‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
And so begins the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of the American nation. Yet, on the evening of the 1st of October, many Americans were deprived from their unalienable rights when a 64-year-old gunner killed 59 people and injured 527 others in the city of Las Vegas, Nevada.
As always, the messages of condolences were numerous and rapid. Many US political figures used the word ‘senseless’ to describe the event. Senseless, meaning lacking common sense. But does it really defy common sense that in a country which possesses 48% of all civilian owned weapons in the world and where the average number of guns per 100 people is 89, such a tragedy would occur?
The issue of mass shootings in the United States is a simple one to solve. It has been done in other countries before. All you need to do is increase gun control and regulation. ‘But what about the Second Amendment?’ I hear you say. Americans tend to believe that citizens are entitled to their right to bear arms thanks to the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Firearm supporters often refer to this amendment to justify decreasing firearm regulations. But have the majority of these people studied the meaning and historical context of this document? I highly doubt it.
What is the actual content of the Second Amendment? Ratified in 1791 (15 years after The Declaration of Independence), the Second Amendment states: ‘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.’
Historically, the Second Amendment was meant to regulate and ensure the existence of civilian militias protecting the newly formed, free American state against a tyrannical exterior oppressor (a.k.a: The British Empire). If you read the text of the amendment closely, we can see that the right to keep and bear arms is directly linked to militia service. Militias were commonplace in Britain, and served as a sort of reserve army in the Empire. Civilians involved in the militia had to keep their service weapons in their home, both for storage and protection. Contemporary America still has a militia. It is called the National Guard. The National Guard is what most resembles this concept of militia that is described in the Second Amendment. Being under the control of both the Federal Government and of its State, the National Guard can protect citizens if one of these entities were to become tyrannical. This is exactly what the Second Amendment means. The right to bear arms for protection refers to an organised, large scale state protection, not individual gun ownership.
If you continue to look thoroughly at the text, you should note its opening words. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton did not write ‘militia’, but ‘well-regulated militia’. The Second Amendment is not a barrier to gun-control. On the contrary, Madison and Hamilton understood the need for an armed and trained select population. Hamilton insisted on the idea that militias should meet at least once or twice a year and practise gun safety exercises, and that their role was purely for the protection of the democratic state. Never did they say that these rights were unlimited. In the District of Columbia vs Heller case of 2008, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment could protect the right to the ownership of firearms outside of militia service for self-defence purposes, but that ‘like most rights, [it] is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.’
Most Democrats and citizens asking for change in the aftermath of the countless American tragedies do not even wish to repeal the Second Amendment and ‘steal people’s guns’, as some would say. They are simply asking for increased security measures to ensure that the people who should not be in the possession of a gun remain unarmed. Gun control does not equate to diminishing arm bearing rights. Take any other country. Britain, for example, has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world. The Huffington Post calls Britain ‘one of the toughest regime in the world’ in terms of firearm legislation. Yet shooting ranges are open. Hunters own guns, kept in their homes. Farmers control pest with legally owned rifles. The application process for a gun license is more difficult than in the US, but it is not impossible. Citizens can and still own guns. The only difference? Only three killing sprees have taken place in Britain since 1980. Over 80 mass shootings have occurred in the United States since 1982. Why are we still denying the facts?
Incorporating stricter gun control in American legislation will not infringe on the population’s Second Amendment rights. It will only result in a reduction of gun related deaths. Australia is a perfect example. Australia, while not on the same level as America in terms of gun ownership, is still the 21st most armed country in the world, with approximately 24 guns per 100 people. After its deadliest killing spree in 1996, Australia swiftly banned semi-automatic weapons. Gun ownership remained at a similar level, but the amount of mass shootings drastically dropped, reaching almost zero.
Americans need to ask themselves, why are assault weapons a need? What is their purpose? Does one hunt with an assault weapon? Do people protect their home against burglary with an assault weapon? What about pest control? The sad reality is that the majority of Americans know the answer to this question, but the decision-making remains in the hands of their representatives. And as long as the NRA continues to be this powerful presence in the American political landscape, representatives will not make the necessary decisions to protect their constituents. Currently, only the representatives of seven states have not received campaign donations from the National Rifle Association. This situation was duly noted in Jimmy Kimmel’s emotional monologue, the day after the Las Vegas shooting:
‘You know in February [President Trump] also signed a bill that made it easier for people with severe mental illness to buy guns legally. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a number of other lawmakers who won’t do anything about this because the NRA has their balls in a money clip, also sent their thoughts and their prayers today ― which is good. They should be praying. They should be praying for God to forgive them for letting the gun lobby run this country.’
Kimmel is right. The real obstacle to gun safety and the protection of American citizens is not the Second Amendment. It is economical interest. According to a report from The Guardian, 1719 people died in a mass shooting since 2013. This pandemic has grown in an unprecedented way, and it is time for representatives to make an effort and put the interest of their constituents before the interest of their donors. Is the financial comfort of congressmen and women more valuable than the lost comfort of gun victims’ families?
Americans have the right to keep and bear arms to defend themselves and the democratic state. But unlike life, it is not an unalienable right, and comes with incredible responsibilities. We should be worrying more about the safety of the current American population than the misinterpreted intent of men who lived in a culturally different America. Laws are meant to adapt to the current needs of a country. And is a reduction in mass murder a need? In the words of Alexander Hamilton, ‘they [Constitutions] cannot calculate for the possible change of things’. So if you chose to base your political ideology on the writings of the Founding Fathers, I would urge you to read through their writing again, and to do so with a fine-tooth comb.