THE AMERICAN WAY: if it moves, shoot it?

This week Australians have been intrigued and haunted by the mysterious disappearance of Melbourne woman Jill Meagher in the early hours of last Saturday. The intense media scrutiny of the police investigation allowed us to follow the story to its arguably inevitable conclusion, with Friday’s confirmation that a man had been apprehended and charged with Jill Meagher’s rape and murder. It’s such a sad story, but even more so because here in Australia we’re lucky, relatively speaking, that this kind of thing just doesn’t happen that often. We rarely hear of anyone being snatched from the side of the road – from anywhere for that matter. Most of us wouldn’t expect it to happen while making our way home from Friday night drinks with friends and colleagues, much less from the footpath of a major arterial road in a busy inner-city suburb where there’s still more than just the odd person here and there, even at close to 2am. And we certainly wouldn’t expect it to happen less than 500m from home.

But as horrific as the Jill Meagher story is, I still can’t help but think how relatively safe and sound we are in this country. That belief was only further enhanced by yesterday’s home page. Of the ten headlines on that one page, three referenced stories out of the US about gun-related deaths. Three stories in one day – all from the same country, all from the same 24 hour period and all involving deaths resulting from firearms discharged by civilians. And that’s just the ones we know about.

On Thursday afternoon four innocent people were killed and four others wounded by a disgruntled sign-writer’s employee in Minneapolis. He’d just lost his job half an hour earlier. Thirty minutes was apparently all the time he needed to let the news sink in and hatch a plan, then go to wherever his gun was and come back intent on killing. Really? Just coz he lost his job? Is that really all it takes to tip someone so far over the edge that they’ll kill innocent people and themselves?

On Thursday evening, a father in Connecticut took a call from his sister – who lives right next door to him – telling him she thought someone was trying to break in to her house. Logical first reaction? Grab your gun, go outside and see if you find anything – and if it moves, shoot it. He did find something – a person wearing a black balaclava. It did move and trigger-happy Dad proved he’s clearly a fan of the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach. Turned out the masked man was his own son, who lived right there in the same house as Dad and looked for all the world as if he were about to break into the house next door… i.e. his aunt’s house. Yep, I’m lost too. This complex web of intrigue is just too weird for me to get my head around. Suffice to say, this kid clearly never heard the saying about not shitting in your own nest. Afterwards, a spokesman for the Connecticut state police had this profound statement to make: “All in all it’s a tragedy’’. Understatement of the year! Sadly, he wasn’t focussed on the real tragedy – something far bigger than what he was commenting on.

Then just after midday Friday, the American FOX News channel was broadcasting live coverage, being filmed from a local affiliate station’s news chopper that was following a high-speed police pursuit. The pursuit had started shortly after the driver had ‘car-jacked’ the vehicle in Phoenix, Arizona. It ended about 100km later when the guy stopped the car, casually got out, rummaged around inside for something, started to walk away, then appeared to get spooked. At this point, he ran erratically into the desert, before stopping suddenly, looking around, putting something to his head (almost impossible to tell exactly what it was from chopper-cam) and falling down.

And then the apologies began. Profusely.


American firearm assaults per 100,000 people by state

The bulletin’s newsreader explained to viewers after all of this that there was meant to be a 10 second delay in place so ‘graphic images’ like that could be yanked from the screen if something “went awry”. I don’t know about you, but I can think of so many things that could go awry when the topic is a car being driven along a freeway at such frightening speeds that it makes the trucks it passes, which were presumably travelling at or near the legal Interstate limit, look like they’re barely moving. If the network was so concerned that something might “go awry”, why broadcast live coverage of this stuff in the first place? What’s so fascinating about a high-speed freeway pursuit anyway? But I digress.

So anyway, we have the newsreader apologising. We have the FOX network’s PR machine pumping out more apologies. We have the Executive Vice President of News personally apologising. Clearly everyone’s really, really sorry. They “messed up”, apparently. Even though the delay that was supposed to’ve been in place was the only precaution the Executive Vice President could cite for how they should’ve been able to avoid the situation, he also said “Unfortunately, this mistake was the result of a severe human error and we apologise for what viewers ultimately saw on the screen.”

But why?

What exactly were they sorry for? It was grainy footage, shot on an extreme zoom setting from a helicopter hovering high above, of a man pointing something at his head before falling to the ground. For all the clarity the picture delivered, he could’ve been pointing his own finger at his head, or a stick or a banana. His head didn’t seem to explode, there was no visible blood and there was no sound of a gun shot. That the guy had just shot himself in the head and was now most likely dead was a fairly simple assumption to reach, but that assumption certainly wasn’t anything to do with the ‘graphic nature’ of the footage. In fact it was only the obviousness of what had transpired – combined with viewers’ vivid imaginations, plus the human condition of not being able to look away from a car crash – that introduced any element of ‘graphic’ to the footage at all.

But I still don’t get it. Why all the bowing and scraping and profuse apologies? More than two centuries after its introduction, Americans still cling as tenaciously as ever to the Second Amendment – why shouldn’t they also see one of the potential outcomes of that “right to bear arms”? Why be so apologetic about it? Why shouldn’t they see the outcome of this ‘right’, first hand? They hear about gun-related violence every single day – the US suicide rate is in the top 40 of the world and its homicide rate is one of the highest of any developed nation. How many Americans have died at the hands of someone who’s ‘gone postal’? Obviously it’s happened enough for that phrase to now mean virtually the same thing throughout the entire English-speaking world.

If it only takes them half an hour to take in some bad news, go away and come back with a gun, intent on killing, you have to wonder how stable these people were to begin with – and if that’s something that can’t be quantified, it also begs another obvious question: why do Americans continue to latch on to this “right to bear arms” bollocks when they’re clearly surrounded by so many unhinged people, shuffling about within their communities unidentified, ready to snap in the worst possible way at any moment?

So the FOX News ‘apology’ was just another example of how America’s oft-quoted rights and values only really extend so far: ‘the land of the free’ – except if you’re enslaved, in whatever context; ‘the right to free speech’, so long as you don’t offend religious sensibilities; ‘the right to bear arms’ – but only as long as no one ever has to actually witness how that ‘right’ could ultimately play out. Surely the real apology due to the American people should be about their ease of access to firearms in the first place and that this car-jacking bloke was just one of many who’ve found it so easy to get one – legally or otherwise.

Yes, all of these horrible situations were tragic, but individually they’re not the real tragedy. The real tragedy is that a nation of 314 million people has such easy access to firearms, presumably with very little training around proper use.

The real tragedy is that the United States continually falls back on an amendment made to its constitution 221 years ago, which sought to provide for “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”, yet repeatedly fails to acknowledge the deadly outcome that this so-called ‘right’ has lead to, time and again. Surely there are some rights that need to be rescinded? Or at the very least, revised? Geez, even just reviewing this one might be an idea? In almost every conceivable way, the world of 2012 is a vastly different one to the world of December 1791. But what are the chances? Apparently the only amendment to the US constitution that was ever repealed was Prohibition, and it was also the only amendment ever made that took away the people’s right to something. So how would millions of gun-toting, constitution-loving, rednecked, Second Amendment fans respond to any suggestion of reduced access to firearms? And even if “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” was repealed, how the hell would they get all the guns back anyway? Where would they even start?

Saying all of that, with the amount of gun-related crime right here in Sydney recently I’m guessing John Howard’s 1996 gun buyback scheme possibly isn’t the template to reference.

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