The American Gun Issue: A Crash Course for the Bewildered Brit | Karl Cooper
“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 Second Amendment
The United States Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, is one of the cornerstones of American culture. Being the supreme law of the land, it is held to an almost divine status. In it, Americans are guaranteed many liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to a lawyer and of course, the right to bear arms. Of all the 27 amendments to the constitution, the most controversial is by far the Second Amendment. With the recent tragic events in Florida at Stoneman Douglas High School, as well as many other similar tragedies across the United States, America’s gun issue is in the spotlight once again, and with it there are calls to clamp down on access to firearms and firearm modification. It actively calls into question how far America can, and should, restrict the access to guns before it violates the Second Amendment.
For the Brit, the whole idea and ethos of the Second Amendment is a very alien one. Firearms are so absent from British society & culture that most of us have never even seen a gun in person, let alone held one, our police don’t carry guns and to actually obtain a gun license (both firearm and shotgun license) in the UK, you need to undergo a rigorous evaluation by your local police, as well as demonstrate to the police that you have adequate storage for your firearms. Even when you obtain your license, you are greatly restricted in where you can use it. Unlike the US, you cannot open-carry in public and you cannot use them in self-defence.
A lot of these regulations came after the Dunblane massacre, where 17 children were murdered by
Thomas Watt Hamilton. Since then, after these restrictions had been put in place, the UK has not seen a similar attack since. Meanwhile in the United States, there are several hundred mass shootings per year, and many of us wonder, somewhat ignorantly: “why don’t they just ban guns?”
Whilst I do not blame my fellow Brits for having this train of thought (after all, logically it should work and it worked for us), this is not a realistic solution at all. And to begin to imagine a solution requires understanding the conversation currently happening in America, and the greater culture of guns in the US as a whole. Whilst it would take an entire book to explain the many sides of the gun issue in the US, I’ll attempt to explain and break down the main talking points surrounding guns and the Second Amendment in this article.
#1 – The Second Amendment – a Quick Rundown
Understanding the Second Amendment (2A) is integral to understanding the foundation of the debate. Thequote at the top of the article is directly from the Bill of Rights. Given the nature and history of the turbulent birth of the United States, you can understand why the founding fathers saw the 2A as necessary. Its purpose is written clearly: Their logic was that if the population is armed, then the government would be a lot less likely to descent into tyranny and turn on their own citizens. While a large portion of the Constitution is designed at curtailing an authoritarian government, none of it emphasises it more than the 2A, essentially giving US citizens the right to declare war on their own government.
Despite the existence of the debate surrounding gun laws and the 2A, most Americans on both side of the spectrum support the 2A. The debate comes into question in the interpretation of the wording. The amendment says “(the right to bear arms) shall not be infringed.” The key question is on the interpretation of ‘infringed.’ The most radical supporters of gun rights say that any control or regulation is by definition an infringement, but if that is the case, then their rights are already being infringed, as there are already a lot of restrictions on what can and cannot be sold. For example, in many states, high-capacity magazines and fully automatic weapons are outlawed. And in a number states, a basic firearms license is required to purchase guns. Conversely, others argue that there isn’t enough regulation on guns, and the current state of regulation isn’t really ‘infringement.’ This camp argues that from bump-stocks (a modification to the stock of a weapon that allows it to fire pseudo-automatically) to semi-automatic rifles, there is not enough regulation on so-called ‘assault weapons’ in the market today. Regardless of their level of interpretation, most Americans do support and cherish, to some capacity, the existence of the 2A.
Consequently, the United States’ love of the 2A, and the Constitution as a whole, birthed a culture with one single idea at its core: freedom. All of this is somewhat oblique to the culture in the United Kingdom. While we are no Saudi Arabia or North Korea, the difference is there. And it is why most Brits are so confused at the gun issue in the US, and why it leaves a lot of Brits thinking “why don’t they just ban guns?” Well…
#2 – Why we cannot just “Ban the Guns”
I’m going to be honest. We British have a bit of an annoying habit of wanting to block things that we do not like. Dislike Trump? Instead of dialogue, tell the government to block him from the country! Don’t like a controversial speaker? Instead of debating their arguments, prevent them from speaking! Didn’t like the referendum result? Sign a petition for a second referendum! If a large group of people do not like something, we will most certainly see at least one person set up a petition on the UK parliament website.
We also seem to be much more willing to roll over and let the government do whatever they want. For one example, take the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 (also known as “Snoopers’ Charter”), it greatly increased the surveillance powers of British Intelligence Agencies and it was met with little opposition. I am not sure if it is just the modern culture we live in, or something more deeply ingrained in British society (though it should be noted the reason that the US exists in the first place is in large part to our authoritarian nature, and that was over 200 years ago). Call me a crazy libertarian, but we seem to be complacent at the ever-growing powers of the state.
As a consequence of our nature, some of us picture Americans as having proverbial freedom boners while they shoot their guns and drink light beers. And this may be true for some of, however this conception couldn’t be further from the truth. The vast majority of people in the US who own a firearm are law-abiding citizens, not criminals or crazies. And as a matter of fact, most of them are in favour of ‘sensible’ gun laws.
According to a Pew Research Centre Report1, 89% of gun owners support restricting gun sales from the mentally ill (whether or not this is an effective strategy is another story, it’s the attitude that matters). Note that this is just a partial ban based off of case-by-case evaluation. Not an outright restriction and confiscation on the scale of what happened in United Kingdom. Such a ban would not fly in the US and the mere suggestion of it is enough to ruin political careers. And in the crazy case that the US government ever attempted such a thing? I’d wager that it would be enough to start the Second American Civil War. As crazy as it seems, an outright firearm ban would most likely end in bloodshed.
Allow me to elaborate: it can be assumed that some gun-owning Americans would happily turn in their firearms in the event that the US government attempted to confiscate them. But what about those that would stand up to a government, and form those said militias mentioned in the 2A? An unpublished Harvard/Northeastern survey2 shows that just 3% of Americans own over 50% of all registered firearms in the US. That is over 9 million people owning around 50 million guns between them. With the total size of the US military being around 2 million (counting both active personnel and reserves, and assuming that none of the military would break off in some kind of coup), we can see that the numbers game is certainly in favour of those 3% of Americans. Who would win is an interesting but irrelevant question to this article. The fact is that it would be a civil war, and nobody wants war. And it would be a war great enough to leave the US irreparably damaged both economically and on the political stage. Because of this, banning guns outright is out of the question entirely. But if close to 90% of all gun owning Americans are in favour of enacting some degree of background checks on gun purchases, why is it taking so long for the US government to implement them?
#3 – Meet the NRA – Lobbying on Steroids
For American politicians, the three words ‘NRA’ conjure up very strong yet very different emotions. The NRA, which stands for ‘National Rifle Association’, is a non-profit organization which educates, promotes, and actively lobbies for gun rights in the US. Founded in 1871 and with a membership of 5 million, it is one of the oldest and most prominent and polarising groups currently active in US politics. Despite being active for nearly 150 years, it has only been a force of political lobbying sine 1975 with the founding of the ‘NRA Institute of Legislative Action’ or NRA-ILA, and it spends around $3m a year influencing gun policy in the United States. This is the record for funds that went directly to lawmakers, and doesn’t include some of the funds that went indirectly to lobbying and influencing policy.
Needless to say, the NRA is very powerful. They have the money and power to sway politicians to keep any ‘anti-gun’ bills away from the oval office, a lot of its members will vote for or against a candidate just based off of their stance on guns and the NRA even grade members of the US congress from A to F based off of their views on gun rights. Consequently, any bill that attempts to restrict access to firearms has little to no chance of being passed when Republicans hold both houses. In light of the recent shooting in at Stoneman Douglas however, the activities of the NRA have been brought to light. The NRA was a key point of the infamous town hall debate with Marco Rubio, Dana Loesch and several survivors of the shooting. Rubio and Loesch were asked pressing questions by the survivors and neither of them could answer simple yes or no questions such as “will you stop taking the NRA’s money” or “will you support the ban of bump-stocks?” These soundbites have done a lot to show the American public the power of the NRA. It left many thinking had it not been for the NRA, would the shooting have ever happened? Is the NRA forgoing pragmatism or are they defending rights defined in the constitution? The answer, like most questions in politics, is a lot more nuanced than these two dichotomies.
Despite their massive power in US politics and whatever your attitude towards them, the NRA does do a lot of positive work. They consistently teach and support sensible gun ownership and they fund many education programs surrounding guns. Because of this, members of the NRA are a lot less likely to commit gun-related crimes or be involved in gun-related accidents than non-NRA members. Despite this, their strong attitudes towards gun control and their uncompromising stance has unfortunately painted many NRA members, and gun owners at large, as uneducated and evil people who fully endorse the actions of the NRA-ILA. It’s easy to forget that the NRA is first and foremost a group about promoting the safe use of firearms, which is why a lot of their members choose to join. As a matter of fact, several polls have shown that nearly three quarters of NRA members support criminal background checks before all gun buys, and they also support closing the ‘gun show loophole’ 3 However, despite the actions and opinions of the NRA high-ups continuously affirms the caricature of gun owners, as with many aspects of US politics, the apparent existence of a middle ground is slowly diminishing. It is also worth noting that the NRA claims that it uses none of its membership funds as cash for lobbying, so being a member of the NRA and being for gun control isn’t as hypocritical as you think.
#4 – March for Our Lives
As we have established, the majority of Americans just want sensible gun control. And it also goes without saying that you have the crazies on one side saying that it’s their god-given right to have unrestricted access to all firearms, and you have the crazies on the other side calling for a nationwide ban and confiscation of all guns. It’s easy for many to get caught up in this increasingly polarising debate and pick a side on each extreme because of this, but if you independently poll most Americans, both gun owners and not, it seems that they are a lot more pragmatic than both of the extremes give them credit for.
This was exemplified in the recent marches in Washington DC and other major US cities. The “March for Our Lives” (accompanied by compulsory hashtag #MarchForOurLives) was a movement dedicated to, and organised by many of the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting. A huge demonstration of people demanding tougher gun control. Sounds like a noble cause, right? Unfortunately, whilst the march appeared to be a bipartisan march on gun control, it was plagued with several problems that a lot of political movements face in the United States nowadays: 1 – Absurd ideas stole the spotlight and 2 – It morphed into a partisan rally.
For problem number one, as many people have come to expect, it wasn’t the sensible and rational discussion that garnered the attention of the media, but it was the insane commentary from the vocal minority of the extremes that generated the headlines. And whilst there were some genuine concerns about the ‘lineup’ on the stage, the hysteria generated was unfortunately less towards the main premise of the march and fell upon the two extremes present there: those that wanted to fully repeal the 2A, and the pro-gun rights counter-protesters. Both groups did not hide their presence and made it their mission to keep the spotlight on them.
Fox News loved to report on those that wanted to repeal the 2A, saying “Look we told you! These liberals called us crazy for worrying about taking our guns, and now look what they’re saying!” whilst CNN seized the opportunity to say “Look at these insensitive gun-loving conservatives! They don’t even have the decency to not protest, given the context of the march.” And to the American none the wiser back home, it appeared that the march was of those trying to tear down the 2A, counter-protested by NRA stooges. Making those that saw the rally through the lens of the media perceive it for something it really wasn’t.
As for problem two. This hasn’t existed for so long in American politics, and it really only started beginning in late 2015 or early 2016. The tendency now that awards season just seems to be a repertoire of virtue signalling celebrities banging on about how bad Trump is and how we all need to #Resist. The Academy Awards has practically become the annual version of the Democratic National Convention at this point. Marches and demonstrations are also becoming subject to this.
The now annual Women’s March, a seemingly bipartisan rally is unfortunately plagued with the not-so-subtle vilification of conservative women. The March for Our Lives rally fell to the same unfortunate situation. Whilst it is wholeheartedly understandable to be angry at the Republican politicians actively blocking the gun control reforms that they want to see, to hold conservatives as directly responsible for that is not fair at all. The fact is, is that there were plenty of Republicans and even Libertarians at the March, however they were at best reluctantly tolerated and at worst snubbed altogether. Hunter Pollack, the older brother of Meadow Pollack who tragically died in the shooting, is an open conservative. He was apparently snubbed from a speaking slot given his outspoken right-wing views. Another case is Kyle Kashuv, another survivor of the shooting and an open conservative who is a vocal critic of extreme gun-control activists. He was also never invited to give a speech. The interesting thing? Both Kyle and Hunter were in favour of increasing restrictions on who could ad couldn’t buy guns. Given the combination of poor news coverage, and the fact that a seemingly nonpartisan rally for both conservatives and liberals to come together, turned into what was a democratic peprally, did more to help than hinder the goals of the rally.
I also personally question whether the rally will actually, if ever, bring about any of the change that they had hoped to achieve. On the one hand, they complain that the NRA is buying up politicians to vote the way they want, yet the March on Washington DC alone cost over $5 million. Wouldn’t that money have gone to much better use, dollar-for-result, by actually counter-lobbying the politicians that they accuse of being in the pocket of the NRA? Whilst they claim to have funds left over from the rally, they would have left the NRA quaking in their boots if they threatened them with counter-lobbying, rather than hold several rallies across the US. Some may say that buying politicians is “corrupt and undemocratic” and to that I say that if you want results, you’re going to have to start playing the game. Politicians are open to the highest bidder, anyone who has experience in politics will tell you that.
#4 – The Future of Firearms? Closing Statement
So, given all of this hype, where do we go from here? The organisers of March for Our Lives have claimed that they are going to begin lobbying. If that is successful, then the question is then to what extent? Will they close the gun show loophole? Will they enact federal laws requiring background checks? Will it even go as far as to ban so-called ‘assault weapons’ altogether? And if they fail? Will the American people put a stand to the lobbying and vote out anyone who has received money from lobbyists? And if not, how many more children will die before the politicians finally reject money from the NRA?
1 – America’s Complex Relationship with Guns
Kim Parker-Juliana Horowitz-Ruth Igielnik-Baxter Oliphant-Anna Brown –
Accessed March 2018
2 – Gun Inequality: US Study Charts Rise of Hardcore Super Owners
Lois Beckett – https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/19/us-gun-ownership-survey
Accessed March 2018
2 – Lena Taylor: Most NRA members back background checks on all gun purchases
Tom Kertscher- https://www.politfact.com/wisconsin/statements/2015/mar/18/lena-taylor/most-nramembers-back-background-checks-all-gun-pu.
Accessed March 2018