“Out of many, one.”
That one young man out of many, Adam Lanza, should cause so much death and suffering to so many is shocking, but that the reaction to the death in the US is already polarising social and political opinion should not. Here, outside of the US, we tend to treat that nation’s obsession with the gun with a sad, puzzled shrug and no little bemusement.
We shouldn’t. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of The United States makes the position fairly clear, and has defined the template for American attitudes towards the gun ever since its creation. Its words are fairly plain and simple:
“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.”
The right to bear arms is not then inalienable, according to this at least. But is a necessary, and contingent, requirement for the upkeep of a “well regulated militia”. However, the Supreme Court of the US seems to have gone further in recent times, with pronouncements saying that citizens have the right to own and bear arms unconnected to militia service. To me at least, as an outsider, this seemingly flies in the face of the spirit of the Second Amendment. But we should also remember that the Second Amendment was written with the best of intentions at a time when the incipient United States was a very different place. The nascent country was, in the late 18th century beset by numeroous threats, both internal and external. And with little in the way of federal strength, the right to bears arms as part of a militia was an important one.
Today, the United States of America is the world’s richest nation, its third most populous. It spends nearly 5% of its GDP on defence, has the second largest standing army (second only to China) and spends more than the rest of the top ten nations in terms of defence spending, combined (source). Two hundred and fifty years ago, the US was under threat of invasion and attack that could destroy it. But today? Who’s going to invade now? Mexico? What would they do? A pre-emptive pool-cleaning strike? Or Canada perhaps? The point is that the need for organised militia is no longer really relevant to a modern America. And thus the need to maintain firearms also becomes less relevant. The 2007 figures (source) make illuminating and disturbing reading. Even allowing for the disputed accuracy of elements of the source material, the US comfortably has the highest per capita gun ownership in the developed world. It also has a worryingly high intentional homicide rate for the developed world (source), and has done for many years.
But the relevance of firearm ownership is seemingly not important. The gun plays a huge part in the psyche of the American. The voice of a nation founded on the pioneer, frontier spirit is still resonant in the ears of gun lovers who see themselves as part of the rich tapestry of that nation’s history. And then of course there are the paranoid delusions of the survivalists and end-of-days fruitloops who see the mere existence of a federal government as anathema, even though they are prepared to accept the amendments to the constitution that suit them.
For anyone who is concerned, this demonstrates an uncomfortable truth: for all of Obama’s tear streaked rhetoric, there will be no meaningful change to gun laws in the US. Already the voices in the US have begun to ask the question: what would have happened if the teacher had had a gun? Well, the teacher did have guns. She taught her son to shoot with them, and he used the skills his mother passed on to him to kill twenty-six people. Perhaps it would just make a gunman go for the teacher first, and make sure they were properly tooled up to do the job.
To change the second amendment would require the US Congress to vote by two-thirds majority, and then be subject to ratification by three-quarters of the states. And the likelihood of that happening is precisely nil. It’s a bit like listening to an alcoholic denying that they have a drink problem, and rationalising that problem not by looking at themselves, but by blaming others, or the environment.
All of the hand-wringing is in vain. Nothing will change because too many US citizens like having a gun more than they like not having mass shootings (source). They may not want our pity, but that shouldn’t stop us pitying the dysfunctional, paranoid thing the American psyche has become.