The United States is the only country where owning a gun is considered a God-given right. For some, perhaps, it is merely held to be a constitutional right (in this, it stands with only three other countries: Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico.) But whatever level of divinity is bestowed upon it, the gun is American culture’s Golden Calf.
After the horrifying shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, where twenty children, along with six adults, were repeatedly shot dead, half the country demanded limitations on the availability of guns, especially semi-automatic weaponry.
The other half, incredibly, argued that guns were not the problem and, in a refrain that was far too common, suggested that if the teachers were armed, the killer would have been stopped. The vociferousness with which this proposal was put forward, was astonishing, considering the bloodshed. Support came from a variety of establishment quarters, and included numerous and prominent Republican officials.
Unfortunately, firearms advocates have constitutional backing, which plays no small part in undergirding our country’s culture of violence. The US Constitution was a groundbreaking document in its day, even if it has been improved upon in other countries since. However, the Second Amendment to that Constitution, which grants Americans the right to own guns, was a masterpiece of vagueness that has left a bloody legacy behind it.
Throughout American history, the wording of that amendment has been debated, with some arguing that it grants every individual citizen the right to a gun. Others argued that the text — “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.” — only meant that States had the right to arm authorized citizens in their service, so that the federal government did not have a monopoly on firearms. That debate, however, was severely tilted in 2008, when the US Supreme Court declared, for the first time, that indeed it was an individual right. That made the battle to control the guns a lot harder.
But this goes far beyond handguns. Gun fanatics always want bigger and more powerful weapons, equivalent, at least in firepower, to those carried by American soldiers. It’s a frequently misunderstood desire, but one which creates enormous obstacles to controlling the abuse of firearms. Hence, President Barack Obama faces a major battle in Congress over many aspects of his new gun control plan, which includes a measure to restore a ban on private citizens owning military-grade assault rifles, such as AK-47s, and the M4s common to US ground troops.
Does this issue matter for people outside the borders of the United States? You bet. The United States is far and away the leader in selling weapons around the world. In 2011, US exports accounted for 78% of the global arms trade. For perspective, Russia was second at 5.6%. And it’s not just military equipment sold to foreign countries. The US is also the clear leader in small arms exports, including sales by private companies of handguns and other weapons intended for purchase by civilians. We export our gun culture throughout the world. Indeed, the frequent preference by many in Washington for military rather than diplomatic solutions comes from the same sort of thinking.
Guns have a special place in American history. For many, the root of their firearms passion goes back to their view of the country’s founders, who they believe wanted to ensure that the citizenry remained armed. Certainly, many of those founders did fear the consequences they saw in a disarmed populace. The experience of fighting the much better-armed British army, and the fear of a federal government turning to tyranny, was certainly a driving force for some of them. There was also the fact that many of them were very worried that a disarmed citizenry would lead to slave revolts, while others fretted about how settlers would defend themselves from the indigenous Native American population they were in the process of wiping out.
That was only the beginning of a racist basis for gun ownership. While it would be grossly unfair to say that all gun zealots are motivated by “fear of the Black Man,” it cannot be ignored that white supremacists remain an enthusiastic part of US gun culture, nor that there remains an iconic image of the African-American male as threat to white people, necessitating that they arm themselves. Not surprisingly, while white Americans favor tighter gun control by a 51%-42% margin, among African Americans, that margin swells to 68%-24%.
However, the argument over what the country’s founders might have wanted is a silly one. They lived in a vastly different world than 21st century America. What they would have thought about the sort of weapons that are easily available today is an unanswerable question. Moreover, the notion of an armed citizenry being a buffer against a government that will always be vastly better armed is absurd, yet, unfortunately, all too common.
In the years following independence, the US government was easily able to put down rebellions with overwhelming force, and today even more so. The inevitable end result of an armed standoff with the feds has been demonstrated over and over, with the government always victorious. The arming of those opposing the US government has generally meant that, unless they lay down their arms, they end up dead instead of in prison. See here for the results of such events at Waco, Texas and here for the Ruby Ridge fiasco, where a religious cult, and a white supremacist, respectively, tried to use guns to fight off federal security forces.
But the same thinking takes on a xenophobic aspect when it seeps into a survivalist mentality in the event of a foreign invasion of the United States. Once again, imagine a force capable of launching a major land invasion of the US. Will commercial weapons, even a roomful of them, offer protection for a family or a small community in the face of foreign combat troops? The notion is preposterous, yet it has a powerful hold on many Americans. To wit, many train, as private militiamen, for such an eventuality, using hunting rifles, bows and arrows, and the like.
So unless one wants to argue that private citizens should be permitted to purchase any weaponry, including fighter jets, land mines, and even nuclear weapons, the notion of defending against an army with private armaments is an obvious non-starter. Historically, the sort of guerrilla warfare that does work in such circumstances has not required the free availability of arms. Someone is always willing to arm such groups when they deem it beneficial to their interests.
Firearms advocates also frequently argue that guns prevent crime. It is for this reason, that many Americans are insistent on their right to own weaponry. No doubt, there are times that a person having a gun prevents a violent crime. But the belief that this is a reasonable defense, albeit a necessity, is based on a myth. That myth has always been rooted in popular culture. For example, you can’t turn on an American television show, or watch a feature film, where a gun is not seen, or brandished in self-defense. In real life, this is a rare event, but a 1995 study by Gary Kleck and Marc Gertz claimed that about 2.5 million such crimes were prevented or thwarted by armed citizens annually.
The claim is an obvious lie even before you really examine it. In 1993, the year Kleck and Gertz studied, there were about 260 million people in the US, about one-fifth of them children. Thus, at that rate, very few adults would not have defended themselves against a crime, with a gun, or know someone who did. The study was widely debunked, but for America’s gun lobby, it remains received truth.
This sort of academic dishonesty, coupled with a culture that, both from our history and our media are inundated with the virtues of firearms, is what gives the country’s preeminent firearms advocacy organization, the National Rifle Association (NRA) its power. The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country, a group that can make or break politicians just like the vaunted Israel advocacy organization, AIPAC. Taking them on is no easy task, despite a well-established gun control lobby, which works hard to counter that influence.
The NRA was once an organization that worked for responsible ownership and use of guns. They once believed that guns should be sold only to those who could demonstrate need and worthiness of being trusted to wield the. Those days are long gone. The NRA now advocates virtually unlimited access to firearms for individual citizens. And they have the power in Washington to pursue these ideas.
The NRA needs phony studies like the one by Kleck and Gertz. Handguns murders in the United States accounted for 68% of murders in 2011. It’s not surprising, when we consider that there are 89 guns per 100 people in the United States. The pervasiveness of firearms puts gun murders here well out of line with other developed countries.
It’s not just homicide, but also suicide that is enabled by the easy availability of handguns. In 2009, guns accounted for more than half of all suicides in the US, more than twice as many as any other method. Americans don’t simply choose another method if the guns aren’t there. For example, when the Israeli military stopped allowing soldiers to take their guns home with them after they finished their mandatory service, suicide rates plunged. It makes a difference.
Despite a mounting number of incidents, of unstable individuals going on killing sprees, (does anybody remember Aurora?) President Obama is still going to have a tough time getting his gun control measures passed. Unfortunately, when they do become law, these measures will be watered down, and at risk for nullification by the US Supreme Court. How real is this danger? Consider the words of Justice Antonin Scalia: “Obviously the (Second) Amendment does not apply to arms that cannot be hand-carried — it’s to keep and “bear,” so it doesn’t apply to cannons — but I suppose here are hand-held rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes, that will have to be decided.”
If individual ownership of rocket launchers can pass the laugh test, how can we expect this man, who may be the most rightwing Supreme Court justice, to consider a mere semi-automatic rifle to be beyond the pale? Scalia’s troubled worldview epitomizes how deeply pro-firearm ownership sentiment penetrates America’s judicial establishment. Such opinions ought to have no place on the bench, particularly that of a country’s top judiciary. It is a testimony to how difficult it is to initiate any reformist endeavors, such as that currently being undertaken by the White House.
In this light, it is also important to remember that guns are far from the only factor informing the violent mentality of Americans. Government neglect of mental healthcare, for example, is a big part of why so many shooting incidents are occurring, as is of course, our continually crisis-ridden economy. Might they have anything to do with class? Why so few political analysts cite social factors, in explaining the rise in gun violence, is of course telling. This is why the issue cannot be solved simply through legislation. But part of changing this situation is changing the law, and changing the law means making guns less available. I can’t think of a better place to start.