In April 2007, I took part in an online argument over US state gun control following the horrific Virginia Tech school shooting, in which 32 people were murdered. At the time, I failed to understand the distinction between ‘natural rights’ and man-made or ‘legal’ rights – as well as how entrenched the constitution really is in American politics.
In the discussion, I claimed that no one had the inborn right to own these weapons based on a 220 year-old manifesto, confused with (or, perhaps, ignoring) the fact that, yes, they did according to what is the foundation of American law, liberty and their wider culture. Part of this was a problem with language: I ought to have said ‘no-one should have the inborn right…’, a position which can be well argued. However, after the latest massacre in Connecticut yesterday in which far too many children to mention were senselessly killed, the debate regarding gun laws was reignited. This is the kind of incident where, surely, if any tragedy alone was to be the catalyst for such a seismic change in the federal law, it would be this.
Following the wave of emotive cries demanding we repeal the federal gun laws following these tragedies, there is also a backlash invoking the all too common retort that ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’. It is quite easy to see the faulty logic in this self-deprecating statement, which can be illustrated if the statement is reversed: of course people kill people…with guns! The issue is that the acquisition of the means to kill so many people is much too easy and the results are far more catastrophic than when other weapons are used. It is like saying ‘calories don’t kill obese people, the choice to consume them does’. The right tool is required to perform a certain action – besides, guns are designed for killing; they are very effective at it.
There is a nauseating but useful parallel which can be drawn here between the events in Connecticut and another attack which occurred in Henan, China (when personal firearms are illegal) on the same day, where a man broke into school and injured 22 children with a knife. Of course people with mental health problems exist all over the world, but clear also is the fact that if he had gotten hold of a gun, he would have done a lot more damage, perhaps even on a US scale. What exactly might a 20 year old man in a quiet, well-off neighborhood need several handguns and a 223-caliber rifle for in the first place? The argument for self-defence is fallacious – sure, it may be a terrifying imperative having to defend yourself from a burglary (although I would be more concerned with preserving life itself than property) – but guns would only really be required if the attacker had firearms too. Statistics show that if you do not own a gun, you are less likely to get shot. This is the reason the British police do not have guns on them. The situation is self-escalating: guns are needed to protect from other people who have guns.
There is also a cultural problem which cannot be ignored. Online, I have noticed that many people who take the NRA’s line that ‘guns don’t kill people…’ follow it up by diverting the topic on to the mental health issue. They imply that the healthcare system neglects mental health patients, ignoring the fact there is no firm evidence that the perpetrator of the Connecticut shooting suffered from any such health problem, except perhaps mild Asperger Syndrome. Incidentally, I think the issues of gun control and healthcare are variably linked because both invoke living dangerously.
I get the impression that with such an emphasis on freedom (we know this though presidential rhetoric, the constitution, the American Dream, etc.), Americans embalm the idea of ‘fair game’, where responsibility rests with the individual. Far from the traditional perception of such political issues being conservative ideals, they are fiercely anarchic in this respect. With the reformation of one (say, healthcare) it would not be surprising if soon after came the reformation of another, as they both concern a similar type of attitude – the attitude toward freedom, responsibility and the constitution.
What motivates (almost always) young men to go out and murder innocent schoolchildren is a question that can never really be answered, and might be the real cultural question here. The number of such incidents is far higher in the US compared with other countries, even where personal firearms are legal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_violence_in_the_United_States). But evidently these incidents will keep on happening until something is changed and it has to be in law. Even with an understanding of how practically difficult it might be to effectively change the constitution, the question remains: if it isn’t done now, when will it?