The 'public health crisis' that is America's gun culture

The weekend killing spree in Kansas City by a hate-fuelled white supremacist with a history of gun offences shows both the hypocrisy of U.S. gun laws and the almost impossible battle to make any change in them, Neil Macdonald writes.

Kansas City shootings by white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller shows hypocrisy of U.S. gun laws

White supremacist Frazier Glen Miller, then and now. Left, being arrested in Kansas City on Sunday for the killing of three people outside Jewish institutions. Right, in this 1985 photo, holding a press conference in Raleigh, N.C., as one of the leaders of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. (Associated Press)

Three days after Frazier Glenn Miller tried to kill some of the Jews he has spent his life despising (the self-styled paramilitary warrior actually wound up gunning down three Christians instead), the National Rifle Association's website remains silent about the attacks.

Instead, the site features, among other things, a Fox News appearance by the NRA's chief legislative lobbyist about the need to defeat Barack Obama's nominee for surgeon general.

The nominee, a doctor named Vivek Murthy, has publicly called gun violence, which kills thousands of people a year here, a "public health crisis."

Imagine. The gall of the man. Clearly a poisonously biased partisan unfit to serve as a guardian of the nation's medical well-being.

Of course, the NRA was also reluctant at first to comment on the slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., a year and a half ago. The organization likes to take its time when it comes to public massacres, and choose its words carefully.

But based on what it finally did say about Newtown, and about so many of the other, almost routine mass murders here in the U.S., it's easy to anticipate what America's most powerful and politically feared gun lobby will eventually observe about what happened in Kansas on Sunday.

Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next U.S. Surgeon General, testifying on Capitol Hill in February 2014. The National Rifle Association is waging a campaign against him because of his view that gun violence is "a public health crisis." (Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

First, it will probably suggest that had the late Dr. William Corporan been carrying a gun himself, he could have returned fire when Miller began shooting at the Jewish Community Centre in Overland Park, and so protected himself and his 14-year-old grandson instead of just being a victim.

Americans, to quote the NRA, need to understand the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

It would no doubt apply the same logic to Terri LaManno, a Catholic mother of three, active in her parish, whom Miller went on to shoot dead at the nearby Village Shalom assisted living centre where she was visiting her mother.

She, too, paid the price for walking around in public unstrapped. And by the way, why didn't that retirement home have armed guards?

As for Miller, a Hitler-loving, Ku Klux Klan follower, he was, at least until the moment he started firing, exercising his Second Amendment rights.

As everyone knows, that amendment guarantees that "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," and has been twice upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court since 2008.

Right to bear arms?

Miller actually did once belong to a militia — The White Patriot Party, which he founded. He's a Vietnam veteran, and has been running around for decades posing in military fatigues and a beret, training with guns and looking ferocious.

He also once served prison time for firearms offences, meaning he is prohibited by law from owning a firearm (never mind that he has for years been ranting about the need to obliterate Jews).

But if he acquired the pistol and shotgun he used Sunday from a private seller or at a gun show, the law says no background check is necessary. And the NRA is determined to keep things that way.

It's a matter of liberty, you see. The fact that criminals aren't allowed to own guns doesn't justify the government invading the privacy of peaceful, law-abiding gun lovers. 

The NRA also opposes a bill by House Democrats that would take guns away from felons, fugitives and spouse abusers.

President Obama tried to use the Newtown massacre to introduce extensive checks, but the NRA set members of Congress straight in a hurry: Forget it if you want to be re-elected.

Hence the silence from most politicians since Sunday. Actually, hence the silence from most politicians about gun control most of the time.

Five little words

There have been at least seven mass shootings since Newtown, according to the Associated Press. More than 12,000 people in this country were killed by gun violence in 2013, and 3,016 so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive Project.

About 30,000 people die here every year of gunshot-related injuries.

As gun advocates point out, there have also been cases of multiple knife attacks, most recently in Murrysville, Penn., where more than 20 people were stabbed and slashed. (Though in that case, at least, no one died.)

Anyway, pretty much the only voices calling for gun control in this country now are victims' groups, some police, politicians from solidly liberal jurisdictions and jurists like retired justice John Paul Stevens, one of the longest serving jurists on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens talks about his views and career during a forum at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston in May 2013. (Michael Dwyer / Associated Press)

In his forthcoming book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, Stevens proposes adding five words to the Second Amendment that he says would clarify a text written 225 years ago.

Stevens's version would read: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed."

Sensible, if utterly unrealistic.

Aside from the aforementioned federal legislators running and hiding from the NRA, state legislatures are unlikely in the extreme to approve any such constitutional change. Some have been on a gun-happy spree for years.

Eighteen states now allow residents to walk around in public with pistols on their hips.

The state of Georgia's "guns everywhere" law, which takes force this summer, would allow people to carry guns in nightclubs, schools, churches, some government buildings (if proprietors allow), and excuses anyone who inadvertently takes a gun through airport security.

The NRA really likes that law. It's terrible to be a victim in America, but it's sure a great time for militias.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.