Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mass Shooting in America (1/2): Guns

The most horrific thing about mass shooting is not just the number of people killed or wounded, but it is rather how easily one can identify with the victims.

The massacre in Aurora, Col is a no exception: who hasn't been (or doesn't anyone who has been) to the movie premiere of a much anticipated blockbuster?

Mass shootings are horrible abnormalities in very normal time and places - in schools, on campuses, at political gathering, in shopping malls, in churches - in all those locations that we are so accustomed to and that are part of our everyday life. And so the victims could be us because, even though it is statistically unlikely it should happen near you, the sentiment is that it can strike anyone, anywhere, anytime. 

The other scary element is that contrary to what you may see in Europe, those are recurrent events. (see my post on this blog last year). The last killing spree in the U.S. happened only last April 2012.
And every time, it prompts a "national talk" on gun control in the United States (NYTimes, Wash. Post), while the rest of the world is watching, bewildered.
And the two sides of the issue are mostly divided along party lines:
With 70% of Republicans but only 30% of Democrats saying it's more important to protect the rights of gun owners than to control gun ownership. (source here)
Now it seems that the conservative side has won the argument, despite the recurrent mass shootings, and even optimists, likes James Fallows cannot imagine this to change any time soon.

It is very hard for the rest of the world to even begin to understand where Americans come from on gun issues, especially if they hear an argument like that of this representative from Texas who questioned "why nobody else in the theater had a gun to take down the shooter." (here) - a typical pro-gun argument.
There is a sense that the United States is really apart from the rest of the world on this question. And it is.

First because because the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. But from reading it, you'd never guess it is about people carrying weapons for their private use. It reads
“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"

This has been used by the Supreme Court to strike down gun restrictive laws. Yet, it was not always so. 

Jill Lepore, a Professor of American History at Harvard University, had an excellent (but very long) piece on the gun issue in the New Yorker last April.

She explains that the current prevalent view of the 2nd Amendment is something rather recent and finds its origins - against all odds -in the liberalism of the 1960s, she says.
They are the product of what the Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet has called the “rights revolution,” the pursuit of rights, especially civil rights, through the courts. In the nineteen-sixties, gun ownership as a constitutional right was less the agenda of the N.R.A. than of black nationalists.
Even more surprising, the NRA (National Rifle Association - the very powerful gun lobby) supported the 1968 Gun Control Act, in the wake of the assinnations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The N.R.A.’s executive vice-president said at the time that although some elements of the legislation “appear unduly restrictive and unjustified in their application to law-abiding citizens, the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.”
In the 1970s, the N.R.A. began advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun, rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for the common defense. 
Opposing gun control was also consistent with a larger anti-regulation, libertarian, and anti-government conservative agenda. 
Ironically (since he was himself shot), Ronald Reagan was the first Presidential candidate whom the N.R.A. had endorsed.
In 1986, the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment achieved new legal authority with the passage of the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which repealed parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act by invoking “the rights of citizens . . . to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.” 

In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5–4 decision, that the District’s 1975 Firearms Control Regulations Act was unconstitutional. Justice Scalia wrote, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.” Two years later, in another 5–4 ruling, McDonald v. Chicago, the Court extended Heller to the states.
Despite this:
Since 1980, forty-four states have passed some form of law that allows gun owners to carry concealed weapons outside their homes for personal protection. (Five additional states had these laws before 1980. Illinois is the sole holdout.) A federal ban on the possession, transfer, or manufacture of semiautomatic assault weapons, passed in 1994, was allowed to expire in 2004. In 2005, Florida passed the Stand Your Ground law, an extension of the so-called castle doctrine, exonerating from prosecution citizens who use deadly force when confronted by an assailant, even if they could have retreated safely; Stand Your Ground laws expand that protection outside the home to any place that an individual “has a right to be.” Twenty-four states have passed similar laws.
There may be hope:
The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five.
(End of Part 1)

No comments: