America seems unable to solve a scourge that exists nowhere else

JUST before the end of the school day on February 14th at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high-school in Parkland, Florida, the fire alarm rang out. Most of the pupils and teachers thought it was just a drill. It was not: a gunman had pulled the alarm to draw out the maximum number of targets. The gunman killed 17 and injured more than a dozen, some critically. Local television stations reported that the slaughter appeared to be the worst mass murder in the history of Broward County, an affluent area north of Miami.

As that might suggest, America is running out of superlatives to describe its frequent gun massacres. The killing in Florida, whose perpetrator was later arrested, was a bad one. It was America’s deadliest school shooting in five years—since a man killed 20 children, six adults and himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Connecticut. Then again, looked at another way, it was merely America’s 18th school shooting this year. By the reckoning of the Gun Violence Archive, the killing in Florida was the country’s 1,607th mass shooting since Sandy Hook. In other words, America has had more than one mass shooting every day since then, costing 1,846 lives. (The database includes mass woundings in its count, which is why the numbers of mass shootings and killings are roughly even.)

Police identified the gunman as Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year old former pupil of the school expelled a year ago for disciplinary problems. He was described as a strange kid who liked guns. Unlike many mass shooters, Mr Cruz did not intend to die. He slipped out of the school by blending in with evacuating pupils. Police caught him in a nearby town soon after the shooting. Scott Israel, the county sheriff, said his officers are investigating the shooter’s digital profile. What they have found so far, he said, is “very, very disturbing.”

The superintendent of Broward County’s public schools, Robert Runcie, appeared to blame the killing on the poor state of Americans’ mental health. “What I’ll tell you is that mental health issues in this country are growing and it’s a challenge.” That is an explanation favoured on the right. It does not take account of the fact that the toll of gun violence in other rich countries, with comparable health indicators, is negligible by comparison. America’s gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than a group of 22 other developed countries, according to the American Journal of Medicine. This is mainly because America has so many more guns than those other countries. It has less than 5% of the world’s population and almost half of the world’s civilian-owned firearms.

Not convinced of a connection there? There is more. Florida, where more than 1.4m people have licences to carry concealed weapons, has some of the laxest gun laws. To buy an AR-15 rifle, the model used by Mr Cruz, which is based on the M-16 assault rifle, requires a background check so cursory the authorities almost might as well not bother. It takes a few minutes. And if you happen to be on the FBI’s terrorist watch-list at the time, no problem. Similar laws put guns in the hands of shooters who killed 14 people during an office Christmas party in California in 2015, 49 people in a Florida nightclub in 2016, and 58 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas in 2017.

Most federal gun legislation is not about banning guns, but allowing them in more places, including college campuses and churches. Indeed a bill making its way through Congress now relates to extending concealed carry laws to states which outlaw concealed weapons. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who represents Connecticut, happened to be on the Senate floor when news of the shooting broke. “We are responsible for a level of mass atrocity that happens in this country with zero parallel anywhere else,” he said.

In response to this latest, wholly predictably, almost habitual, tragedy, President Donald Trump tweeted his “prayers and condolences”. He added: “No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school.” That is true. And if he would like to make them safer, he knows what to do. He simply needs to demand the stricter gun controls Republicans recoil from but which, back in his Democratic years, Mr Trump used to favour.

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