Letter from America: The cult of the gun


April 4th was the 50th anniversary of the assassination, by shotgun, of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee, and June 6th will be the 50th anniversary of Robert F (Bobby) Kennedy’s assassination, by hand gun, in Los Angeles, California.

This Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 14 students and three members of staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (named after Florida’s most famous environmentalist), in South Florida’s Broward County city of Parkland (the Fort Lauderdale area), were  assassinated, by machine gun, at the hands of a deranged former pupil who had been expelled from the school for violent conduct.

In any sane country, upon his expulsion, such a person would have been evaluated for mental health treatment, and in any circumstances never allowed to purchase any kind of gun, never mind the military-style machine gun he used.  This happened less than two years after the 2016 Orlando mass murder of 49 people, and less than four months after the 2017 Las Vegas, Nevada mass murder of 58 people, by similar guns designed to kill many people.

Whether the focus is on the history of the devastating effect of America’s licentious gun cult on the lives and health of the general population, or on its malign influence in the course of the past two centuries  of political and social history, which includes the assassination of four Presidents and the attempted assassination of six others, unless you are a member of the gun cult and thus oblivious to the reality, you have to accept having to live in a country that is an asylum for gunslingers.

In addition, the murdered students and staff at Parkland, like all victims of gun violence, had to sacrifice their lives on the altar of a recent, and historically false, interpretation of the original language of the second amendment to the constitution’s ‘right of the people to bear arms’ as part of a ‘regulated militia’.  This language was manipulated by right-wing extremists for the propaganda purpose of creating  an ‘individual’ right for anyone, not necessarily part of any ‘regulated militia’, such as the U.S. Army or the National Guard, to have access to any kind of firearm, for the financial benefit of gun manufacturers  and their lobbying organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Fortunately, the young people of MSD High School who experienced the horrible event of February 14 have responded with remarkable effect. They organised demonstrations throughout the state that spread to other parts of the country, to demand an end to the insanity of easy access to any kind of gun.  They put pressure on politicians, who at first treated them with the customary disdain for anyone who would challenge the power of the gun lobby, but the politicians are now in retreat, after the students struck a chord with their honest and well-articulated outrage.

This culminated on Saturday, March 24th with the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC, where hundreds of thousands of people joined the Parkland and other high school and primary school students, to demand the politicians end the craziness, or they will ‘vote them out’, a signature slogan of the demonstrators.

My wife Barbara and I joined a couple of hundred people in Daytona Beach at the same time in one of over eight hundred local demonstrations in solidarity with the students. I imagine many Open House readers by now have seen and heard at least some of the Parkland students, a very impressive group of young people, who have become an example of what leadership on the gun issue needs to be.

In a remarkable coincidence – the programme had been scheduled before recent events – the NBC television network that same evening showed an excellent documentary in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death: Hope&Fury: MLK, The Movement and the Media.  This had a twofold purpose: a reprise, to refresh the recollection of those of us who lived through the 1960’s, and to inform those for whom the 60’s are unknown territory of the history of the civil rights movement and the genius of Martin Luther King’s application of the tactics of nonviolent action, pioneered by his mentor Mohandas Gandhi.  In a time when American network television news was in its infancy, he set out to change the culture of racial segregation, America’s apartheid, by challenging its injustices and changing national public opinion which to that point had largely tolerated if not condoned white Southern intransigence.

Contrary to the view of present day reactionaries and nativists, the 1960’s were an exciting time to live through.  Even before I came here, I knew about Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  They were an inspiration to all who wanted to end the Vietnam War, bring civil rights and economic justice to racial minorities and poor people, continue and complete FDR’s New Deal, which rescued the U.S. and helped the rest of the world to recover from the Great Depression of the 1920’s and early 1930’s, and end American isolationism to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.

This past month, coincidentally leading up to the anniversaries of April 4th and June 6th, the actions of high school students responding to a horrific experience of domestic terror, caused by a similar political climate to the early 1960’s of resignation to social evil, have created more hope for change to the gun culture than has been the case for decades.  One of the most hopeful elements of the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC was its inclusiveness of all races and classes of people.  If adults have enough sense to follow the example of those high school students, and apply the same moral standards and enthusiasm for change to all the other major issues of justice and peace in our time, this country might even recover from the present political craziness of the Trump presidency.

Michael L O’Neill is a retired defense attorney.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.