This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 25 2016.
More American civilians have died by gunfire in the past decade than all the Americans who were killed in combat during the Second World War.
The Right to Bear Arms
We think of the argument that citizens have the right to bear arms as a particularly American thing revolving around debates on the Second Amendment to the Constitution. “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.”
However, this was also an issue in British history in the 17th Century. One of the grievances against James II was that he had caused “several good subjects, being protestants, to be disarmed …”. Gibbon, in the next century, wrote that “[a] martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince.”
Over 4,000 imported pistols and revolvers were submitted for proof at the Birmingham Proof House in 1889; and 37,000 British pistols were submitted in 1902. For centuries, in Britain, there has been no good reason for citizens to arm themselves in order to overthrow the government, although the current crop of British politicians inspire little trust. The right to bear arms for personal defence was nonetheless jealously preserved, and still exercised into a time almost within living memory. Ninety years ago, it was possible for anyone in Britain, regardless of age or capacity, to walk into a gunsmith’s and buy as many guns and as much ammunition as he could afford.
The Right to Make Money
Paul Jannuzzo, a former chief of American operations for Glock, the Austrian gun company, told Evan Osnos of the New Yorker: “You know that every time a bomb goes off somewhere, every time there’s a shooting somewhere, sales spike like crazy”. Suspicion of impending stricter controls also boosts sales. On January 5th, President Obama announced stricter background checks and the share price of Smith & Wesson, rose to $25.86, its highest level ever. After the attack in Orlando, shares of Smith & Wesson rose 9.8 per cent.
The concept of making money from selling guns to private individuals has an innate flaw: guns last a very long time. Therefore, the industry constantly needs new customers or innovative methods of selling more guns to people who already have some. Americans have accumulated three hundred and ten million firearms. Each American gun owner now has an average of eight guns. Osnos writes: “The right-to-carry movement, by unbridling the presence of firearms in American life and erecting a political blockade against efforts to qualify it, has transformed the culture and business of guns.”
The number of people buying guns for hunting declined rapidly so the industry used fear as a marketing ploy. They managed to make a success of this in spite of the fact that America was becoming much less dangerous because of a sharp decline in violent crime. In defiance of facts, during the mid-two-thousands, almost seventy per cent of Americans were convinced crime had risen in the previous year. In 1997, Massad Ayoob published an article in the magazine Shooting Industry urging dealers to exploit the new concealed-carry laws: “Defensive firearms, sold with knowledgeable advice and the right accessories, offer the best chance of commercial survival for today’s retail firearms dealer.”
How the NRA Changed
Karl Frederick, then president of the National Rifle Association testified to Congress in 1934: “I do not believe in the promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses.” In 1967, Governor Ronald Reagan told reporters that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”
The character of the NRA changed in 1977 when the leadership was wrested from the old guard, who were interested in recreation and rifle-training, by activists who used politics to create a gun rights movement. In 1987, the new-style NRA persuaded the Florida legislature to relax the rules that required concealed-carry applicants to demonstrate “good cause” for a permit.
Guns Don’t Kill People
Prince Philip alienated many when he publicly opposed stricter controls in the UK following the Dunblane massacre, in which 16 five-year-olds were killed by Thomas Hamilton with guns he legally owned. In his inimitable style the prince said that “if a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?” Incidentally, Nigel Farage, one of the architects of the UK’s exit from the EU, recently called for a repeal of the laws passed after Dunblane.
Guns may not kill people, but the gun culture that pervades American society is lethal. Wayne La Pierre, deputy CEO of the NRA, often tries to shift the blame for mass killings onto the media, video games, or Obama’s budget. In doing this, he acknowledges that Americans are influenced by their environment and their environment is dominated by guns. People with guns kill people.
NRA Director Charles L Cotton blamed the Reverend Clementa C Pinckney, the murdered pastor of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for the deaths of eight of his parishioners because as a South Carolina state legislator Pinckney supported stricter gun control. The NRA’s slogan is: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” There is no evidence for this. There is evidence to the contrary. An FBI study found that in 160 incidents an armed civilian stopped the bad guy on only one occasion. Professor John J Donahue III found that permissive concealed-carry laws led to “substantially higher rates” of aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder.
A study published by the American Journal of Public Health concluded that a state’s rate of gun-related homicide consistently went up and down as a function of its levels of gun ownership. The USA, with 88.8 guns per 100 people, had a gun-death rate of 10.2 per 100,000 people. At the other extreme, Japan, with less than one gun for every 100 people, has a gun-death rate of 0.06 per 100,000, and the Netherlands, with 3.9 guns per 100 people, has a gun-death rate of 0.46 per 100,000 people. The link between gun ownership and gun-related homicide was consistent from 1981 to 2010. That relationship held even after the researchers–led by Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel–adjusted for state-to-state variances in factors that influence gun-related homicides, such as urbanization, youth population, crime, alcohol consumption, unemployment and poverty rates, educational attainment, and prevalence of hunting licenses.
One is more likely to be killed by lightning than by a mass shooter. The chance of being shot in one’s own home doubles if there are firearms in the house. Disputes that might have naturally faded away are given a different and more dangerous context if there are lethal weapons close at hand.
One does not expect consistency, “the hobgoblin of petty minds”, from Donald Trump. However, it is still a surprise to find that in 2000 he supported a ban on assault weapons and a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases. He now needs the support of the NRA and its membership and makes gun-ownership another issue on which to hector the “elites”. Hillary Clinton should disarm her security detail if she wishes to restrict the rights of less privileged people to own guns.
Whether he wins or loses in November, Trump’s fostering of paranoia will have made America an even less safe place. He has widened the gap between “them” and “us” in so many areas including those with what Evan Osnos calls a “combat mind-set” and those without. In the USA there are guns enough for nearly every person (though only a little over a third of Americans own guns). There are angry gun stock-pilers who are convinced that Armageddon is nigh and they are willing to face it armed and ready. Trump’s supporters will be triumphalist if he wins and angry if he does not do what they want. Many of Trump’s supporters will be very disgruntled if he loses. Many of the disgruntled are heavily armed and belong to militias. Many of them talk openly of their duty to overthrow an elected government if it seems to them to be undermining the constitution.
Many Republicans sought to distance themselves from Trump’s campaign after he told a crowd in Wilmington, North Carolina that if Hillary Clinton won the election and “gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although, the Second Amendment people – maybe there is”. This was a step too far for many – a call to nullify election results at gunpoint.