It was impossible to remain unmoved by the stories from Connecticut this week. In the space of eight minutes, Adam Lanza killed twenty six people. This has happened before (most recently in July in Colorado) and, unless the USA changes its attitude to gun ownership, it will happen again, and again.
It is the right of Americans to bear arms. It is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the country’s Constitution. The Second Amendment was adopted in 1791 and is part of the Bill of Rights (an addendum to the Constitution). It is thought that the early US lawmakers were heavily influenced by the English Bill of Rights of 1689, in which “Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence”.
In 1689, England had emerged from a bloody Civil War and a period when the Catholic Monarch, James II, fearing for his throne, had attempted to disarm his Protestant subjects. When he was overthrown in favour of the Protestant William of Orange, the Bill of Rights sought to clarify the rights of the English citizen, represented by Parliament, over the Monarch.
The quote from the English Bill of Rights above is incomplete. Taken out of context, it appears to say the same as the US Bill of Rights. So, why aren’t the English exercising their right to have a gun in every home?
Taken within context, the bill makes it clear that it is the right of Protestant citizens not to be disarmed by the King without the consent of Parliament, and that a subject may only bear arms for their defence “suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law”. In other words, only the parliamentary lawmakers, elected by the people, can enact legislation to regulate gun ownership, not the King. It therefore enshrines the expectation that gun ownership will be restricted by law. How different would the US attitude to gun ownership be now had their Bill of Rights accurately reflected the English one?
In 1791, the US had fourteen states and the west was a lawless territory waiting to be colonised. More crucially, America had just won its independence from Britain, framed its Constitution, and formed a union of its separate states. The idea of a federal government was new and a military takeover of the individual states by central government forces feared by many citizens. The inclusion of the Second Amendment, therefore, was important politically in persuading US citizens that the newly formed union would work.
The United States is no longer a fledgling nation. It has grown into the most powerful nation in the world. The fears of the first US citizens are no longer the fears of the modern US citizen. The requirement to bear arms to repel redcoats or raise a militia no longer exists. The Second Amendment is therefore a relic of a bygone people.
It is considered a part of natural law to defend oneself, even if it means committing a crime. When this happens, a plea of self-defence, if proven, will usually result in an acquittal. The arguments of the US pro-gun lobby suggest that the Second Amendment is synonymous with the natural law of defence. They appear to see any threat to remove or restrict guns and gun ownership as an infringement of this basic human right. But, the two are not one and the same. I do not require a gun in my hand to defend myself against a gunman. A bullet-proof vest would be preferable.
Taking the pro-gun lobby’s argument to an extreme, unless you permit all your citizens to bear arms you are infringing the human rights of those who cannot and, more importantly, placing them in danger from those who can, and do, carry guns. Twenty of the victims last week were children. State law does not allow you to own a firearm until you are eighteen in Connecticut. What happened to their right to bear arms?
Clearly, you cannot give children guns. The NRA has suggested placing an armed guard in every school. Only a moment’s thought will tell you that this will not stop a crazed gunman from taking several lives, including that of the guard potentially, since one guard cannot cover the footprint of a whole school.
The answer has to be cultural change. Those media personalities who are campaigning for tighter gun controls are well-placed to do their bit to put pressure on producers to reduce the glamorisation of guns that has become commonplace in US television shows, computer games, and cinema. The rest of us can also show our distaste for this normalising influence by refusing to buy into it. Acceptance of this level of violence in our cultural lives numbs us to the very real effects of it. You only have to look at the faces of the population in Newtown to see what the result of firing several rounds into someone is really like. It’s not entertaining, it’s not harmless fun, and the dead don’t get up afterwards to wash the fake blood off.
After 221 years, the right to bear arms is so embedded in the culture of the US that only a seed-change will result in calls for tighter gun laws, and an amnesty allowing people to hand in their weapons. Then, the world might witness the US end its love affair with gun-violence and state that “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do” revoke the Second Amendment.
Make no mistake, restrictive gun laws, such as we have in Britain, do not stop shootings happening, but they make them less frequent. Occurrences in Britain, of a similar nature to that in Connecticut and Colorado, are as follows: 1987 (16 people), 1996 (17 people), and 2010 (12 people). Only one of these was a school shooting specifically. The US has had eighteen school shootings during the same period.
This summer two unarmed police officers were shot in Manchester when they answered a hoax call regarding a house burglary. Gun crime is on the increase in the UK. Even after losing two of their own, the British police force remain steadfast in their refusal to carry firearms. Their reasoning is that it doesn’t stop police officers from getting shot, and that it would change the relationship of the police to the public. The British police force patrol our streets by the consent of the population. In other words, the force works for the people not for the state. It is not an army, and it needs to remain approachable by the public.
One of the most interesting reasons that the police give for not carrying weapons routinely is the burden of responsibility. When a police officer in Britain takes a life in the line of duty, the inquiry into the shooting brings home to unarmed officers the weight of responsibility that armed officers take on. I wonder how many of the US citizens who rushed out to buy more guns after the Connecticut shooting understand the burden they are taking on?
There can only be one reason for the modern US citizen to own a gun: to shoot something or someone. It is as simple as that.
Consider: Had the disturbed young man at the centre of the Connecticut massacre had no ready access to guns, he still might have rampaged, he still might have taken lives, but using a knife he might have managed six victims before someone stopped him. I know this because in the summer of 2011 exactly that happened in a domestic incident that took place near where I live.
Copyright © 2012 Liberation Publishing (www.liberationpublishing.co.uk)