Since the pre-election summer of 2016 we have seen America struggling with a grave civil crisis. While the clash between Clinton and Trump raged, the States no longer seem so United, but rather closed on themselves and searching for a way out.
Risk, fear and security are key words in the White House election campaign. All summer, the killings of African Americans by police officers filled the international news and social networks around the world, sparking a new and unsolved debate on the social character of being “African American” in the U.S. Then last July, the degeneration plumbed new depths in Dallas, when Micha Johnson, a 25-year-old former soldier, killed five white officers and wounded seven more during a demonstration against police violence towards blacks.
The carnage testified above all to one thing: eight years of Obama’s presidency had failed to heal racial tensions in America, to the point of turning violence between whites and blacks into a dangerous factor in elections. The dream seemed close at hand, yet the gulf separating whites and blacks for four centuries was gaping again. “The rapprochement has not created harmony,” wrote Alessandro Portelli, historian and expert on American culture, “but friction, wounds that continue to bleed. And the bullets have continued to fly, as they have done through centuries of slavery, lynching, segregation and racism.”
But the Obama phase failed on another point. The president did not succeed in overcoming Congress’s resistance in Washington to limiting the right to own firearms, protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The main problem is the stranglehold that the National Rifle Association has on Washington politics. This powerful political lobby, tenaciously committed since 1871 to the free sale of firearms, is primarily responsible for the resistance of the Americans to giving up their own weapons of “defence”.
Even in this case, trying to change things triggered the opposite effect: and so in recent months there has been an increase in purchases of arms by citizens alarmed at fear of new and highly restrictive laws. Perhaps, however, the most complicated problem is not just legal, or political, but social. “What we need to take action on,” says Maged Srour, a researcher with Archivio Disarmo – is the very idea of the need to have weapons. The biggest challenge the United States faces today is to understand that the possession of weapons does not guarantee greater security. On the contrary it will increase the risks and numbers of victims.”
In the heart of America
America is a complex country, which expresses all its contradictions in broad daylight and unhesitatingly. There are over 300 million weapons in circulation in the hands of around 80 million citizens. Among Americans who claimed to have a weapon at home, 62% said they owned more than one; 74% choose a rifle, 68% a pistol, 17% a semi-automatic weapon and 8% some other firearm. Here weapons are social status, the hallmark of the all-American: a sign of belonging, like a Confederate seal worn on the chest.
We are in the State of New York, exemplary heart of the United States, where we can grasp all the social facets of the country. Here you realize just how trendy guns are when you see the parking sign for disabled people depicts a man in a wheelchair aiming in a rifle. As if to say: “Watch out, I’m disabled, but if you steal my place I know how to defend myself.” Italy would be strewn with massacres.
In Rochester I meet Santino: he is of Italian descent and a great lover of all types and kinds of firearms. He expresses his love for Italy by sporting a blue polo shirt featuring “Beretta“, the famous Italian brand of firearms made in the province of Brescia, founded in 1526. ”I love Beretta,” he begins. “It’s a great make, the state of the art in the field. I have one too. You want to see it?” He proudly shows off his semiautomatic, hidden in a drawer of the car. “This means freedom,” he says. Freedom as understood in America, shot through with different and contradictory meanings.
Santino seems determined, like so many American citizens born and raised in a society that has always taken the concept of individual liberty and defence to an extreme. He considers the right to bear arms a real extension of those ideals. “I have no problem with shooting if I have to protect myself,” he continues. “For instance, a couple of weeks ago we heard shots. Someone had killed a drug dealer with an Ak47 because he was demanding money. Here I can have a gun like that easily. So what? One criminal less! Should that guy have let himself be murdered?”
“Isn’t it a kind of dangerous freedom? For example, if you get into a quarrel with someone, you might just pull out a gun and shoot him,“ I insist.
“That only happens with the mentally ill. It’s a question that goes beyond gun ownership. A lot of people here have weapons, so we should all be exterminated!” Actually things aren’t going too well. In 2014 alone a total of 11,299 crimes were committed with firearms: 32 a day or 5.2 per 100,000 inhabitants (five times the level in other developed countries).
While he takes me to a shop selling firearms, I try to connect the social aspect to domestic politics. “So will you be voting for Trump at the next election?” I ask. “Yes, right. Trump has guaranteed he won’t touch the freedom to bear arms in our country, which is necessary to defend ourselves now and in future. For us it’s fundamental.”
Yes, today it is Trump who embodies that libertarian US tradition that aggressively defends individual freedoms. The “guns megastore” is the Eden of all lovers of weapons of any calibre. Sniper rifles, shotguns, automatic rifles, old-fashioned revolvers, and again precision sights, bullets and dozens of specialist brands. Young and old are asking for information at the counter, others are trying out their toys with covetous and fascinated expressions. It looks like a playground for adults and freaks, but it’s simply the picture of one of the most representative historical-cultural aspects of the United States. Americans are still cowboys and America is the Far West.