License to Kill

28 Dec 2012

* December Article of the Month *

“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.” When Thomas Jefferson signed the Second Amendment which was adopted into law in 1791, he probably did not envisage these fateful words underpinning a government policy that made the massacre of twenty children possible on December 14.


The Sandy Hook carnage, which saw a twenty-year old man armed with a semi-automatic rifle with an extended magazine and two semi-automatic handguns enter an elementary school and go on a ten-minute rampage, leaving twenty children (mostly six and seven year olds) and six teachers dead, has largely receded from the headlines. President Obama made his fourth visit to a community rocked by a mass shooting, proffering heartfelt sympathy and a promise to make progress on gun control, only to return to Washington to haggle with obdurate Republicans over the impending fiscal cliff. Of course, to conflate these two issues would be wrong: the debt has to be dealt with now whilst gun control can wait, for a bit. Hopes were raised that Obama’s would not be empty promises, by the combination of the sheer scale of indignation at the massacre that swept the country and the fact that Obama does not have to worry about re-election anymore. The public outrage will fade, as is only natural, but Obama’s promise to act within weeks still stands. Unfortunately, so do the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to enacting stricter gun control.

Let’s go back to Jefferson and the Second Amendment. Upon first reading, that sentence, despite its questionable grammatical integrity, does not unequivocally guarantee the right of American individuals to carry arms. In fact, what it actually says and what was upheld by the courts for over a hundred years was that state militias had a right to bear arms, not individuals. Then came the landmark District of Columbia v. Heller 2008 judgement which decided the second clause trumped the first on militias and that therefore the federal government could not ban handguns. As Jeffrey Toobin, writing in theNew Yorker, helpfully points out, in the twenty-first century, Justice Antonin Scalia could not enshrine the right of individuals to bear the latest military machinery, however ring-fencing handguns proved a suitable political compromise because “handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defence in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid.” What this shows is that the precise meaning of the Second Amendment is not set in stone, or paper for that matter. Just because a constitution is written does not mean it cannot evolve like an unwritten one as the values of a country change. However, it does mean that hawks in the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) can cling to words written in a completely outdated context to wage a veritable political campaign. Richard Feldman, from the Independent Firearms Owners Association, said that it would be unconstitutional for the government to “come and get the guns” because the “Supreme Court has already ruled on this issue.” Except the Supreme Court has changed its outlook over the decades based on the tides in public opinion, so the case is anything but closed.

So we can now move from these rather arcane constitutional debates to the guns themselves. In 2011 the total of firearm homicides in the US was 11,101. To put this figure into perspective, consider that in 2008-2009 39 people died from crimes involving firearms in England and Wales, compared to 12,000 in the US in 2008. Even if we adjust for population, that of England and Wales is about one-sixth of America’s, leaving the number staggeringly high. More people are killed by firearms every year than the total number of US military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. And finally, 31 people die every day from firearm homicides. Is it really plausible to argue that the circulation of 300m guns in America has no connection whatsoever to these statistics? If it is not about the guns, but about the people, then does America really have so many more mentally deranged mass murderers than other countries? Even this muddies the waters of the debate however, because mass shootings are only one type of murder adding to the firearm death toll; therefore we must ask whether Americans at large have some innate murderous proclivity that accounts for these figures. Feldman goes on to state that the problem with guns involves “clearly mentally deranged individuals [...] we have a failed mental health system now in this country, and if we don't put resources into getting at these people before they commit such horrible acts we're not going to solve this problem.” Well that clears it up. I am sure we can all agree that the reason Britain, Canada and Australia, to name but a few, have such drastically lower firearm death rates is because their mental health systems are infinitely better than America’s. One would surely have to be mentally deranged to posit a correlation between the number of guns and the number of murders.

Modern studies of criminal violence have shown that crime, of all kinds, is to some extent opportunistic. As Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker, “even madmen need opportunities to display their madness, and behave in different ways depending on the possibilities at hand.” That is why, on the same day that Adam Lanza unleashed his madness on defenceless children, a fellow madman in China who burst into a classroom “only” managed to sever a few ears and fingers. Had he had a gun in his hands, would he not have used it instead of his measly knife? Or perhaps Min Yongjun had been to see his therapist earlier who had successfully dissuaded him from using his semi-automatic rifle. It is one thing to argue for tightening gun controls to prevent people with mental health issues getting their hands on them given the many loopholes in existing law; it is quite another to claim that guns are simply not the problem.

Opponents of stricter gun control seem to employ the mutual deterrence line of reasoning: if only everyone had guns, then no one would use them. Just like nuclear weapons. If only the teachers at Sandy Hook had been armed with guns themselves the massacre might have been prevented, or in any case stopped midway. Either Adam Lanza, knowing that all teachers carry guns in an elementary school, would have simply abandoned his crazy plans (but this undermines the argument that putting up barriers – like no guns - to the execution of crimes would have no deterrent effect on the mentally deranged) or a teacher would have stood up against this lone madman in some sort of heroic counterattack. The words of Wayne LaPierre, executive vice-president of the N.R.A., at a recent press conference would be anathema in any country not at war. He said that people “driven by demons” along with a “much larger, more lethal criminal class,” were among Americans and that the only way to stop them was with guns—more specifically with “armed security in every school” and a “National Model School Shield Program” to be developed by the N.R.A. Quite aside from his derogatory depiction of the mentally ill as some sort of subversive cancer in American society, it is paradoxical to claim that the only way Americans can live peacefully is by arming them to the teeth. And once we have armed all the teachers to enable them to protect their class from madmen with murderous inclinations, who is going to ensure that the teachers do not turn on their own students? Must we arm the children too? No, of course not, we should simply focus on improving the method for selecting teachers and ensuring that people with mental health problems never make it to the classroom.

At the end of the day, however, the most shocking fact is that a majority of Americans support the status quo. Even Beth Nimmo, the mother of a Columbine shooting victim, does not support a ban on all guns and thinks that it “is getting pretty grim that anybody can walk on a campus and there is no protection for those who are in the school themselves.” Never mind working towards a solution that would render such protection unnecessary in the first place. A ban on guns would only be the first step in America; the harder task would be removing the 300m guns already in circulation, but that is no reason for inaction. In the words of Bertolt Brecht, “unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

By Julia Fioretti

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