It was a surprisingly mild mid-December Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. There was a general sense of sleepiness as families looked forward to their weekend ahead. At 9.35am, this lull was broken by the ring of bullets from Nancy Lanza’s Bushmaster XM-15 AR-15 semi-automatic variant. The gun was being wielded by Adam Lanza, a man suffering from a severe mental health disorder, and the innocent teachers and children- aged either 6 or 7- never stood a chance. The date was December 14, 2012: the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
Ever since this infamous date gun laws in America have become ever more contentious. From the Democrats staging a sit-in at Congress in June of 2016, to the more recent revelations that the newly incumbent Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, would like to see guns in schools to protect against “grizzlies” and the revocation of all “gun-free zones” at public schools. So why is America so divided by the second amendment and gun control?
“Firearms are second only to the Constitution in importance; they are the peoples’ liberty’s teeth”
The second amendment is said to be of vital importance to ensure that no government, foreign or domestic, becomes tyrannical. This was seen as a crucial step to consolidate the power of the newly formed, independent United States after the actions of the British colonialists in the American Revolutionary War.
The war begun over a feud between the colonists and the British over taxation. In May of 1773, the British Parliament introduced the Tea Act. This Act was designed to crackdown on the trade of illicit tea into the North American colonies and thus, increase the demand for tea leaves from the financially troubled British East India Company.
The British bought tea leaves also carried the Townshend duties (effectively a tax placed on British imports to America) and thus taxed the colonies in a covert manner to generate parliament revenue after the revocation of the direct taxation brought by the Stamp Act. The Americans viewed this subterfuge as violating their rights to “no taxation without representation” and in response formed the Sons of Liberty to protest the Act. A range of dissent soon followed, including the now infamous Boston Tea Party protest where members of the Sons of Liberty group boarded tea laden British Ships in Boston Harbour destroying the chests of British tea onboard (what is also interesting to note is that the etymology of the modern-day Tea Party movement is rooted in the Boston Tea Party protests). The British response was to give more powers to local governors to quell the uprisings under the Massachusetts Government Act of 1774.
The patriots responded by taking up arms and begun to train and house local militiamen. On 19th April 1775, British Army Regulars, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith, entered Lexington to seize the weaponry of the patriots and restore order. What resulted was the Battle of Lexington and Concord which signaled the outbreak of the American Revolutionary Wars. In the wake of this bitter revolution the second amendment was adopted to ensure “the security of a free State” giving citizens “the right… to keep and bear arms”. With this in mind, the Bill of Rights was passed on the 15th of December 1791 which granted the second amendment. Clearly then, the Founding Fathers enshrined the second amendment to ensure that the United States could ward off tyranny and ensure liberty for all. In this respect, the argument for the protection of gun ownership, in order to protect person and state, has some legitimate foundations in the bloody history of American independence.
The modern-day argument based upon this, as voiced by the constitutionalist Alex Jones, goes that “the British tried to take our guns before” and “1776 will rise again if you try to take our guns” [why they believe this happened in 1776 when it actually took place in 1775 is a mystery]. They even take this claim a step further insinuating that government “take the guns before they become tyrannical”. They cite the likes of Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and Adolf Hitler (who was quoted as saying “the most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms”) to enforce this point. However, skepticism must be bought at this claim as not only is it counter factual to the events of history, but also completely misses the blurred lines of legality which often occurs with the rise of a dictator. I raise it in this piece however, because it is interesting to consider the correlation between a disarmed citizenry and the rise of dictatorial power.
Likewise, the journalist and world renowned author of ‘Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics’ Tim Marshall, argues that the second amendment has been of crucial importance to the United States as a bulwark against the threat of invasion. He states that “anyone stupid enough to contemplate invading America would soon be forced to reflect on the fact that it contains hundreds of millions of guns, readily available to a population that takes its life, liberty and pursuit of happiness very seriously… every US Folsom, Fairfax and Farmerville would quickly resemble an Iraqi Fallujah.” Indeed, it is correct that this threat of an armed and militarised populous has been sufficient to persuade any intrepid forces, mainly the British from Canada or the Spanish from Mexico, to rethink their machinations.
The Rise of the NRA
The National Rifle Association (NRA) was first chartered in 1871. It original purpose was to improve the marksmanship of US troops after the American Civil War in which the accuracy and efficiency of firearms were not fully utilised. This small organisation soon formed regional gun clubs where they taught members of the National Guard riflemanship and fielded US teams for shooting competitions. The NRA remained in this recreational role until the 1970s when a more radical faction emerged which sought to protect the second amendment. This faction has been increasingly growing in strength, especially with its lobbying efforts- particularly of Republican Senators and Congressmen. In the 2016 political cycle, the NRA is alleged to have spent $3 million on lobbying making it a substantial and influential political force. In effect, the NRA has grown from its humble beginnings of a recreational club, to a fully-fledged political powerhouse. (the whole KKK thing was a little conspiracy theory for me)
Firearms in the USA do come under some regulations. Notably, the 1938 Federal Firearms Act meant that dealers had to hold a federal license to sell firearms and prohibited their sales to certain individuals – such as convicted felons. The Firearm Owners Protection Act (“FOPA”) (1986) is also responsible for the banning of all fully automatic weapons on the public market – however, critics have claimed that “mod kits” to convert semi-automatic weapons to fully-automatic, whilst illegal, are readily available. Also, an interesting regulation was the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994–2004) which banned the sale of all semi-automatic assault rifles, however this act expired in 2004 under the sunset provision and was never reinstated despite efforts by the Obama administration to do so. Most
people in favour of gun control find this deeply unsettling as the weapons used in mass shootings has historically been semi-automatic assault styled weapons. With th
is being the case one must question the second amendment as weaponry in the 1700s could fire 2 shots a minute- weapons readily available and totally legal on the US market today can fire 60 rounds a minute. The level of destruction these weapons are capable of today is unprecedented and could not have been foresaw by the Founding Fathers.
Sensible Gun Control?
When viewing gun law in the US I try to be empathetic. Living in the UK and enjoying the strict prohibition of all firearms, I feel I may be ignorant as to the merits of universal gun ownership. However, even when taking into account the cultural and historic reasons for the second amendment, I still cannot quantify why sensible gun laws would be so opposed. More than 30,000 people are killed by firearms each year, that’s 1 in every
300 deaths. Guns are the 10th most common cause of death in the USA. The absurdity of the gun lobby is insane. There’s absolutely no reason why a more stringent vetting process cannot be introduced. The NRA argues it will be the first stage of taking guns away all together- which is a flimsy argument at best. Extensive vetting will simply restrict the access to those who are mentally unstable so they cannot go out and cause another Sandy Hook or another Orlando. Despite this, I feel the culture of firearms is too entrenched in American society for anything to be done about it. The NRA wield too much power and control too many politicians. I would ask you to ponder what it would take to convince people that there should be some controls on gun ownership (but looking at the countless shootings) I’m skeptical that anything, even the pointless loss of human life, will make a difference. It is true that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but you’re missing the point. Why did the bad guy have a gun in
the first place? Sensible gun laws save lives.
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