“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.”
Every schoolboy and schoolgirl across the world know these word. Well, the ones that haven’t been slain in one of the 18 school massacres this year in the United States.
The statistics are staggering: 204 school shootings in the last 18 years. In context, that’s nearly as many in the 20th century (227), but it pales to the comparison to a daily average of 96 gun deaths in America. There have been 1,516,863 since 1968, compared to 1,396,733 cumulative war deaths since the American Revolution.
From a European perspective, the U.S gun ‘logic’ couldn’t be more vacuous. America makes up less than 5% percent of the world’s population yet has 31% of its mass shooters. The cause and effect of gun incidents are so numerous and so widespread that it’s impossible to provide a single explanation as to why gun crime happens, save for the considering the culture in which it does.
The European Union as a comparison has stricter controls. Guns are, at their most extreme, considered a right of self-defence or used for hunting. Directive No. 91/477/EC sets minimum standards regarding civilian firearms acquisition and possession that the EU Member States must implement into their national legal systems. Countries such as France, Germany and the U.K. are free to adopt more stringent rules, which leads to differences in the extent of legal access to firearms among EU countries. Generally speaking, semi and fully automatic weapons are not permitted, and background and psychological checks are required as well as permits issued for guns.
The difference is significant: In the EU approximately 6,700 people die as a result of shot wounds each year, but that number is composed of 5,000 suicides (75%), 1,000 homicides (15%) and 700 unspecified deaths or accidents. The available figures show a decreasing trend (-20% since 2000 in the EU), especially in Central and Eastern Europe.
Only the Czech Republic holds a comparable tradition of self-defence to the United States. Permits are issued for this express purpose, totalling 240,000 out of 300,000 people. Even then, the license holder may only carry up to two concealed firearms ready for immediate self-defence (this gives the country a higher rate of concealed carry weapons per capita than the US despite much lower gun-ownership rates).
Crime, nevertheless, with legally owned firearms is rare with only 45 recorded incidents in 2016. 17 were classified as “dangerous threats” out of a total number of over 800,000 lawfully possessed firearms in a population of 10 million. There’s a curious difference in that Czechs are can own semi-automatics, boasting some of the most liberal guns laws in Europe.
European efforts in 2017 to tighten gun laws in Europe lead to a backlash from Czech politicians. The Parliament tried to enshrine a right to bear arms into the constitution but was defeated by the upper house. The immediate difference between European Countries and America then is the former lacks a constitutionally protected right to guns. The Second Amendment in the U.S has made guns a hot potato across the political spectrum.
Seldom is any real attention given to the outright reform of gun ownership. Onlookers can expect messages of ‘thoughts and prayers’ from presidents, congressmen and senators and even the public after all too familiar of mass slaughter. There can be no other word than ‘system’ for the complicit and non-reactionary way in which governments, commentators and citizens battle it out over rights versus freedoms in the aftermath of shootings. If you want to restrict guns, you’re treading on the Constitution. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating a system of mass murder.
The root of the difference is the American tradition of anti-government sentiment. Guns aren’t just a defence of property; they’re a tradition of protection against a government that may become tyrannical. No real, tangible, meaningful proposals of reform are really ever considered, even if they are put forward because the current structures are doing more hurt to citizens than to uphold the Constitution.
The Second Amendment was included in a Constitution written at a time when the most powerful personal weapon was a musket. The provision was about allowing a citizenry, with a much smaller population and in sparser areas, to protect itself from an intrusive government of the likes they fought a revolutionary war to escape.
In modern times Americans presume that Newton’s third law is still at play. With equal force, comes an equal reaction. If these weapons really are to protect citizens from the government, then by what possible means could they be used to push back with equal force the almighty power of state and federal government. The United States boasts some of the best weapons and equipment and manpower in the world. How could Americans resist an almighty slaughter, as the provision seems to suggest, from a force of that strength without the population being as equally well-resourced?
The issue is embedded in the formation of the United States federal government itself. After the American Revolution, the US was governed by the Articles of Confederation. The Constitutional Convention proposed in 1787 to give exclusive power to Congress to raise and support a standing army and navy of unlimited size. Anti-federalists subsequently contested the shift of power from the states to the federal government.
A widespread fear during the debates about ratifying the Constitution was the possibility of a military takeover of the states by the federal government if Congress passed laws prohibiting states from arming or preventing citizens from arming themselves. As it became apparent that the Constitution would be adopted, the emphasis shifted to establishing a bill of rights that would put a check on federal power by allowing individuals and groups to protect themselves. The states ultimately lost the right to arm their citizens when the ability to arm the militia was transferred from them to the federal government by the Constitution. Nevertheless, the individual right to a gun was retained and strengthened by the Militia Acts of 1792 and the similar act of 1795.
The debate then rages to the present day as to whether the Amendment refers to a collective or individual right, and to what end either serve their original purpose given the evolution and power of the federal government. This cerebral question aside, the issue is made black and white when considering that American gun violence exists now in a population of over 300 million compared to four million when the Constitution was signed in 1787.
The absurdity of tradition versus reform is even more apparent when compared to Britain after the Dunblane school massacre in 1996. Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and one teacher before killing himself after using four legally-held handguns and carrying 743 cartridges of ammunition. In response to the massacre, the Conservative government of John Major passed the Firearms Act which restricted private ownership of firearms and banned most cartridge ammunition handguns in England, Scotland and Wales. After the 1997 General Election, the Labour government under Tony Blair banned the remaining .22 cartridge handguns as well, with only muzzle-loading and historic guns remaining legal as well as some sporting handguns.
Dunblane remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history. While Britain may not be without gun crime, it’s a telling indication that the country that gave America most of it’s founding common law has foregone an obsession with guns that still blights the land of the free today.