After the tragedy in Denver on Thursday night, when a lone gunman – James Holmes – took the lives of 12 people in a movie theatre and injured a further 59, there will be many on the right who will claim that pushing the issue of gun control back onto the agenda would be politicizing this terrible event. But how many more massacres do there need to be, how many more people killed senselessly, before America’s obsession with guns is addressed?
An attempt to list all of the mass shootings that have occurred in recent history in the United States would take too long – there have been two other such events within 60 miles of this latest tragedy: at Columbine High School in 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 of their fellow students and injured a further 21; and in 2007, Matthew Murray shot dead 4 people at a Youth With A Mission center in Arvada, and at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. The events at Columbine, the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007 – when Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 of his fellow students – and the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona – which saw 6 people die and a further 13 wounded, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords – are the ones that stand out, but the problem is more widespread than these sprees. In 2009, the Center for Disease Control (CDC – who compile such statistics) reported that there were 11,493 homicides by firearm. That same year in the United Kingdom – where gun ownership laws are a lot stricter and weapons are less readily available – the number of such fatalities was 42. Only one British Prime Minister (a post that has existed since 1721) has been assassinated, Spencer Perceval in 1812, who was shot with a pistol. In comparison, 4 of the 43 men who have held the office of President have been killed by a gunman – Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy.
So why does the United States have this love of guns – and why is there no longer any real debate over controlling people’s access to firearms? The National Rife Association and other proponents of the right to bear arms insist that if more people own guns, then there is less crime as potential attackers and robbers know that their would-be victims were armed. Yet countless studies show that this is simply not true. The solution to this epidemic of gun violence is not more guns. However, opponents of the proliferation of firearms come up against a huge stumbling block – the Second Amendment:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of the free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
That pretty much ends any arguments for gun control, right? I mean, the Founding Fathers put it right there in the Constitution and thus would want everyone to have access to semi-automatic weapons, doubtlessly without such an inconvenience as having a five-day waiting period as well. Perhaps, but in the historical context in which this amendment was added to the Bill of Rights, the reason they had for securing the people’s right to bear arms is not in line with a view of widespread gun ownership in modern America. Consider the third amendment – never mentioned with the same regularity as the second, nor are people able to quote it quite so readily:
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner prescribed by law.
If scholars were writing a Constitution for the United States today, would this even be considered worth codifying? At the time, it was a big problem for the colonies, who had quartering enforced on them by the British, and they wanted to prevent their own government being able to take the same action as the tyrannical European monarchs. The Sixth Amendment enshrined into law that criminal prosecutions should take place in the State and district in which the crime was committed – a response to Britain’s assertion that any proceedings against their own soldiers should take place back on their own soil, despite the men involved in the Boston Massacre of 1770 having received a fair trial and been acquitted by a jury of Massachusetts men.
In the same way, the Second Amendment, when taken in historical context, does not translate to the modern-day interpretation of gun ownership. Standing armies had been used by Britain, France and other European monarchies as a way of controlling colonies for centuries, thus people had a strong mistrust of them. Because of this, the Founding Fathers believed it was necessary for the States to be able to defend themselves and, as they were not able to provide arms to their citizens to create such militia, it was necessary to allow the people themselves the right to own guns. This was the purpose of the Second Amendment and nowadays, with the National Guard having replaced such militias in all of the States – and those volunteers receive their firearms from the government – that need has been vanquished.
The NRA and Fox News claim that President Obama wants to outlaw gun ownership, but this administration has done nothing to suggest such motives. What those outlets will not tell you is that widespread gun ownership is now a tool of oppression, rather a means of preventing such tyranny. Those who are already vulnerable – to poverty, abuse, or mental health issues – have increased risks because of the proliferation of guns. The number one cause of death of black teens is homicide by firearm. Two-thirds of women who suffer domestic violence in homes in which there are firearms, are threatened with those weapons. If an abuser has access to a gun, the risk of homicide increases 8 fold. Homes in which a firearm is present have an increased incidence of suicide attempts and those who try to kill themselves with a gun have a 90% success rate. (Source: http://www.bradycampaign.org/facts/gunviolence )
In a commercial for Denny’s – the fast-food restaurant – that is currently running, there is a debate about what makes America great. One of the diners suggests it is the “right to bear arms” – but this could not be more mis-timed, nor misguided. What does make the USA great is its ability to correct mistakes and recognize when the Constitution needs to be amended. This has happened before – counting African-Americans as a whole person and giving them the right to vote; women finally being enfranchised; the error of prohibition reversed.
People should be able to go to a movie theatre without risking their lives, or attend a town hall meeting, or go to their school. For too long, fans of guns have hidden behind the Second Amendment – but the Constitution also originally only counted African-Americans as three-fifths of a person. It is a living document that has been amended twenty-seven times – including the introduction and abolition of prohibition. It is time for the historical context and consequences of the Second Amendment to be re-examined and debated, the cost of not doing so will continue to be senseless deaths.