If you ask after every latest mass shooting why the US won’t ‘do something, anything’ about guns, a refresher course in American law and history is in order. Also worth bearing mind is that Americans, unlike Australians, don’t see themselves as submissive subjects of the State
Apparently, there are some 300 million legally-held guns in the United States. Who knows how many illegally-held guns there are? Lots I imagine. In the wake of the latest horrific school shooting in Florida, the usual suspects are calling for tighter gun control. The Republicans and the NRA are blamed for having always resisted such calls.
For the first two years of Obama’s presidency, the Democrats had an overwhelming majority in the House and close to a filibuster majority in the Senate. For four months, they had 60 votes in the Senate and therefore absolute control. Why did they not act to impose additional controls on gun ownership, if the current laws are such a burning affront to public safety? There are, I suggest, two principal reasons.
First, beyond emotional cheap talk, it is very difficult to identify specific amendments to the law which would both reduce the risk of gun violence and be enforceable.
Second, it’s not the Republicans in Congress or the NRA that represents the biggest obstacle to imposing anything which smacks of seriously restricting gun rights, it is gun-owning voters. The latest Gallup poll (Oct 2017) reported that 42% of US households had a gun. That would clearly mean well over 50% of adults have access to guns. Moreover, many of those gun owners are passionate about their right to bear arms. “Out of my cold dead hands,” the late, great Charleston Heston put it, while holding up his rifle.
One further complication is that federal law overlays state laws, which differ from state to state. Federal law bans a convicted felon from owning a firearm, also someone who is involuntarily committed to a mental institution or declared mentally incompetent by a court or government body. The interpretation of this law can vary from state to state, which perhaps creates an opportunity for legislators at a federal and state levels to close off any obvious loopholes. Though this would have made no difference in this most recent school shooting.
Closing loopholes aside, the difficulties of taking substantive measures should not be lost from sight. Take mental illness, which has occupied the attention of commentators urging that something more be done.
The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was a disturbed loner according to his fellow school students. He had been expelled from the school and reportedly had also, for a while, attended a mental health clinic. The problem is in determining whether someone, like him, is certifiably mentally ill or incompetent. It’s simply not tenable for any such determination to be treated lightly in a free society if it wants to remain free. The civil liberties of a lot of people would be put at risk if untoward behaviour was a ticket to the local asylum. Despotic regimes know how effective that can be.
Once again, talk is cheap. Effective action far more challenging.
You will notice if you tune in to US cable news that those on the left are fond of citing Australia’s gun laws — Howard’s confiscations — as a model to which the US might aspire, at least to some degree. And pigs might fly. The comparison is between a compliant population ready to do the bidding of government and a population (at least many of them) who regard government with deep suspicion. (editor’s note: name another country where the population meekly submits to state edicts on how bicycle riders must dress. You can’t.)
If you speak to an average Australian, almost any Australian, you will find them rolling their eyes at the US gun laws. We have been conditioned here to accept that our own self-defence is best handled by the police and the army. We are sheep reliant on the herder and his sheepdogs to protect us from the wolves. Many Americans are not so conditioned. This, almost certainly, goes back to the beginning and the revolutionary War of Independence and to the subsequent Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
Ratified in 1791, the Second Amendment reads as follows:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Commentators put a lot of emphasis on this amendment, and the difficulty in getting around it, in explaining the current status quo. They also say it has outlived its relevancy. They are right in a sense. But only in a sense.
What is often missing, in my view, is an appreciation of the cultural effect the amendment has had down through the centuries and decades. It has moulded a population of people of self-reliant and independent mind, who are simply unwilling to give up their “God-given right” to defend themselves and their families.
Even though in company I have never found myself other than alone, I happen to support the American model and the right of citizens to bear arms. In my view, we have a right to the means to defend ourselves if thugs break into our homes. The police will arrive too late. Take a broader view as well. Don’t assume things will always be as they are. History says they won’t.
By confiscating arms, Hitler knew that he had taken away a bulwark against his secret police hauling dissidents off in the middle of the night. And, to switch threats, with what exactly are we going to fight them on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, if our meagre under-resourced defence forces are overwhelmed?
The counter to this point of view is encapsulated by the despair at fourteen students and three staff members being gunned down and killed by a deranged former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. What is the answer to that? Unfortunately, not all problems have a complete answer. Even if there were no guns at all; as we know, knives, bombs and vehicles in the hands of maniacs or fanatics can kill pretty effectively.
Part of the answer in the US is to introduce the kind of security around schools that they have in Israel and in Jewish schools in Australia. Armed guards, electronic security, high walls and barbed wire, only one entrance and exit, ID requirements. And probably this will be required increasingly in most countries in the future whatever gun laws are in place. That is the way the world is going. The internet of everything and the wanton killing of children. How much progress is that!
A final point: perhaps above all, good intelligence gathering is needed to identify threats and to act on them before they are realised. In the Florida case Cruz was promising to be a “professional school shooter”. This information was relayed to the FBI and nothing was done. Maybe they were too busy sending hate-Trump text messages between each other and chasing down his imaginary Russian liaisons to have the time.