping the entire nation through the news media.”
Well, yes. That’s happened for sure.
Back to guns and if you think I’ve gone rather off piste, it’s the context I’m after, and the whys around why nothing happens after these tragedies. And let us not forget the numbers sadly slaughtered in mass shootings are as nothing to the gun suicides and gun murders. Take 2020, in that year there were 45,222 deaths from gun-related injuries, 54% of which were gun suicides and 43% were murders.
Interestingly I understand the National Rifle Association (NRA) traditionally promoted gun safety, but that changed over time until in the 1980s it began defending gun rights and the Republican party. Now it wealds huge influence over that party. That party too changed its stance to celebrating a certain kind of traditional American family with a traditional man, at its head who would defend that family without interference from the federal government rather like the American cowboy. And how would he defend his family? It seems it is a gun.
I grew up watching cowboy films, that image of a lone (white) cowboy fighting to protect his family or a small town is utterly ingrained in my memory and what did he use to do that protecting? A gun. A gun which he would use in a shootout against the enemy, usually but not always, the Red Indian.
I had to write this post. One can feel overwhelmed at the many issues and crises that dominate this world today. But children slaughtered in their school? Primary school children? To an outsider more than anything it seems beyond stupid that guns are not banned. But I’ve listened to the journalist and now academic, Gary Younge (who was the Guardian correspondent in America for ten years) and read his book, Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives. His view is that guns will never be banned in the US, they were there at the very beginning of the US as a nation, they are part of the psyche of the nation. Gun deaths are seen as similar to deaths from car accidents, you don’t ban the car, you just make them safer.
So, make things safer, America! The NRA needs to be cut down to size, and the Republicans voted out of office. Can you do that? For the sake of the children, please do!
Penny Kocher, 7th June 2022
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2015 edition.
Gary Younge, Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives. New York, Nation Books. 2016
Hazel V Carby, We Must Burn Them. London Review of Books, Volume 13 26 May 2022
Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, May25, 2022. heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-25-2022
Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, May26, 2022. heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-26-2022
John Gramlich, What the data says about gun deaths in the U.S. pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/02/03/what-the-data-says-about-gun-deaths-in-the-u-s
Rawshawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons, Why are states banning critical race theory? https://www.brookings.edu/ November 2021