With Aurora and now Newtown, will the US legislature finally take action over gun control? If they don’t, it starts to look unlikely that they ever will.
Partly inspired by the Oklahoma bombing – a right-wing attack on an ATF building stemming from what they saw as increasing government legislation to take their guns away – it's now twelve years since I wrote the Second Amendment.
What should be recalled is that pre-911, the Oklahoma bombing was the single largest terrorist attack to take place on American soil. Now we all know what happened after 911: the USA took up arms against two nations – Afghanistan and Iraq. Did they make a similar purge against far right gun activists after the Oklahoma bombing? Quite the opposite. Years of appeasement to strong gun and lobby groups such as the NRA and GOA followed, including the lapsing of a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles that President Clinton had steered through Congress.
We can now only sadly reflect that without that appeasement, incidents such as Aurora this summer and Newtown only a week before Christmas might well not have happened. And the reason for that appeasement? Gun owners and pro-gun advocates form an important part of any State electorate, so politicians are wary of upsetting them.
Indeed, the cinema shooting in Aurora took place in the midst of the run-up to the recent elections, but still when asked by journalists whether gun control would form a part of their election platform, both Democratic and Republican representatives were loathe to make any forthright comments. Only with a far more atrocious gun incident and the lives of 20 young children lost was there finally a strong statement from the White House on the topic. ‘That’s only because the election were over and their positions were secure,’ a cynic might comment.
And now we see even further arch-right reactions to anyone daring to mention gun control, with a petition asking for Piers Morgan’s extradition from the USA. Thereby proving that to certain people the rights enshrined in The Second Amendment eclipse all else – including First Amendment rights. Indeed, in my own small way, I have seen good reason for that wariness with some of the down-vote review reactions to The Second Amendment – the modern-day version of book-burning, far-right style. ‘Another Michael Moore feeble brain’ one swiped (I noted that he suffered the same with far-right reactions to ‘Bowling for Columbine’); ‘Cars kill more people – why not ban them?’ says another. Yep, the arguments have become even less credible since the days when some Neanderthal commented, ‘It’s not guns that kill people, it’s people,’ and countless gun advocates latched onto it as a cogent, intelligent catch-phrase to repeat.
But thankfully other readers have grasped the intent and aim of The Second Amendment and made insightful, balanced comment: ‘I feel like this book should be required reading for the American legislature. Maybe then the trend of random deaths and ever escalating death toll in homes, cities and schools could be reversed. To people living outside the USA, their love affair with guns seems madness. To American citizens it appears to be a rational reaction to an ever-increasing fear of gun crime and violence. Who is right? Both sides? Neither? John Matthews appears to have an alternative answer that addresses all the concerns raised by both sides of the debate...’
Reading these supportive reviews, I’m encouraged that I’m on the right track and should ignore getting called a knee-jerk liberal, a Commie (didn’t anyone tell them that ‘reds under the beds’ paranoia went out with McCarthy??) and the email threats.
It’s no wonder given the furore at even the mention of ‘gun control’ that Michael Moore went to a Canadian company, ‘Salter Street Productions’ to make ‘Bowling for Columbine’. Make an anti-gun comment and you’re likely to go on an NRA ‘hit list’ that members should not support or give custom to. On that list are now a number of leading corporations along with half of Hollywood. It got to the stage where it became an insult ‘not’ to be on the list, with Dustin Hoffman wryly complaining that his credibility might have taken a knock by not being included.
As one Canadian journalist who read and reviewed The Second Amendment commented, it becomes obvious that many far-right reviewers had obviously not read the book, because if they had they’d have seen that the final solution hit upon is for a gun in every home. Simply with more effective control that might save lives.
But what forged my interest in gun control in the first place? I suppose it goes way back to when John Lennon was shot in New York. A lot of Brits at the time thought that if he’d stayed in the UK, it wouldn’t have happened. But Americans have a number of their own celebrity and political victims to point to the need for stricter gun control: Abraham Lincoln, McKinley, John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Senator Brady.
Not long after John Lennon’s murder I emigrated with my family to Canada and while there regularly visited the USA on business trips and holidays. Canada was an interesting place to view the situation in the USA with guns. 80% of all Canadians live within 50 miles of the US border and cross it regularly. However, they also become keenly aware of the difference in crime rates when they cross. Vancouver to Seattle the murder rate was three times higher. But make the trip between Southern Ontario and Detroit and the murder rate was almost ten times higher. So it was something that became a topic de jour amongst Canadians.
Guns are allowed in Canada, but strictly within the home. Whereas the USA allows ‘concealed carry’ in most states as well as semi-automatic rifles. A move towards the Canadian model of gun law would be a start, and indeed would also satisfy The Second Amendment. When drafted, there was no such thing as semi-automatic weapons and there was no provision for guns to be carried liberally in the open. Indeed the main condition was to be part of a ‘well-regulated militia’ – but I’ll come to that later.
There was an interesting series of articles on gun control in the major Canadian newspapers while I was there in the 1980s. In particular one story of a Toronto IBM executive stood out. Middle-class, responsible, with a wife and two kids, he suffered a house robbery one day and so applied to have a hand-gun in the house. Readily approved, he decided to learn how to use it and so joined a gun club, which he regularly attended.
Then one day he had a massive argument with his wife and in a rash moment found himself reaching for the bedside drawer with the gun. His hand had hardly touched the gun before he found himself recoiling in horror. The gun was packed off out of the house that same day.
But he found himself asking the question: how many people might feel similarly intimidated by a gun in the house and the power it gave over others? And how many might not stop themselves at that final, vital moment in the midst of a blind rage?
The answers to that, for anyone truly honest with themselves, are uncomfortable. Even if a person might consider themselves to be responsible and fully balanced, can they hand on heart say that they have always been so and cannot recall a single moment when they might have felt emotionally or mentally challenged? And if they are such supreme beings that they have never been guilty of such a moment, can they say the same of all of their neighbours and people they know?
That guy from four doors down who sometimes gives them a strange look. The teen from round the block with a sly smile, not to mention some of the cagey-looking friends he hangs out with. And what about that guy from work who went off the rails a few years back? If an NRA or GOA member can think of a single person who might fit into such a category, then they do in fact believe in gun control – only they haven’t realized it yet.
When I tweeted recently about the Newtown massacre, one pro-gunner retorted, ‘I haven’t shot any kids or harmed anyone, so why should my Constitutional right to have guns be effected?’ Personally, if I could turn the clock back, I’d be willing to give up my right testicle to save the lives of twenty school-kids – so someone bleating about their ‘constitutional rights’ doesn’t cut it, I’m afraid.
But if we are talking about ‘rights’, then what about having equal rights for visitors to the USA, who right now have no choice but to go in unarmed. Turn up at JFK or LAX packing a gun and you’ll be put on the first flight back and added to an ‘undesirables and terrorists’ list. Just last year two tourists in their twenties were shot and killed when they wandered into the wrong part of Sarasota, Florida.
Taken to a ridiculous extreme, in order for tourists to have equal protection maybe guns could be provided with rental cars? You can just imagine the scene at the local Avis check-in. ‘This is one of our most popular models and comes complete with a .38 and two rounds of ammunition. Please also consult our map for advised ‘no-go’ areas. But if you do end up having to shoot anyone, please fill in the portion of our ‘accident and incident’ form allocated for that.’
A ridiculous example? Yes. But it serves as an illustration of how ludicrous it could become if the same paranoia now evident amongst many US citizens – ‘too many guns already out there, so I gotta have my own’ – was extended to ‘every’ citizen. A ‘Can’t beat them so must join them’ policy with no limits is a rocky route to go. But I’m keenly aware that it could take some time for any control and linked gun amnesties to have any effect, even if the statutory rights guaranteed by The Second Amendment could be adequately addressed.
The wording of the Second Amendment is in fact unequivocal: it states clearly that the preservation of a ‘A well regulated militia’ is at the heart of why the right to bear arms ‘shall not be infringed’. It says nothing about pursuit of crime or shooting neighbours, rival gangs or family members, which now comprise 98% of shootings in the USA. So how do we return to the core principles set out by the original drafters of the Constitution?
I looked at a number of other nations, but the one to shine through was Switzerland. With its neutrality dating back to the 17th Century, a private ‘at-home’ militia has been the main replacement for Switzerland’s standing army. In practical terms this means that many Swiss males have guns at home which are to be taken out only in the advent of the nation coming under threat. The guns are strictly regulated and there’s also rigorous induction and training as to their use.
There’s an amusing anecdote from World War One when apparently the German Kaiser asked what the quarter of a million Swiss militiamen would do if invaded by half a million German soldiers. The head of the Swiss militia replied succinctly: ‘Shoot twice and go home.’
To all intents and purposes the Swiss model more closely resembles the ‘well regulated militia’ defined in the American Constitution rather than the free-for-all of crime, gang, neighbourhood and schoolyard shootings that currently exists. But how to get such a system integrated into US society?
Designated guns at home would certainly cut down on the annual murder rate. And the induction and training would not only fall more in line with the original ‘militia’ ethos of the Constitution, but would also teach people more respect for their guns. Strict driving instruction and codes are insisted upon before allowing anyone out on the highway with a vehicle, why not for something as lethal as a gun? This is something the NRA and GOA should fully support if they truly believe in more ‘responsible’ use by gun owners.
The Swiss model has all guns under lock and key at militia homes. But would that be enough to deter misuse in the USA, despite the strict induction that they only be used in the case of national emergency or defence of life and property? One suggestion has been a pin-coded lock-box, but with an added security twist: tap in that pin number and it alerts the local police (or designated militia security unit). So take out that gun for defence and you’ll soon have back-up. Take it out for any other use and you’ll have just precipitated your arrest.
As for semi-automatics, perhaps this should carry an extra level of security. Only to be held by locally designated militia wardens: those more trusted, perhaps police or army trained, and with an extra level of pin-number security.
Another suggestion made in the course of research of The Second Amendment was for ‘smart guns’. Guns with a radio-controlled firing mechanism which only allows them to be fired within the radius of a home or at designated locations. In the age of micro-electronics and with empty space in most gun butts, certainly a possibility.
This is a move that most gun manufacturers would also get strongly behind. One of the biggest opponents to gun control are gun manufacturers fearing declining sales, and so they actively fund and lobby through the NRA and GOA (in the same way that the tobacco lobby fought hard). But this could in fact lead to a new generation in ‘smart guns’ which could enliven their production and lead to fresh sales.
These issues are at the heart of the thesis/proposed Bill in The Second Amendment which draws the battle lines between a White House keen to see them implemented and an ultra-right hell-bent on seeing them scuttled. But one of the first main stumbling blocks of any Congress Bill is how to get all the ‘recently designated illegal’ guns currently in circulation replaced for legally designated militia guns or smart guns? Perhaps some form of exchange and amnesty programme, coupled with strong fines and prison terms for those not adhering to it?
Australia a while ago had such an amnesty and only months back Brazil set out on a programme of ‘gun hand-in and collection’ in order to make it a safer place in the run-up to the next Olympics. If Australia and Brazil can do it, then why not the USA? Surely that ‘can-do’ spirit, which made the country so great to begin with, is still alive there today?
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The Second Amendment is available on the following links:
The Second Amendment #1
The Second Amendment #2
The Second Amendment #1
The Second Amendment #2