Friday, December 21, 2012

Adding to the chorus: Guns in the United States

Ernest Hemingway takes aim aboard the Pilar.
Last week I was asked by BBC Cymru to comment on gun laws in the United States, in light of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. I was at the time in a part of Devon that suffers particularly poor mobile phone coverage, so I had to give it a pass. And, to be honest, I wasn't entirely sure I could encapsulate my thoughts in a comfortable soundbite.

The British view of the whole thing seems to be pretty simple. More or less they look at the United States and proclaim: "Bitches be crazy."

"The British find the American gun culture perplexing," Alun Williams told me on Twitter. "A 20yr old can buy an assault rifle but not a beer. *scratches head*"

I'm inclined to feel, though, that many British look at the issue from a somewhat over-simplistic point of view. They live in a country where their legislative body wields a level of power that most Americans would find unnerving. A popular phrase thrown about in political science lectures and attributed to either John Stuart Mill or the 2nd Earl of Pembroke (a), is that "parliament can do anything but make man a woman, and woman a man."

In her majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a law thought up today could, theoretically, be enacted tomorrow. It is a system that can respond very rapidly to the public will. But, think about that: think about the public will. Think about the bad ideas over time that have flourished and fallen away like fevers. Remember when we were all outraged about that one thing that one time? Like Russell Brand making prank phone calls, or Jade Goody saying something that was kind of racist, or Jimmy Carr not paying his taxes, or whatever the hell else it is that we've filled the air of pubs with in countless excited conversations. The public will is meandering and erratic; the public will kept Christopher Maloney in "X Factor" all the way to the final.

Thankfully, the UK parliament does not too often jump to enact laws on every whim of the public will. But the point is, they could. And that is a system that, as I say, is unnerving to many Americans. So much so, that our founding fathers waged war against it. They instituted a system that is designed to be slow and ponderous, full of checks and balances, and they put into place a constitution to help keep it that way.

So, when British people ask why Americans don't just ban guns, they are failing to grasp –– on a foundational level –– how the United States works.

"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." -- Most Americans have heard that a few thousand times. It's the second amendment to the United States Constitution. And Americans take their constitution pretty seriously. It is THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW, yo. Not just the law. Nor the Law. But THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW, and making changes is camel-through-a-needle-eye stuff.

Only once has an article of the constitution been repealed, and that was in the one case in which the article had gone against the spirit of the constitution by attempting to outline what a person cannot do rather than what he or she has a right to do.

This, in other words, is why many Americans are cautious when it comes to showing enthusiasm for any sort of a legislative response to Newtown and Aurora and the dozens upon dozens of other random mass shootings that have taken place. We don't enjoy those shootings; we don't shruggingly accept them as a truth of life in the United States, like one might for rain in Seattle or dirt in Nevada. But we know that any sort of change is going to run up against THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW, it is going to have to plod its way through a deliberately slow legislative process that is designed to resist the fevers of public will, and it is going to be fought every step of the way by a rather small but astonishingly loud clique of batshit crazies who will in many cases have the complaisant support of a public who are uncomfortable with the idea of restricting something.

Odds are, the most success that will be seen as a result of the current mood is reinstatement of the assault weapons ban that existed from 1994 to 2004. A larger proportion of the U.S. population can get behind the argument of "Why do you even need an assault weapon?" than legislation that would restrict overall access or possession to firearms. Though, opponents will almost certainly point out that the ban didn't stop Jonesboro, Columbine, Santana or dozens of other school shootings that took place while it was in effect.

Additionally, rhetorical arguments that rest on the issue of necessity or relevance are highly unlikely to stand up against the weight of the Constitution. So, you can scratch your head all day about why bullets are more accessible to a 20-year-old American than booze, or why a suburban mom would need or want military-grade weaponry, but the fact is: that's how things are. Americans have all kinds of things they don't really need: cars, televisions, air conditioning, candy, and so on. You'll have a hell of a time restricting any of those things and they aren't even protected by THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW.

In light of all this, as I said on Twitter last week, I'm not really sure what can be done. I stated in that update that I want guns banned, though, that's not entirely the case. I'm just pretty sure that I wouldn't lift a finger to stop guns from being banned. There's a difference between wanting guns banned and being unwilling to stop such an action. Mostly what I'd like is stringent adherence to that bit in the 2nd Amendment that uses the phrase "well regulated." I'd like to see people having to take courses to be licensed to own a gun, long waiting periods, and for all loopholes regarding secondhand guns to be closed. But, if I'm honest, I don't see how this would have necessarily prevented Newtown.

So, what can be done? What law that doesn't go too much against THE MOTHERHUGGING LAW is going to stop a son from stealing his mother's legal guns and using them to commit an atrocity? What law is going to stop a PhD student from buying guns so he can shoot up a movie theatre?

In the wake of Newtown there is again an endless amount of handwringing and armchair psychology pondering every side of the issue, and pointing the finger of blame at every possible thing (even going so far as to suggest that the problem is simply that boys exist). But really, though, in Real Land, here in the world and truth that we actually inhabit, what can be done so this doesn't happen again?

I don't know.


(a) Of whom there appear to be 10 versions. Presumably, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke in question is Henry Herbert.


Debbie said...

I find it strange that you show more anger at seeing a chav in Cardiff or someone spitting in the street than the gun culture in the USA. You over simplify laws in the UK, It would be impossible for a government to make such a radical change in the law which would make the British feel that they need guns to over-rule it. We have other ways of dealing with new laws. I hope we never see the day when the Americans take to the street with guns when they disagree with the laws. It is a shame that they do not have more faith in their governments and democracy.
Debbie B

Chris Cope said...

Thanks for commenting, Debbie. I think perhaps you are responding to an argument I didn't make. I know there are many pro-gun nuts who say they need guns because they want to protect themselves from the government and it seems to me you're replying to that. I didn't say that, however. I was pointing out that people have a government-protected right to firearms, and that right is deeply entrenched.

To change or even push against the amendment that protects that right would require tremendous and sustained public will that I'm not sure exists.

In the UK, that public will would rapidly get laws changed, as happened after Dunblane. In the US, the system is designed to be slow so it won't immediately respond to the tide of public opinion. A good example of where this works is gay marriage. In the US in the 1990s there were some people wanting to see it constitutionally banned. The system is so slow that whatever momentum they had has died out and we now see the tide turning toward tolerance.

To me, this is a system that shows tremendous faith in people because it assumes that, eventually, right will prevail and that bad ideas can't stand the test of time.

Unfortunately, it can also be a hinderance to things that we see in the present as good ideas, such as gun control.

As I say, I would like to see a change in gun laws but I am doubtful anything substantial will occur because that level of change would require a tectonic shift in the American political landscape that I simply don't foresee taking place right now.

Huw said...

Hi Chris,

Obviously you have a greater knowledge of the American legal system than I(and an excellent grasp of the British system too I might add), however perhaps people
should look more morally than legally at the questions that have sprung up in relation to this case.

Perhaps then the likelihood of this happening again might lessen ir there is a common understanding of whats reasonable in relation to personal security.

Guns don't kill people, crazies do. Make it more difficult for my mother to get them in the first place.

Holy Moly it's a difficult one this. NRA's response to arm staff at schools - what happens if that person is crazy themselves?

Deeply sad though.

Have a good Christmas mate.
Dinas Powys

Robert Humphries said...

Chris, I think you are quite correct in your assessment of the situation. I'll start by saying that as a Welshman living in America, I don't like firearms, will never own one, and find gun "culture" repellent. As a father, I have had a hard time processing the Newtown incident. I have barely paid any attention to the news since it happened; it's too upsetting. I cannot relate to the idea of gun ownership as a means of personal protection--I've been in some pretty dodgy places and never once did it occur to me that having a weapon would make me safer. Furthermore, the noisy minority for whom gun ownership is a badge of identity strike me as insecure and terribly frightened of the world; for them gun ownership masks a deep personal inadequacy. Nevertheless, in almost 25 years in this country I have rarely seen firearms (except in a police officer's holster), and only ever heard them discharged during hunting season in rural Wisconsin. Horrific mass shootings are obviously made more likely due to the availability of guns; to argue otherwise is disingenuous, but short of completely rescinding the Second Amendment, which as you note, will never happen as long as the USA exists in its current form, there really is no way to guarantee that such awful events will never happen again. Perhaps in the future, guns will be considered irrelevant and fewer people will want them. I would certainly welcome that day. In the meantime regulating, licensing, screening out the emotionally disturbed and yes, making sure that young people are educated in gun safety would certainly be responsible, and may, in fact reduce some of the accidental and emotionally-driven shootings.

Newyddle said...

Chris fy annwyl ffrind.

I am delighted that you've quoted me in your blog!

I think you make a good point regarding American legislation. Its set up with a point for politics not to make any great changes in the laws.

Studying American Revolution, I can say it was a conservative revolution. They wanted a government that didn't do anything that much! It does create an element of stability without a doubt. The American Government is one of the longest established forms of government in the world and I can see it still there in another 200 years.

But that stability does come at a price when major issues within a country need to be deal with. (one issue that doesn't get a lot of coverage is the infrastructure which, from what I read and experienced, isn't good)

The issue about Guns in America is one of those topics which reminds us British that America has social/political concepts which are very different from us. Many British like to think that we are closer to the Americans than to the other European countries, american gun culture is a reminder that we are really not.