Imagine you’re British, and sitting in a restaurant in the US city of Athens, Georgia. Athens is home to more than 100,000 people, many of whom are students at the local University of Georgia. There’s beer on the table, and the guy sitting opposite you – a well-educated, good humoured electrical engineering student – has just lifted the flap of his checked shirt to reveal a handgun.
He informs you, with a cheerful grin, that it’s loaded.
For many in Georgia, a state in the heart of America’s traditionally conservative Deep South, this situation would barely be worth notice. However, as those who listened to /truth’s recent podcast on European attitudes will know, this was a significant and discomforting revelation for a Brit. I’d never even seen a firearm up close, let alone gone out for dinner with one tucked in my belt. My companion laughed at my unease and assured me that I was, if anything, safer in his company than I would have been if he didn’t have the capability to kill within easy reach.
I explained that in Britain he would currently be committing an extremely serious crime. He simply laughed and said: “I’m not surprised, the last time you guys had guns you took over half the world!” It was as casual as that. A non-issue.
Gun ownership in the wider United States, however, is a very contentious issue, and /truth will conclude our three part series on that debate with an in depth analysis of the various factors at play, and seek to present a balanced, honest analysis.
The second amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” This wording is rather open to interpretation: on the one hand, it implies that the law pertains to ‘regulated militia’; on the other, it applies to individuals classed as ‘the people’. The most recent Supreme Court ruling interprets the amendment as follows: “[the second amendment] protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes,” which clearly allows individual possession of firearms. The law, then, is on the side of those who want to own a gun.
This standpoint is important, as it allows for two foundations: firstly, that the onus is on those who wish to develop stricter gun control to bring forward and pass legislation. The second is that the right to own firearms is sanctified in America’s Bill of Rights, a factor that holds great significance in the United States’ traditionally patriotic and conservative culture. By extension, any acts which would infringe on the second amendment would also infringe on the Bill of Rights; such infringement would be seen as an attack upon America, and therefore face extreme opposition from all corners.
This forms the first cornerstone of the argument used by opponents of gun control: that restricting ownership of firearms by attacking the Bill of Rights would be a precursor to Federal Government dictatorship. This may sound extreme, but it touches upon a very real American fear: appearing opposite the host on ‘Piers Morgan Tonight’, Alex Jones said that, “The Second Amendment isn’t there for duck hunting, it’s there to protect us from tyrannical government and street thugs.”
John Rocker, former Major League Baseball star and columnist at WorldNetDaily, agreed – but then went one step further: “the Holocaust would have never taken place had the Jewish citizenry of Hitler’s Germany had the right to bear arms and defended themselves with those arms.”
Furthermore, such extreme thinking is not limited to former athletes who make a living garnering traffic on conservative news websites. CEO and executive vice-president of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, wrote in his book ‘Guns, Crime and Freedom’ the following: “firearm registration helped lead to the Holocaust.”
LaPierre is also a great proponent of the other cornerstone in the pro-gun ownership lobby’s argument, that, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The theory relies on the assumption that bad guys with guns can and do appear, and that the only way to stop them is to fight fire with fire. In this respect, guns become essential for self defence.
This idea rests on a cultural factor, elucidated for /truth by Sabrina Ramos, 23, a student at California State University Long Beach: “Like it or not, guns are prevalent here in the US. They are a part of our history, and played a positive role in the founding of our nation. They exist, there are a lot of them, and they are not difficult to get hold of.
“They are also viewed with a much more positive and less fearful attitude than in Europe – people are not scared by the very sight of one, because they are a day-to-day reality. Guns here are normal.”
The point being: guns exist, and bad people exist. If you cannot protect yourself against that combination, you are vulnerable.
Those in favour of gun control, however, also have some legal basis in the second amendment to support their views. In the same Supreme Court ruling that clarifies an individual’s right to firearm ownership, it states that, “the right [to bear arms] is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
This provides a foundation from which restrictive legislation can be put in place, such as the acts passed in the states of New York and Colorado, banning magazines with a capacity of greater than fifteen rounds, and in the case of New York, assault-type weapons.
The motivation for anti-firearm campaigners, however, is very different to their counterparts. In contrast to the gun lobby’s rationalist ‘he has a gun so I need a gun’ mentality, those in favour of gun control draw their inspiration from an idealist standpoint. Working from the reasoning that a world with fewer guns is a safer and better place, pacifist organisations such as codepink attempt to influence policy via traditional strategies such as highly visible protests, rallies and stunts, such as the recent forced interruption of an NRA press conference regarding the Sandy Hook massacre, as mentioned in part one of this series.
This side has many influential and respected supporters, including that of President Obama himself, as well as his wife Michelle. Another supporter is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams: “Nearly 6,000 children and teenagers were killed by firearms in the USA in just two years. It makes a difference to people what weapons are at hand for them to use and even more what happens to people in a culture where fear is rampant and the default response to frightening or unsettling situations or personal tensions is violence and the threat of violence.”
This point is a key reason gun control advocates want greater restriction: by arming teachers and school security, as the NRA would have it, guns in close proximity to children becomes normalised. This has clear consequences in regard to both the future culture of the nation, carried on the shoulders of those children, and the current cultural relationship with firearms.
Here we reach the real crux of the problem. Neither side, neither rationalist nor idealist, can be quite correct, and that has a lot to do with America’s cultural appreciation of firearms.
On the side of the gun owners, the idea that a good guy can stop a bad guy falls short on one key point: the bad guy always shoots first, which means somebody will likely die. By restricting access to guns, this problem can be better avoided; in which case NRA opposition to stronger restrictions on who can and cannot purchase a firearm makes no sense.
However, the proponents of gun control face the problem of idealism: simply removing all guns from the US is not possible, as firearms are so deeply ingrained in American culture. It would also be disrespectful to the perfectly responsible majority who abide by the laws and use their weapons responsibly. Not only that, but should laws be too restrictive, illegal gun owners, such as criminal gang members, will have greater power over the law abiding populace.
The debate can, however, move forward. Long term goals relating to eradicating the normalcy of guns in America are achievable, and over the course of decades, cultural changes can be affected. In the short term, however, compromise is needed. At the moment, many Americans, particularly young Americans, are in favour of reasonable gun restrictions, such as stricter and more extensive background checks on buyers. The problem is that this support is not reflected in the Senate, where attempts to pass such controls have been defeated, even after moderation. The pressure of the NRA and wider gun lobby has a lot to do with this; and as much as it is the onus of the supporters of gun control to bring forward legislation, it is the onus of the NRA and other gun ownership groups to compromise, and so long as they are unwilling to do so, little will actually change.