An outsider’s view of American gun laws

Two people have been shot dead and a gunman is still on the loose at Virginia Tech. In 2007, 32 people were killed and 25 were injured at the same college.

Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs for the National Rifle Association of America, is quoted as saying, “America has this freedom [the right ‘to keep and bear arms’] and it’s very difficult for non-Americans to understand why we feel so passionately about it. It is the most unique freedom ever given to a people.” 

He’s right. Please believe that I am not setting out to be critical, hostile or otherwise offensive, but I am not American, and I simply don’t understand.  

Not long ago, a US toddler mistook the semi-automatic her father left on the table for the special gun-shaped controller used to play their Wii game. She, picked it up, pointed it at her stomach and pulled the trigger, with inevitable results. She was three.  

Is it enough to say that her father should have been more careful, or that the gunmen at Virginia Tech were mentally unstable? 

In her article Batterers Shoot Holes in Protective Gun Bans (06/13/08) Marie Tessier states that “There are 283 million privately owned guns in the United States, according to the anti-gun Violence Policy Centre in Washington, D.C. Licensed firearm dealers sell more than 4 million guns each year, and up to 2 million more are sold through other venues. Some sales are unregulated.” 

This means that there are at least 283 million privately owned guns circulating amongst a population of 304 million people, including children – 93 guns to every 100 people – and this figure is being topped up at a rate of approximately 16,000 per day. If 1% of these gun owners are careless and another 1% are mentally unstable, then by now there are at least 60,000 firearms disasters in America just waiting to happen – quite apart from those perpetrated with deliberate and malicious intent. To someone who is not American, this is incomprehensible. 

One of the problems with weapons has always been that they become self-perpetuating: “He’s got one so I have to have one to protect myself from him”, and then “I’ll give up mine if you give up yours first, but how do I really know you’ve given yours up?” In this day and age, the issue is further complicated by the fact that we have become almost inured to guns. We see them constantly on television, in movies, on the belts of cops on the street. We even find ourselves embedded with journalists in war zones. But guns aren’t props that make a loud bang on television and when the director calls “cut”, the dead man gets up and has lunch. Guns blow holes in people, and when that happens, they don’t ever get up. 

I do understand how this situation has come about, and I recognise that once it was part of the Constitution, the Second Amendment became as sacrosanct as any such document must be to preserve the nation’s integrity. I’ve also read something of the debate that surrounds its interpretation. But surely just as a nation itself is a living thing and thus constantly evolving, so must its Constitution evolve. What I find so hard to understand is the average American’s passionate defence of a practice that makes the tools for violence and tragedy so readily available, when clearly those who bear arms are now so willing to use them in ways that have nothing to do with the original intention of those who drafted the Constitution.  

In the 200-plus years since this “unique freedom” was given to the people, the people themselves have inevitably changed. What was once a relatively small population in a very large country is now a very large population, with all the attendant pressures of high-density living, rapid communications and global interaction. Added to that, the social structure has changed, and rules of behaviour are not set in stone as they once were. Where once it might have been safe to assume that a citizen bearing arms “in defence of himself” (or herself) would only use that weapon as a last resort, such assumptions can no longer be made. Life isn’t like that anymore. Shots are now fired for reasons the Founding Fathers had no way of foreseeing, and surely, when it reaches the point where guns are the answer to road rage, romantic disappointments and perceived slights, it’s time to wonder whether the Second Amendment has become counter-productive. In 2005, there were 12,682 gun homicides in the US, and 30,694 gun deaths including accidents and suicides.* Every day an average of eight children in America die from gunshots.  

So help me out here. Apart from its “uniqueness”, what is so glorious about the right to keep and bear arms that it must be protected at all costs – particularly when the cost is in human lives? Is there some honour in it that escapes me?  And does uniqueness justify a “right” that most of the rest of the world sees as a criminal act?

*Data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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