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Gun violence in the US shows no sign of abating. Three fresh incidents of gun-fire were reported this week in which a total of nine residents of the country got killed. These occurred barely a couple of days after a gunman opened fire at revellers at a party in Los Angeles, taking 11 lives. This frequency speaks of how alarming the problem has become. US records show nearly 650 mass shootings and about 44,000 lives lost to gunshot wounds over the span of 2022 alone. The data is staggering even if such killings have long been endemic. No less eye-popping, at least to distant observers like us, is America’s estimate of about 400 million firearms in people’s hands—more than one per person. This is the direct result of an easy-weapons policy. Sadly, even frequent fatalities have proven insufficient to make the country budge on something that marks it apart and reinforces a caricature of it being the home of trigger-happy cowboys rather than ‘the brave’.

Almost uniquely in the world, gun ownership is seen by rightists in the US as a matter of individual freedom, a right that gun-toting conservatives refuse to give up on the argument of its presumed role in self-defence. They not only want weapons kept at home, but insist on carrying them around, with some states given to hair-splitting over whether their carriage should be concealed or not. It’s people who kill, not guns, they argue, and so law-abiding carriers must not be deprived of their rights for the rogue actions of a few who go on shooting sprees. The flaw in their contention is that while it takes human agency to pull a trigger, easy access to one could make a homicidal impulse just as deadly as actual premeditation. The harder doing anything drastic is, the more likely an application of mind will intervene. Moreover, even matters of liberty must yield to imperatives of collective safety. As an example, India cracked down on acid attacks by tightening acid availability; its utility as a hygiene agent was overshadowed by the horror of its weaponization, no matter how fringe. America must apply similar logic to its gun crisis. It should tighten gun controls so sharply that it contributes to raising instead of lowering US life expectancy.

Unfortunately, firearm curbs remain subject to policy battles between safety-focused Democrats and status-quoist Republicans, with the unhappy outcome that a rifle barred in one state can be bought off the shelf in another. Hopes of a consensus on guns have only grown more elusive as the polity has gotten polarized. For the sake of its own global appeal as an exemplar of liberal democracy, however, the US should look for a way out. It is striking that a country tracing its origin to the 1776 ‘common sense’ that nobody has a divine right to rule, a republican proposition that thankfully has worldwide buy-in today, should let anybody wield the power of life and death quite so easily over a fellow citizen. That technology has made guns more lethal over the years only makes the country look worse from afar to onlookers who expect better sense to prevail on the limits of liberty. Personal freedom has been a vital aspect of the US success story, no doubt, and it also accounts for a chunk of its soft power, the influence it holds over others by the force of charm. But a casual disposition to the force of arms riddles its appeal with holes every time it has a shootout. It could afford this once. But not in the 21st century.

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