America’s tragic obsession with guns came close to home for Indians this month, when Hyderabad-born Aishwarya Thatikonda was killed by a white supremacist in Texas. The 26-year-old was the second Indian to lose her life to gun violence in Texas in the past 14 months. In March 2022, John Dias, 27, was killed in the Houston area. In 2017, Indian technology professional Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed in a bar at Olathe, Kansas. The killer, who shouted racial slurs and demanded that Kuchibhotla and his friend Alok Madasani, who survived the attack, “get out of my country,” is serving a life sentence.
Thatikonda, Dias and Kuchibhotla were unsuspecting victims of what has now, unfortunately, become an American pastime: Gun violence. According to the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), between January 2016 and December 2022, more than 122,000 Americans died due to wilful, malicious, or accidental gun violence. Even though mass shootings have risen substantially in recent years, apart from the public outcry and expressions of grief, little has been done to curb this terminal epidemic.
Today, there is less regulation of assault weapons than there was two decades ago, and Americans own more firearms than ever before. This shift occurred as a major federal law, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, was allowed to lapse in 2004, and several states under Republican control, along with conservative judges, facilitated easier access to firearms even without background checks.
Efforts to replace the legislation have been thwarted by the influential gun lobby, National Rifle Association (NRA) and its GOP allies. Besides the NRA’s political power, there are many reasons for the lack of progress in increasing gun safety, which has put gun control in a state of suspended animation.
The common defence for not tightening gun regulation is that the problem is not guns but people with mental health issues using them inappropriately. Opponents also argue that any such law would deprive them of their Second Amendment rights. This is a resistance borne of either ignorance or arrogance, because the amendment was established for one reason only: To protect an individual’s right to a weapon to serve as part of a state’s militia.
For more than half a century, the NRA and related gun rights groups have been central to appropriating and broadening the social and legal narrative about the purpose of the Second Amendment. The GOP’s conversion to gun absolutism is the heart of the problem. But politics doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It often follows from cultural and moral innovations. For roughly four decades, American conservatism has identified firearms as a marker of a manly rejection of urban cosmopolitanism and gun ownership as a right more important than any other.
Another significant setback in the effort to curb gun violence occurred in June 2022 when a Supreme Court decision expanded citizens’ rights to carry firearms for self-defence and restricted the use of enhancing public safety as the purpose of a gun law. In recent years, there has been a consensus among the public that there is a need for stronger gun control measures. However, this attitude is more than offset by the influence of the NRA, the dramatic increase in gun sales since 2020, and the attitudes of new gun owners.
Gun sales have gone up in most states but most especially in provinces that have lax or virtually no gun laws. Unless there is specific national legislation when it comes to gun rights, the state laws dominate. This means that moving the needle on assault-type weapons and other major gun safety-related issues must be done at the national level. According to the GVA, the same weekend Thatikonda was killed, there were an additional six shootings that took place across the United States (US), pushing the total number of mass shootings in 2023 to more than 200. This means, in the US in 2023, virtually every day was a mass shooting day. It is an American nightmare that must be confronted.
The causes behind this nightmare will never be eliminated. But they can be reduced by putting gun policies and practices in place that uphold the constitutional rights of all American citizens first, rather than those of the Second Amendment gun absolutists.
When that is done, everyone will be safer.
Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC The views expressed here are personal