This essay pulls together my observations and my insights about guns. It draws only upon my experiences of being in America. It does not pretend to be based on some rigorous study. Where there are figures and statistics, they can all be found at www.gunviolencearchive.org, a live online resource for all US gun-related incidents, fatal and otherwise.
If you spend time in America, you come to realise that guns are, if not exactly a part of everyday life, at least when they are a part of it, not remarkable. So, my wife and I would come here before we moved, and as a treat, as something to do with her father, we would take a couple of rifles and a handgun out to one of the canyons and turn a load of bottles into glass shards. We always put them on a tarpaulin and collected the bits at the end of the afternoon to take to the recycling.
One of my wife’s uncles is a bit of a gun fanatic. He goes to shows and has two enormous gun safes and apparently a 50-calibre gun that should be bolted to the flatbed of a truck to be fired safely.
Most of the people I know in America do not have any guns.
A really good friend goes to Minnesota for a week every year or so to take a bunch of rifles into the woods with his family to go hunting. They never manage to kill anything.
Here’s a good one. Another of my wife’s uncles has Advanced Myeloid Leukaemia. It’s at late stage, and he occasionally needs to have a blood transfusion, and he needed one this week. The problem was that 500 people had been shot or otherwise injured in Las Vegas on Sunday night. There was no blood available.
This last anecdote illustrates the enormity of that single incident here in America: it disrupted medical treatment for patients in adjacent States. The equivalent of a tragedy in Germany that would affect patients in France or the Netherlands.
As of today, Friday Oct. 6, 2017, there have been 11,825 deaths in America this year caused by guns. 124 of those have happened since the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The gun violence issue here is both chronic and acute. It is the daily reality of a violent country, occasionally punctuated with ‘tent-pole’ events, like Las Vegas where tens of people are shot and killed in a single incident. The annual number of deaths from guns per capita is extraordinary, both at an absolute level and compared to any other developed society. America’s gun violence epidemic is unique.
Why? Why is America so violent?
America’s gun violence is evenly distributed; that is to say that the likelihood of gun violence is the same no matter where in the U.S. you are. Gun deaths are proportional only to the population of the State. So, America is broadly violent.
As a long-time visitor, current resident and committed Atlanticist, it feels very odd to conclude that America is broadly violent. It is implicit that America is the sum of all Americans, so, by extension, American people must be uniquely violent people. How can that possibly be the case? There is no way one could reason that Americans are all individually more violent, or have more of a capacity for violence than any other group of people. Yet the facts about gun violence here in the United States are indisputable. Regarding America’s capacity for violence being exceptional, there are two possibilities:
- Americans are just more violent: that is to say, without guns they would find a way to kill the same number annually that they do currently with access to guns;
- They are not more violent: so, a reduction in the number of guns would remove the easy access to a murder weapon and the homicide rate would fall overall.
The latter (I hope) is correct. Take away the guns, take away the gun violence. Have an amnesty, do a buyback, limit seriously the kinds of guns that are available. Americans, not being preternaturally disposed to violence should find that there are fewer killings as a result.
Keep America Safe & Keep Guns out of Wrong Hands. (Flick / Senate Democrats)
Repeal the Second Amendment
But in America, the right to bear arms, to own a gun, is captured in the Bill of Rights and that presents a unique hurdle to reform. America’s founding fathers were a clever lot. They crafted the Constitution, a document so comprehensive on a system of government that it has been altered, or amended, only 27 times since 1787. And 10 of those amendments were proposed all at once in 1789, ratified in 1791. Those 10 form the Bill of Rights. There are general human rights in here: the right to free speech, free assembly, a free press, and the right to not incriminate oneself, are all examples. But there are also very specific rights enshrined within the document. These were in response to external factors, namely America’s continued suspicion of the British after the Revolutionary War, which had ended only six years before the drafting of the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment is one such specific right and was included so that the nascent United States wouldn’t be susceptible to the British coming over and taking it back into the colonies.
The Constitution is quite rightly held in the highest esteem. It is an incredible document. But it is not infallible and never claimed to be. Take some examples from the Constitution that now seem at the very least anachronistic:
Article I, Section 1:2 enumerates slaves as being valued at three-fifths of a free person;
Article I, Section 9:1 is about how much the U.S. government should tax the importation of slaves.
In 1787, slavery was a real thing that needed to be covered by the Constitution. I would put the Second Amendment into this same camp. It was a real thing, the need to form a militia. It is no longer the case.
Ultimately, America must wrestle with this dichotomy: keep the Second Amendment and its restrictions on regulating gun ownership, or repeal it and regulate firearms in a grown up and responsible manner.
No discussion of guns and gun regulation in America would be complete without some mention of the National Rifle Association. The NRA of America wields real power. It contributes large sums of money to elected officials and their campaigns for re-election. It lobbies those officials at both a State and Federal level to keep restrictions on firearms at a minimum. It has become such an effective lobby group, holding the officials in such thrall, that it is common to hear things like, ‘the NRA wouldn’t go for more gun restrictions’ or, ‘I can’t see the NRA approving of that legislation’, as though the NRA were the legislating body. It is frightening to see the absolute helplessness of all politicians in America in the face of this gun lobby group.
House Majority Whip, Republican Steve Scalise was shot in June as he practised before the Congressional Charity Baseball match. He returned to work this last week. Did he call for more restrictions on firearms? Of course not.
The toxic combination of a very strong lobby group, a political class beholden to the lobby groups, and a pathological protection of the Second Amendment entail loose gun laws. Until those gun laws are changed and guns, all guns, any guns, stop being normal, America will continue to be the world leader in civilian firearms casualties.
In other developed countries, here the United Kingdom is the example, very serious gun incidents have provoked very serious changes to gun laws.
The United Kingdom
The two big recent (30 and 20 years ago, respectively) gun violence events in the UK were at Hungerford and Dunblane. The Hungerford Massacre was 1987. 16 people were killed and at least 15 injured. The shooter killed himself.
Legislation (The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988) was passed prohibiting semi-automatic rifles and banning shotguns with a capacity of more than three cartridges.
The Dunblane Massacre in 1996 remains the deadliest gun violence incident in UK History. 16 children and one teacher were killed before the shooter turned the gun on himself. Rather than the long bore weapons used in Hungerford, this time short bore handguns were used to kill.
The resulting legislation (Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and Firearms (Amendment) (№2) 1997) effectively prohibited all handguns to the extent that the London 2012 Olympics required special dispensation for any of the handguns used in the events to even enter the country.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics, in the 12 months to March 2016, 26 deaths in the UK were attributable to firearms, one of the lowest numbers since 1980.🔷