Schoolchildren, teachers, cinemagoers, Sikhs, Christians, husbands, wives, sons and daughters – all have been among the casualties in recent years as America’s vicious gun culture continues to spiral out of control…
Mass shootings are an almost exclusively American phenomenon among advanced nations, with over 32,000 people killed on American soil by firearms every year. This is perhaps no surprise given that, at 88%, it has the highest level of gun ownership in the world, with almost as many firearms as people. The most recent, horrifying tragedies include the 26 murdered at Sandy Hook school, Connecticut, and the shooting at Charleston Church in June this year, in which nine members of a predominantly black congregation were killed. Yesterday there was yet another shooting which has shocked the world and America itself – a country seemingly immune to its own torrid history of gun violence. Footage has been released of two journalists killed during a live TV report on a Virginia television channel.
It’s clearly a serious problem. But why is it so prevalent in the United States, and why hasn’t anything been done?
A good starting point is the second amendment. You know the one: “The right to bear arms”. It was one of several amendments made to the American Constitution to protect people from the threat of a tyrannical, overbearing government. So the right to have a gun is right up there with the freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial, right? Maybe not…
If we take a closer look at the second amendment, the first thing you’ll notice is the slightly strange wording and grammar, which certainly leaves it open to interpretation. There are a couple of things you need to know. The ‘Militias’ mentioned were, at the time, organised groups of soldiers defending the interests of individual states. For almost 200 years the common interpretation of the amendment put into practice by the courts was that, outside of a regulated militia, individuals do not have the right to gun ownership. ‘Bearing arms’, at the time of the amendment at least, was exclusively a phrase reserved for military conflict. So in reality the amendment states that organised militias had the right, and in many ways the duty, to carry weapons. This was just in case the central government got a bit too big for its boots. So how did this interpretation of the amendment change? That’s where the National Rifle Association comes in…
The NRA’s growing influence over American public opinion and legislation is nothing short of incredible. In the last 30 years they have become one of the most powerful lobby groups in American politics. With a grassroots membership of over 4 million people, and backing from the weapons manufacturers that stand to lose out financially should gun control be brought in, they’ve quickly become a formidable force. It’s strange to think that as recently as the 1960s, the National Rifle Association was little more than a gun-safety and training organisation. In 1977 the NRA leadership was replaced by several staunch conservatives and they became overtly politicised, publicly embracing the alternative reading of the second amendment. At the same time several other traditional conservative organisations galvanized support with a similar message, sparking a rise in public opinion against gun control, which became official Republican policy in time for Ronald Reagan to win the American presidency in 1981. After writing a pro-gun article in Guns & Ammo Magazine (it really exists) he received the NRA’s first ever endorsement. It’s quite a political feat that the NRA have managed to make what was a previously radical position on gun control part of the mainstream Conservative consensus. They now stand in the way of any kind of gun reform, under the pretence of protecting American citizen’s constitutional rights, conveniently defending the profits of their gun-producing backers.
What can be done?
In the face of several high-profile mass shootings during his tenure, Barack Obama has repeatedly called for tougher measures on gun control to be ratified by congress. In the wake of the Newtown school shooting in 2013, families of the murdered children watched from the Senate gallery as amendments to extend background checks, ban high capacity magazines and assault weapons were all voted down by NRA-backed Republicans. Sadly it looks as though as long as upholding the second amendment is, with strong backing from the NRA, a cornerstone of Republican policy, gun control is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Unsurprisingly the White House has come out and said that yesterday’s shooting highlights the need for gun control, but, as with the reaction to Obama’s statements following the Newtown school and Charleston shootings, there’s always a backlash from Republicans and the NRA, who claim the President is scoring cheap political points at an insensitive time. So when is it a good time to talk about gun control?
Does gun control work?
There are two ways of looking at this. Let’s start with Switzerland.
The Swiss can be compared to the Americans for two reasons. Firstly, as a democratic nation they are of a similar age, and went through a similar process in becoming a nation after a civil war. Second, the Swiss population are right up there with number of guns per head, with almost 50% of residents owning private weapons. Yet interestingly, Switzerland has a remarkably low crime rate when compared with the USA. This instead suggests gun violence is intertwined with American culture, and shows that the availability of guns doesn’t necessarily mean violent crime will increase. It seems that a widespread change of attitude is desperately needed, and the most recent example we have of that comes from Australia.
In 1996, a man killed 35 people in the Tasmanian town of Port Arthur. This led to a huge shift in Australian public opinion, in, what had been up until then, a country with a very liberal policy on guns. The National Firearms Agreement was quickly brought in by conservative Prime Minister John Howard, banning rapid-fire automatic weapons and setting up an amnesty forcing citizens to hand in their weapons. Licensing, registration and storage all became strictly regulated. And it’s worked: Mass shootings have stopped, gun suicides and violent crimes are down, and it’s estimated in some states that as many as 200 lives per year have been saved. Could this work in the US? Perhaps, but it remains to be seen how bad these tragedies have to get before public opinion starts to turn. And as long as the NRA continue to fiercely campaign for their interpretation of the second amendment, it’s unlikely that the political will would develop enough to bring about real change.
I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions…But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. – Thomas Jefferson.