Sean Thomas

Is there a British version of America’s attachment to guns?

Is there a British version of America’s attachment to guns?
(Photo: Getty)
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Now that the horror of the Uvalde school shooting in Texas has begun to ebb away, as it always does, it is easy to think that things have returned to normal. And in America, they certainly have returned to normal. That is to say, the mass shootings continue, at the rate of about 11 a week, with a total of around 300 so far this year. As things stand, America is on course for its deadliest year of gun violence ever (equalling last year).

Here are a few details of just some of these slayings.

At the beginning of this June, an angry patient in Tulsa, Oklahoma shot dead his surgeon, Preston Phillips, then shot dead another doctor, plus a receptionist and a bystander – after he blamed one of the physicians for causing him pain from a recent surgery. The shooter, Michael Louis, later shot himself. He’d bought an AR-15 rifle that same afternoon.

The next day, June 2, convicted murderer Gonzalo Lopez (recently escaped from a prison bus) attacked a family at their ranch near Centerville, Texas. Lopez shot dead 68-year-old grandfather Mark Collins; he also shot dead four of Collin’s young grandsons. After the mass killing, Lopez stole the family truck, fled 200 miles, but was shot dead by police.

And on and on it goes. Three shot dead and 14 injured in Chattanooga, Tennessee (June 5). Three shot dead and one injured in Portsmouth, Virginia (June 7). Three shot dead and two injured in Saginaw, Michigan (June 5). As with Uvalde, the mind blanks at the glare of this endless horror. And then we all turn away, ascribing it to some peculiar and unique American madness which is all to do with guns, and America’s devotion to guns, enshrined in the US Constitution.

But is this attraction to guns unique? Is it not possible that other countries, societies, elites have similar and remarkable blind-spots, where they are unable to see themselves as other see them, and they persist with institutions and systems that the rest of the world finds bewildering? One could mention the EU elite, with its slavish adoration of ‘The Project’, even when it condemns entire countries (for example Greece) to prolonged poverty. Communism is surely another such folly; it is easy to forget that many truly believed in communism, inside the party and out. It is said that Gorbachev himself hoped to save communism, right up until the moment it fell over.

And what about the NHS in Britain? At the risk of edging into blasphemy, I wonder if our quasi-religious attachment to a peculiar and flawed ‘tradition’, the NHS, is much closer to the American example than we’d like to admit. Yes, there are obvious, enormous differences. Guns exist to take lives, or, at best, to stop others from taking lives. The NHS exists to save lives, or at least to prolong lives as best it can. But take a deep breath and a big step back, and there are echoes.

Consider the historic parallels between the NHS, and America’s right-to-bear-arms and second Amendment (and all that flows from the second). Both the NHS and the second Amendment are deeply rooted in their nation's histories, and were formed at a time of great change and emotion. The NHS dates back to 1948, and the almost-revolutionary Labour government which swept to power after world war two. The second Amendment dates back to 1791, and it emerged from another war, and an actual revolution.

Moreover and more importantly, because of their genesis both institutions are encoded into the emotional DNA of their respective countries, and are key to national self perception. We Britons like to think the NHS somehow defines us in a nice way: as caring, sharing and generous. Many Americans similarly believe the second amendment defines America in a proud way: as rugged, free and individualistic. Both institutions evoke worshipful responses from politicians and people which are out of all proportion to any utility.

Both institutions are likewise seen as practically untouchable, and are thus incapable of real reform, even when they manifestly don't work as well as they could, and even when they don’t work at all. Any significant attempt to tighten US gun law, at a federal level, is met with allergic reactions of ‘My God they want to disarm the people’, and politicians briskly retreat. At the same time any timid evolution of the NHS is met with hysterical Guardian-esque squeals of ‘they want to privatise the Health service and charge you for ambulance rides!’, and we see the same back-pedalling from UK authorities.

And this stuff hurts Britain. Why? Because the NHS, supposedly the ‘envy of the world’, isn’t very good.

In rankings of global health services the UK rarely comes close to best. World Population Review puts us tenth. Global Residence Index puts the NHS at 27th. Yes, 27th. In one index we might be fourth, but in another we are 22nd. You could argue a ranking of 22nd isn’t so bad – if it weren’t for that fact that we now spend more per capita on health than any developed country except Germany and the USA. On top of that, the UK’s outcomes on serious illnesses, like cancer, are some of the worst in the OECD. The NHS might be staffed with thousands of dedicated, eager, and wonderful people, but it is literally and expensively killing Britons.

And yet we still revere this thing. Indeed, our worship of the NHS can reach levels of surreality that would make a shotgun-totin’ buffalo-horn-sportin’ NRA member positively cringe with embarrassment. I am referring, of course, to the day we had a ritual dance in sacred honour of the NHS at the Opening of the 2012 London Olympics. Think about that. We did that. At least the Americans don’t dress up as cowboys and pirouette around a symbolic assault rifle in front of 700 million bewildered global TV viewers. Perhaps at the next London Games we should have mass ballroom dancing in honour of PAYE, or maybe million-strong operas to celebrate vehicle licensing.

Consider this also: what do other countries perceive, when they look at us, worshipping our somewhat mediocre if kindly and well-meaning health System? I suggest that they probably think we are mad. That this is some opaque national weirdness, inexplicable to outsiders, stemming from a unique and contorted backstory. In other words, they probably think of us the same way we think of Americans, when it comes to guns.