The United States is a nation founded on the principle of freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom from outside influence, freedom from injustice. With a history spanning nearly two and a half centuries, the USA has taken centre stage in a world filled with fascinated onlookers. Onlookers who have witnessed the dawn of US supremacy, the land which embodies opportunity, and which exemplifies unity around the idea that anybody can do anything if they try hard enough.
Unfortunately, this idea has gone too far, as many American’s interpret the wording of the second amendment ‘right to bear arms’ as the necessity to do so. In actuality, the second amendment constitutes more than just these four words, and in its totality reads:
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.
It is this sentence which has arguably led to the soaring numbers of firearms in the US (120 firearms per 100 people in 2018), and consistent rates of deaths involving firearms today (12 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2017). In 2017, there were 39,773 total gun deaths: the most since 1968. Last week, the international press reported on 2 mass shootings in the US, one in Colorado and the other in Georgia. Altogether, 18 people were killed in these attacks. In both cases, the shooters purchased their firearms legally. In both cases, the shooters did not commit a crime up until the point that they used their firearms against another human. But why is this the case? And why hasn’t America changed? To answer this question, we must turn to the US Constitution and understand why there is a right to bear arms.
The US Constitution, like many historical documents, including the Bible, is open to interpretation. Scholarly debate about the original meaning of the second amendment has been a battle fraught with difficulties concerning old English, grammar and corpus linguistics. One school of thought believes that the wording allows for both a collective right and an individual right to bear arms. Another view is that the wording exclusively permits the collective right to bear arms as a militia. The jury is still out. But could this mean that the ongoing problems of gun regulation, school shootings, mass shootings, death by cop etc. are all the result of an ill-placed comma? Potentially.
If the second school of thought regarding the Constitution is assumed to be correct, then the original meaning of this text was to permit the formation of a well-regulated militia which acted for the reason of providing security to the state and which should be permitted uninfringed access to arms in order to do so. In other words, guns should be for the use of law enforcement and defence personnel, so that they may perform their duties.
As far as interpreting historic documents goes, it is still a headscratcher. But is there no common-sense answer to today’s problems? The rate of gun crime in the US is astronomical when compared to other western nations. No matter your view of the Bill of Rights, there is a clear problem when it comes to the number of people getting shot. And the reason really isn’t that hard to work out: America has more guns.
This is a battle which has been fought for generations and through numerous administrations. Somewhere, there is always room for a good debate about guns, and it is almost always turned into a political issue. But too often the debate is about the wrong thing. Questions are raised about background checks, suitability of ownership, how large magazines should be, which guns are acceptable, how you can carry a weapon and where people are allowed to do it. Never is the debate about should we allow guns and very rarely is it about why people want them in the first place. The most dangerous part of the gun crime debate is the conversation that isn’t happening.
The sad truth is that the reason most Americans want a gun is because there is a greater problem at play in the US. Personal protection is at the top of the list when it comes to reasons that Americans want guns. Moreover, women are more likely to give this justification as the sole reason for purchasing a firearm. A significant number of people in the US population do not feel safe enough in their own country to walk around without a firearm to defend themselves. The comedian Steve Hofstetter said that ‘if you need a gun because you’re afraid of the government, you don’t know how tanks work’, which is a comical way of making a serious point. People aren’t buying guns because they’re afraid of the government. They aren’t making these decisions to uphold democracy or to form a well-regulated militia. People are buying guns because they are afraid of one another and there is an argument that says they’re only afraid of one another because the other person might have a gun too.
We should be wary when looking towards America as a bastion of democracy and a land where law is gospel. Just like the Bible, people can and will interpret gun laws in ways which might not be in the best interests of society. The law is meant to keep people safe, and it isn’t working. So, when it comes to walking down the street in America, it may be in your best interest to don a Kevlar vest and helmet, because the pen that wrote the laws on gun crime won’t be there to protect you when you’re facing someone who’s about to misuse their rights.
Written by Isaac Knowles
Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.