Second only to to the first amendment prohibiting government from preventing the free exercise of speech, the press, assembly, and petition, the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America is the most debated in our modern society. The debate surrounding the first amendment is mostly a philosophical one, revolving around whether or not the government is interfering in the exercising of said rights. The second amendment, on the other hand, has much more tangible consequences, as seen recently by the horrifying massacre of teachers and young students in Connecticut.
The debate over the right to bear arms has raised its ugly head far too often in recent years. The senseless mass shooting at a congressional campaign event in Arizona. A crazed lunatic opening fire inside a movie theater in Colorado. And now a disturbed young man walking into an elementary school and killing kids. I don’t have children of my own, but it still breaks my heart to see the news reports coming out of Newtown.
This debate over the rights of gun owners is a good one to have. The Bill of Rights is an important document in our nation’s history, but it and the rest of the Constitution are not above reproach. The Constitution and its amendments at points in history turned a blind eye towards slavery, said that only white men could vote, and for some inconceivable reason banned alcohol. The Constitution is a living document, open to debate and alteration. We should respect it, but we should also question it. It is not the be all, end all, of American governance.
So, let’s talk about the second amendment, shall we? “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.” That’s it. The question about what exactly the framers of the Constitution meant by this oddly-worded passage is, well, debatable. Those first four words – a well regulated militia – stand out to me. The well-regulated militia of the United States has evolved into what we know as the Army Reserve and the National Guard, and as a member of the latter organization I can tell you it is quite well regulated.
But how many gun owners in the United States are members of those or any other well regulated militia? A relatively small portion, it appears. There are just about as many guns in the United States as there are people, and to be fair, for every crazed man afraid the g-men are going to come and get him there are people who merely collect guns with no intention of using them on another person. And there are a lot of people who simply own a small handgun for the purposes of self defense. I know a lot of people that do, though I personally do not. As much as I enjoy the rush that comes from pulling the trigger on an M-16 once a year for qualification purposes, I’m not entirely comfortable with the thought of having firearms in my home. And, again, I live by myself.
The question of gun control is always a prickly one, and as with most issues I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I can understand and comprehend both sides of the debate, and both make sense.
There’s the side of the gun rights supporters, backed up by the millions of members of the NRA, who believe that bearing arms of all types is an unassailable American right (I’m going for the fringe for the purposes of making a point here, so don’t jump on me). They point to hunting, sport, and self defense as the need for having their own firearms. They, quite rightly, point out that this country was born and these very freedoms secured by men with rifles willing to take up arms against a government they viewed as oppressive.
And there’s the side of those that view guns as weapons of violence and murder. They point out that America’s murder rate is far higher than any other first-world nation, that thousands of people die every year in firearms accidents, and to incidents like the abhorrent murder of twenty children in Connecticut, for reasons that are still unknown.
Let’s be perfectly honest, guns were created for one purpose and one purpose only: killing things, be they people or prey. Guns are weapons made for killing, and there’s no ignoring that fact. There are plenty of people that use guns for sport that wouldn’t fathom turning that pistol or rifle on another person, but that’s not why Smith & Wesson, Winchester, Browning, Remington, and the dozens of others that build firearms got into business. Guns are made to make killing easier, plain and simple.
When people bring up banning or limiting firearms in the wake of incidents like these, far too often the rebuttal is that the crazed individuals that perpetrated these heinous acts would still find a way. And they probably would try, there’s no doubt. Crazy is crazy, and access to firearms don’t make crazy want to kill. But access to firearms does make it innumerably easier for crazy to kill. Build and planting a bomb to kill dozens of people is difficult, as is setting a fire that will burn quickly enough to have the same effect. And forget knifing people to death – just the other day a man in China went on a stabbing spree and injured more than twenty people, but didn’t manage to kill a single one.
For complicated and very good reasons, the second amendment will not be repealed any time soon. This is a nation born of violent uprising, a nation that owes its existence to firearms. This is a nation that came into being when its residents turned their rifles against the might of the British army. This legacy of overthrowing oppression drives a great many American ideals. It’s why we cheer on the popular rebellions in Africa and the Middle East, we see them as following in our footsteps.
Many Americans live in fear that the federal government could someday need overthrowing by popular revolt. Thankfully the political system we’ve established has enough checks and balances that such an event is highly unlikely, but it’s still disturbing to see the amount of unchecked power the government has accrued for itself. But we the people still have the power of the vote and the right to free speech and freedom of the press and assembly, which is far more powerful than any bullet, but bullets have been proven necessary throughout history to maintain those rights for ourselves and others across the globe.
Let’s be honest, though, while the British Army of 1776 was well-trained and well-armed, they weren’t a vastly superior force in comparison to the Revolutionary Army led by General Washington. Both had access to the same comparative firepower, and both were limited by the technology of the day. Those muskets they fired at each other were loaded by hand between shots. I have no doubt that the framers of the Constitution had no inkling of the kind of weapons technology we would possess just one hundred years later, let alone two hundred plus years later.
The British Army of 1776 would stand no chance against the arms available to today’s citizens, but today’s citizens stand absolutely no chance against the United States military. The Air Force has missile-armed robots that roam the skies. No AR-15 is going to defend against that, as many deceased members of Al Qaeda would tell you, if they weren’t, you know, deceased. (yes, the military has not achieved total victory in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, but keep in mind that the rules of engagement did not allow for the scorched earth tactics last used in World War II, and don’t think that a government intent on suppressing its people would be hesitant to make use of those same tactics – hypothetically speaking here).
No matter how many legally-obtained firearms the people of the United States have at their disposal, there’s no way we can defend ourselves from stealth bombers, tanks, drones, and nuclear submarines. But does the overwhelming firepower that the United States military possess mean that the people shouldn’t be permitted to obtain and maintain the tools to defend their rights and property from government interference? That’s part of the question we have to ask ourselves here.
We also have to ask ourselves what kind of firearms the citizen should have access to. Putting aside the unlikely event of a second American revolution, what Earthly reason is there for the average citizen to own an assault rifle? I can’t fathom why, despite knowing several people who do own AR-15′s and similar weaponry.
Even if we were to ban assault weapons, we have to accept that we are at the point of no return when it comes to the possession of weapons in the United States. There are too many guns and too many gun owners for there to be any meaningful repeal or restriction on gun ownership. Guns are not going away, plain and simple. Gun ownership is a fact of life in the United States, where there are nearly nine guns for every ten residents, double the rate of the closest first-world nation. That nation is Switzerland, with between four and five guns per ten residents.
It’s popular amongst gun right advocates to claim that Switzerland and Israel have high gun ownership rates and low levels of violence, so guns must not be the problem. In Switzerland every citizen is a member of the army, and while they used to keep their issued weapons at home, that’s becoming less-and-less the reality. In Israel the gun ownership rate is below ten percent, and only those that live in the settlements, work out in the settlements, or are likely to face violence as part of their job, and higher-ranking military personnel are permitted to own firearms. Israel, a country of nearly eight million, has only around five hundred thousand firearms owned by its citizens.
The arguments of Switzerland and Israel, however specious, are used to back up the claim that an armed citizenry is a safer citizenry. The tens of thousands of gun deaths in the United States versus the rest of the world would beg to differ. In a country where, statistically speaking, there are eight guns for every ten potential gun owners, we suffer from the highest rate of gun violence by far (excluding Mexico, who thanks to their ongoing literal drug war is excluded from this discussion). That’s by all possible measures, including adjusting for population and gun ownership rates. Having more guns has not made us safer by any measure.
Note that I said “by all measures”. While access to firearms obviously makes it more likely that gun-related violence will happen, even when you adjust for the gun ownership rate in the United States our gun violence rate is still highest in the developed world. And not by a little bit – the United States throws the curve when it comes to global gun violence, we’re so far and away overachieving in our gun violence rates.
They say that if everybody was armed, then everybody would be safe. The statistics say otherwise. Even with the highest level of gun ownership in the world, the United States is by far the country where you’re most likely to die of a gunshot wound (again, excepting war-torn Mexico). Yet, despite this level of gun ownership, how many crazed madmen firing indiscriminately into crowds have been stopped by a citizen bearing arms? Having trouble thinking of even one, aren’t you? It could be that the kind of people that are likely to go for the concealed carry license aren’t the type to go into crowds anyway, but then the people that go into crowds aren’t likely the type to want the responsibility of carrying a firearm.
When it comes to home defense, I understand the appeal of owning a firearm. But by the same token, we’re advised that for our own safety and especially for the safety of our naive children that we should keep our weapons safely locked up and separated from the ammunition. I’m in the military and we don’t even leave loaded weapons just lying around, even in combat zones where you’re far more likely to have somebody trying to shoot at you. I don’t know about you, but I’m highly uncomfortable with the idea of keeping a loaded weapon on my pillow. Too many things can go so horribly wrong.
The United States has a frightening culture of violence. It bears repeating, violent overthrow is how this country came to be. But our culture has come to glorify violence in many disturbing ways. The top-selling rappers record tracks about gun fights and pimping and drug use. Our top-selling video games are centered around warfare – Call of Duty alone has more than twenty titles devoted to warfare, all released in the last ten years. The most popular dramas on television are about crime – the top drama of the past few years is about crime and the military. The biggest movies are about violence, well, more accurately about fighting violence, but violence is still central to the premise. And this is all, more or less, about fictional violence.
Turn on the TV and watch the news and you’re inundated with violence. Reports of murders headline the local news, and the uniquely executed ones or those that involve pretty white girls make the national news. The shooting in Newtown has dominated the past twenty-four hours of the news cycle, and since the rise of the cable news channel that means it’s been constantly on since the first word broke.
We glorify violence, even the most appalling violence. How many of us remember the names of the thirteen killed in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999? Do the names Rachel Scott, Steven Curnow, or John Tomlin ring any bells? How about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold? I’ll admit, I had to look up the names of those three mentioned victims from Columbine, but I didn’t have to think at all about the names of the two perpetrators. And this is something that happened when I was just thirteen-years-old, and I can remember then that the media coverage was intense.
Today, thirteen years later, the media coverage is obscene. Reporters were interviewing elementary school students who survived the shooting. Seriously, they’ve just been through one of the most traumatic experience a person could possibly face, and they’re children that aren’t even ten-years-old? How far have we fallen when our journalists are willing to interview the stunned and frightened and probably permanently scarred children who just survived such a horrific event? And we can’t blame it entirely on the media – they are, after all, serving up what they think we want to see, and the viewership ratings for incidents like this back up this sort of journalistic overreaching.
Adam Lanza’s name is going to go down in our memories. He’s going to be in the news for weeks upon weeks as investigators try to piece together his motives, rebuild in excruciating detail what happened inside Sandy Hook Elementary, and figure out how best to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening again while trying not to upset the advocates on either side of the gun rights debate.
We can all agree that this was a tragedy and a failing of our society. Well, all of us excepting the nutcases at Westboro Baptist Church, though they’re a discussion for another time. But what are we going to do about it? How are we going to fix our laws and our society to prevent this from happening again?
A debate we should be having alongside the gun rights discussion is that of mental health in our country. It seems more and more like the crazies are coming out of the woodwork, either bearing rifles or making their way to political pulpits. It’s possible that we aren’t any crazier than we’ve ever been, but that the machinations of our modern society make crazy easier. We’re all too busy with our iPhones and our Facebooks and our texting to look up and recognize the crazy in the people around us.
Nobody just ‘snaps’ and loses it. There’s always a build-up to the activating event, there’s always somebody who looks back on it and goes “oh…” upon realizing that they saw the signs of a human being deteriorating and did nothing about it. We like to think that our modern technologies have made it easier than ever to stay connected to our friends and family, but this constant connection is almost always merely superficial. By plugging in, even to social media, we’re checking out from real life. I’m fully guilty of that, I have fewer meaningful real life relationships now than at any point in my life because I’ve let the internet supplant my real life. I’m not blaming the internet for this or any other shooting, mind you, but the way that our society has taken to so-called social networking is indicative of the decay we’ve allowed to permeate our society.
This is the point where some would claim that this degradation of society and the emergence of the crazies is because we’ve allowed god to leave our society. And that’s an absolute crock, as anybody willing to look at the numbers can tell you. The American population is highly religious, with eighty percent of adults claiming a religious identification of one sort or another. Forty percent of Americans regularly attend religious services, with only a handful of countries notching a higher percentage of churchgoers. The religious are far from some persecuted minority in the United States, and the belief in god or some other divine power is far from absent in our society. Has religion become less important in the United States? Yes, it has. But when it comes to religious identification and how important religion is to citizens, we are still far ahead of other nations with much lower crime and gun violence rates.
I’m not going to advocate that we take away all guns. That’s a nonstarter, and frankly not something I’d support anyway. I’m also not going to advocate that we start arming teachers and movie theater ushers and every citizen, as that’s a recipe for complete and utter disaster. Would you trust your elementary school teachers with guns on the statistically insignificant chance that somebody is going to barge into the classroom with a semiautomatic rifle? That’s just a bad idea right there – while the thought of armed teachers might be enough to deter that sort of violence, it’s opening up the door a whole host of potential tragedies.
More guns are not the answer to a gun problem. More guns mean more gun problems; the statistics do not lie. But guns are not going away. So what’s a nation obsessed with guns and violence to do about its problems with guns and violence?
I believe it’s going to have to come down to education and awareness. Thousands of people are injured or killed every year because of carelessness with firearms, and there’s absolutely no reason for a single person to die of an accidental weapons discharge. Guns are machines meant for killing, and they shouldn’t ever be pointed at anything ever that you don’t fully intend to kill, regardless of whether or not you believe it to be not loaded. Period. Guns and ammunition should be stored separately in locked containers, with guns having additional trigger locks. Period. If you’re going to put a gun out on display, remove the firing pin or other vital mechanism and lock it away. Simply, don’t leave a functioning weapon out in the open.
We also have to be fully aware of our surroundings and the people in it, especially those closest to us. If you live with somebody with deranged tendencies – you know if you do, because you worry about them – don’t have deadly weapons on the premises. And make sure your disturbed relative or friend gets help. Listen to that nagging voice at the back of your head.
We’ve gone so far down the road of everybody is special and everybody is a winner that we’ve lost track that there are people in our society that genuinely need help that parents and the schools cannot provide. Not everybody can be fixed, and we’re so much in the business of ignoring flaws in our fellow humans that we can’t even see them anymore. I’m not sure when or how it became a rule that teenagers get their own computers and televisions in rooms that are their own private sanctuary free from the interference of their parents, but I can’t help but believe that this sort of “give them everything they want” attitude is what’s leading us down this path.
I had a laptop when I was in high school, but it was a laptop I bought myself, and I wasn’t allowed to use it with my bedroom door closed. Parents seem to be more and more allowing the television and the computer to be their babysitters, as if a child occupied by a glowing screen is a child that isn’t in need of monitoring. To be fair, a lot of these parents are also obsessed with their glowing screens, leading to this horrifying lack of awareness in the world and people around them – people that should be the most important thing in their world.
The second amendment is not going to go away, and it shouldn’t. The right of the people to defend themselves against each other and the government should not be infringed, though we should give greater thought to the idea of the well-regulated citizen militia. But we have to give more thought to how we treat guns and violence in this nation. Guns are instruments of death, that is their reason for being, and there’s no point in denying that.
We need to acknowledge that pistols and rifles are tools meant for killing, even if we have no intention of using them as such, and treat them with the respect and caution that they deserve. You wouldn’t leave a stick of dynamite lying out, even if the matches and fuses are tucked away in separate cabinets, and you shouldn’t do the same with guns. We need to do more to educate our citizens on how to handle and behave around firearms, and we need to be cognizant of who we allow around firearms.
America is failing when it comes to our attitude towards violence. Our constant exposure to it through the all forms of media, both voluntary and forced, has numbed us to the horrors we inflict upon one another that it takes an outright appalling tragedy light the senseless slaughter of twenty innocent children and six of their teachers for us to have this conversation on a national level.
We can do better.
We have to do better.