WHEN Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of American Independence and who would later become the third President of the United States of America, wrote that “all men are created equal”, he was not only a prosperous Virginian planter, but also owned hundreds of slaves – several of whom he would take with him to administer to his needs in the White House, after his election to the presidency in 1800.

A paradox is a seemingly absurd, or contradictory statement that has inconsistent features or qualities and, having lived and studied in the US for some time, I feel comfortable about suggesting that much of American culture – in other words, the country’s national character – can be characterised as paradoxical.

It’s a place that is both puritanical and hedonistic; a country which celebrates material possessions and the iniquitous pursuit of wealth, whilst at the same time idealistically thinks of these values as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world; and where its citizens believe in a perfect, flawless “America”, rather than the real and often dysfunctional one that surrounds them.

You will never really understand why America clings to its guns unless you grasp this essential paradox, and nor will you convince the majority of Americans to introduce laws – even the most basic ones, such as mandatory background checks on those purchasing a weapon – by a simple appeal to reason, or logic alone.

Frankly, nor will explaining about the Dunblane shootings in 1996 and how our gun control was shaped accordingly, or going on about what happened in Port Arthur, Tasmania, a month after Dunblane when 35 people lost their lives, and which led to Australian laws on the possession of firearms also being curtailed. These changes in legislation have meant that the British firearm-related death rate per 100,000 of the population in 2020, for example, was 0.23 (one of the lowest rates in the world) and in Australia 1.04, while it was 12.21 in the US. Just over 45,000 people died in America in 2020 from gun-related injuries – that’s 53 people who were killed by a firearm every single day.

This sort of evidence about the drastic reduction in the numbers of gun related deaths that could be achieved in America if they introduced tougher legislation about who can own a weapon, and what sort of weapon, is at best likely to fall on deaf ears, or at worst can lead to heated debates about where you got your figures from, or more extravagant claims that many of those who got shot were in fact “crisis actors” who are paid to travel between the sites of mass shootings.

Poor David Hogg, a 17-year-old who survived the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida, was forced to go on television to deny claims that he was an actor, and a number of extreme right-wing commentators have scandalously suggested that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012 were “staged”.

One perennial element of this back and forth between those who want to limit and those who want to keep, or even expand gun ownership, is the Second Amendment to the US constitution – the right to keep and bear arms. My doctorate is in American History and I suspect that I am perhaps one of the few people who has actually read the constitution, but it means that I really can explain the circumstances and context for this amendment’s existence.

In full the amendment states, “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.”

The key to note here is the phrase “a well regulated Militia” – in other words this is not so much about individual rights, or the more general rights of “people” to bear arms, but the needs of a fledgling nation to ensure its survival against more powerful foreign enemies, or indeed a too powerful domestic government by having an army. And, whilst there will be some who will want to quibble with this historical analysis, surely no one can doubt that at the end of the 18th century the “arms” that were being described were muskets, rather than gas-operated assault rifles such as the AK-47?

Of course the reason that I have been asked to write this article – the context, in other words, for what I have just described – has been the shootings in Uvalde, Texas last month which saw 19 children and two teachers lose their lives, and which came hard on the heels of a mass shooting in Buffalo in New York State where ten people were killed two weeks earlier.

These are dreadful crimes which rightly deserved to make headlines across the world. However, what is less well known is that in May alone there were 61 other mass shootings in the US in states as diverse as Texas, Washington, South Carolina, California and Illinois.

Indeed, as May turned to June, there was a mass shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma where five people (including the shooter) lost their lives, although this has not generated the same media interest, given how embedded firearm deaths have now become in American culture.

To make headlines these days a mass shooting needs to have something “extra” to accompany it – like race, the age of those who are killed or who did the killing, or perhaps the shooting can be linked to a popular cultural phenomenon – so as to demand our interest.

So what can be done? Frankly, that’s not the real debate – we all know how to reduce the numbers of gun related deaths. The bigger question remains what is it that will finally tip the balance so that America ends its gun obsession? The answer lies in politics and the willingness of legislators to make brave decisions that will attract visceral opprobrium, and a great deal of short term pain. Sadly, President Obama wasn’t able to make much headway on this issue and I can only hope that President Biden, who only a few days ago addressed the nation about the need to end gun violence will do better.

However, one recent President really did seem to understand how to tackle the problem when he was considering raising the age at which it was possible to legally buy a weapon in the wake of another mass shooting. Thinking about what he might do, he made a most insightful comment – which was caught on camera, about the need to defy the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and turned to his naysayers and suggested “you’re afraid of the NRA, right?”, suggesting that he wasn’t.

Sadly what was proposed didn’t make it onto the statute book, but who was it that advocated standing up to the NRA? Well, it was none other than Donald Trump.

As I say, paradox is the dominant feature of American life.

David Wilson, Emeritus Professor of Criminology Birmingham City University