Happiness Is a Warm Gun: Gun Control In the Land of the Free

The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting has kicked the gun control debate back into the mainstream.  Since 1982, there have been 62 mass shooting in America, twenty-five of which occurred after 2006. Moreover, three quarters of the guns used were bought legally (source). In 2012 alone, 140 people were killed in mass shootings (source). Unfortunately, this is becoming all too common in the country with the highest firearms-related murder rate per capita in the developed world (source).

According to the Journal of Trauma (“Firearm availability and homicide rates across 26 high income countries” 2000; 49:985-88):

“Across high-income nations, more guns = more homicide. We analyzed the relationship between homicide and gun availability using data from 26 developed countries from the early 1990s.  We found that across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides. These results often hold even when the United States is excluded. “

There is thus tons of data illustrating the link between murders and gun possession. Because gun laws are so laissez-faire, a disturbed individual can easily get their hands on some serious fire power and cause a lot of damage. The easiest solution would be to take away certain types of weapons completely, like they did in Britain after the Dunblane school massacre (source).

This, however, is a non-starter.

America has an either/or ideological divide about gun laws, which cannot overcome its inertia because of the 2nd Amendment.

In Canada, you could just as easily chalk it up as urban vs. rural, but in America, it’s more complicated than that. It’s tempting to pass it off as Republican/Conservative vs. Democrat/Liberal, but that doesn’t pan out either; many Democrats support gun ownership – though sometimes merely out of political self-interested and survival.

Most people who don’t use guns cannot conceive of any reason why someone would want one other than the desire to kill. Conversely, gun owners don’t see what the big deal is. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say most gun owners don’t fetishize guns they way they’re often perceived. To gun owners, mass shootings are a separate issue: Mass murderers need medical health assistance; the idea of gun control doesn’t really enter into it.

In order for real progress to be made, a compromise must be reached. I’m not saying the government should take the guns away from people, but something more rigorous needs to be put in place. My argument would be to implement tougher screenings and application processes. Systems must be put in place that curb the likelihood of guns falling into the wrong hands. You should have to earn the right to carry a gun because it’s a powerful thing. Giving them out freely is irresponsible and disrespectful of that power.

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First, let’s talk about America’s relationship with guns and why a complete ban on gun possession is out of the question. Where does it come from and why do they cling to it with such reverence?

Gun laws in American weren’t always so laissez-faire. Once upon a time, you had to apply to the police for a permit. However, gun lobbies chipped away and engineered a “shall-issue” policy in many states, which is how we arrived at the sort of absurd distributions we see in something like Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine – giving out guns at banks, etc.

For generations, concealed gun permits were restricted mostly to merchants in rough neighbourhoods, bodyguards, and the well-connected. However, the gun rights coalesced in the 1960s and peaked in Florida, 1987, with their first decisive “shall-issue” victory. There were six states with such a law already in place, but Florida was really the catalyst that inspired the subsequent 29 other states (Dan Baum, “Happiness is a Worn Gun”, Harper’s, August 2010).

Nonetheless, the current firearms discourse can only have taken hold flourished the way it has under the right kind of pre-existing conditions; the seed needs the right soil. Sure, the 2nd Amendment plays a large part, but there’s something more radical at work here. Something that comes out of the darker recesses of America’s history.

In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell breaks down America’s history of violence. He shows how rural farming – animal husbandry in particular – bred a kind of honor code that was sustained with the threat of violence.

As opposed to agricultural farming, livestock requires vigorous protection. It’s extremely difficult for someone to come and steal a bunch of crops, not to mention there’s only a limited time during the year when it would even make sense. On the other hand, thieves could easily steal a cow or horse, leaving the farmer in a serious lurch. Consequently, farmers had to viciously defend their property and foster the reputation that they weren’t to be fucked with. Jilted farmers had to defend their honor.

Gladwell presents a study showing how the honor system persists today. Students from different areas of the country partook in an experiment in which they were antagonized and were later tested by examiners to analyze their temperaments. Students coming from these honor code areas were much more put out by the antagonists than other students.

The long fingers of history make themselves felt in pockets all around our modern lives. I’m not sure how to break down these historical divides across America, but I’d be willing to bet the agricultural vs. livestock divisions can help explain the current political/ideological differences in America today.

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Then there’s the 2nd Amendment.

As passed by the Congress:

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.

As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:

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.

The 2nd Amendment comes out of the American Revolution. The fledgling nation was still under threat from the British. The 2nd Amendment was a means to arm the people against the threat of tyranny. It was also meant to prevent the kind of control the British had from manifesting again. The government should fear the people, not vice versa.

Americans therefore the legal right to own guns. Not to mention a historical precedent. Thus by honoring this law, Americans honor their history. Add to that the honor system legacy and we can begin to understand the resistance towards any kind of change.

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Now, let’s start to consider these concepts a bit closer and search for some wiggle room.

First, let’s look at the 2nd Amendment itself.

After the Batman theatre shootings, Jason Alexander – yes, that Jason Alexander – had a great piece deconstructing the precise meaning of the 2nd Amendment (source). Alexander draws particular attention to the clause concerning “a well regulated militia”. Alexander’s point is that if the purpose of the 2nd Amendment is to form “a well regulated militia” then it stands to reason guns should only be given under the condition the individual would be trained. The shall-issue policy negates this.

However, in 2008, a landmark case, The District of Colombia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled the 2nd Amendment protects an individual’s right to own guns regardless of participating in a militia. Nonetheless, the Court did reason, “[t]he adjective ‘well-regulated’ implies nothing more than the imposition of proper discipline and training.” This at least leaves the door open for some kind of training before issuing a license.

Consider also America’s low tolerance for protest movements, which can most readily be demonstrated by the media’s hostile reaction towards the Occupy movement. If gun laws are meant to challenge power’s prerogative then why does the American media disparage Occupy? Even if they don’t support them ideologically, you’d think they’d at least support their right to protest, but this is not the case either; Occupy is shut out by draconian laws all but violating the right to free speech.

Moreover, despite all of America’s anti-establishment bluster, I would hardly say the government fears its people. Consider the Patriot Act and the laws that allow the government to indefinitely detain its citizens, all of which the citizens have allowed the government to do.

Finally, the current discourse surrounding gun laws revolves around self-defense, which correlates to the point about the honor system, not the 2nd Amendment.

Based on the data and studies I referenced at the beginning of the post, it seems we can’t justify the claim gun possession decreases violence. I’m reminded of Trayvon Martin, who was shot in Florida by George Zimmerman because he looked “suspicious” (i.e. wearing a hoodie). Besides, if we really wanted to prevent death and injury, shouldn’t we just teach everyone CPR?

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In conclusion, taking away guns from Americans isn’t going to happen. No matter how much you play with the 2nd Amendment, there’s no way out of it completely. However, regulation is possible. I don’t think introducing screening processes violates the spirit of the law. Yes, disturbed people will do violence, but if it’s harder to get guns, it stands to reason the damage will be lesser.

cheers,

-B

p.s. Here’s a tiny poem I wrote that I though could accompany this post:

“The Fragility of the Flesh”

The bullet left the barrel that was pressed against her neck

It tore through her flesh ripping apart all the chords she needed to live

Such a tiny little object can yield so much destruction

Was it a testament to the feat of engineering?

or

The fragility of the flesh?

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~ by braddunne on January 2, 2013.

3 Responses to “Happiness Is a Warm Gun: Gun Control In the Land of the Free”

  1. I wonder whether Native Americans ever get tired of being excluded from the ‘mass shooting’ category because the perpetrators had the dignity to wear Union blue over their mental illnesses.

  2. […] Happiness Is a Warm Gun: Gun Control In the Land of the Free (braddunne.com) […]

  3. […] Happiness Is a Warm Gun: Gun Control In the Land of the Free (braddunne.com) […]

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