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Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany

Deadly Inheritance

By Nicolas Richter

The real question is whether it's possible to permanently alter America's gun culture and its obsession with violence.

Translated By Ron Argentati

11 January 2012

Edited by Gillian Palmer

Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung - Original Article (German)

Those who want to ban guns argue using statistics, and those who want to keep them argue with emotions. The shooting massacre in Newtown permits an emotional response to the pro-gun arguments for the first time in a long time. But even if Obama is successful in pushing through stricter gun laws, it will only be a symbolic victory.

Film director Quentin Tarantino had always been content to merely drench the inside of an automobile in blood. In his latest film “Django Unchained” he uses a cathartic shooting spree to spray the entire foyer of a colonial home with gore. When asked whether he thought such excess was true to life, he reacted rudely and as if he had been insulted. That's exactly how the National Rifle Association reacted to Vice President Biden's announcement that the administration sought to stiffen gun control laws. The NRA responded by saying that the White House was planning an attack on the U.S. Constitution.

These two nearly simultaneous outbursts are indicative of what the U.S. government can expect when it introduces new rules for buying handguns and ammunition to the most heavily armed people in the world. But even if the restrictions pass the right-wing House of Representatives, they would still only be symbolic. The real question is whether it's possible to permanently alter America's gun culture and its obsession with violence.

To accomplish that, one first has to realize that many Americans consider guns a part of their cultural heritage. They define themselves according to whether they own a gun or not. Firearms have played many different roles in history: Protection and survival for the settlers, proof of personal status and, sometimes, the role of great equalizer — ensuring that all men were indeed created equal, or at least equally powerful. At times they served as a warning to a central government that might contemplate usurping their rights.

These days, the two sides largely talk past one another. Those who favor more gun control argue using statistics, and those who do not argue using emotions. The behavior of gun owners is not so much rational as it is romantic, harking back to family tradition, courage or independence. Pro-gun people argue they must be prepared to defend themselves from the government's “black helicopters,” and it doesn't help much to explain to them that those helicopters will never show up.

The Newtown massacre of children makes it possible for the first time in years to argue against the gun lobby using emotions. The president is correct in exploiting this opportunity, even though he realizes he will only be able to accomplish part of his agenda at best. Perhaps he'll only succeed in banning high-capacity magazines or in subjecting gun buyers to more thorough background checks. He probably won't succeed in banning assault rifles — although a good case for giving civilians access to such weapons cannot be made — because before the laws can be comprehensively changed, a cultural change must first take place in the same gradual way that cigarettes also fell victim to public wishes. But unlike smoking, where the argument that quitting serves one’s own best interests — something many smokers gradually came to realize — succeeded, gun owners are convinced of the exact opposite.

Does Waging Permanent War Affect People?

Turning away from handguns will be the result of many things: Education, public campaigns and role models; getting rid of the cachet surrounding weapons; debates about why movies, television and video games almost exclusively emphasize shootouts (and whether Tarantino wouldn't be a cooler guy if he just dumped the bloody orgies). The question of whether a nation claiming to be engaged in permanent war has a negative effect on its people needs examination as well.

Violence and defenses against it have long been timeless subjects in America. It's evident in the film world with the first Oscar nominations, for example, that the pistol remains a star. Besides “Django,” films about Abraham Lincoln and Osama bin Laden were also nominated. As usual with Hollywood films, they all end up with someone being shot to death.



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