The recent killing spree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in which six people were murdered (three by gunshot, three by knife wound) and others were injured prompts an important and valid question: “how many more?” Although gun violence is on the decline in the United States, awareness of it, fostered by the Information Revolution, has increased to the point that the American public thinks it occurs more than it actually does. That’s not to say it isn’t a serious issue which merits national attention. #NotOneMore — an advocacy campaign designed to mobilise the public to write their elected representatives in favour of gun control laws — answers that question. Popular sentiment regarding the urgency of addressing the problem crests and falls as killing sprees come and go, and is more or less split into two camps: public health advocates and gun control advocates. They agree that the government must do something to stem these violent outbursts (which is to assume that the government is capable of improving the status quo).
For adamant defenders of the Second Amendment, the natural choice appears to be in support of making the gun violence issue about mental health. However, this runs aground of evidence to the contrary. A disheartening op-ed by a former Harvard Medical School psychiatrist reveals that allocating more funding to mental health treatment is unlikely to alleviate the United States’ spree killer problem for a number of reasons. Many of the recent murderers, whose names are now ingrained in the country’s collective consciousness, had been under psychiatric treatment. (Note: it is my belief that mentioning mass killers by name glorifies the actor, exacerbating the problem by inspiring similar acts. As such, I avoid doing so). If mental health funding is not the solution, perhaps legislation is.
“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions…But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”1
Etched into his Memorial, Thomas Jefferson’s words merit consideration. Is the Second Amendment a relic? Some gun rights advocates have displayed outright callousness to UCSB victims’ families, saying “your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights”. Such a view sees the Constitution as an end-in-itself, which it is not. The Constitution tacitly accepted mass enslavement; it is not infallible. However, the Constitution’s flaws are the exception, not the rule — no codified set of principles has ever sustained a country for so long. The Constitution exists to protect citizens from government that would infringe upon their principal natural rights, which are the right to property, freedom of contract, first possession, self-defence, and restitution2 or, more poetically, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
Gun control purists who believe that society should be disarmed suffer from faulty assumptions about human nature, a myopic view of history, and a naïveté about the future. They aren’t really anti-gun, they just believe that only the government should have guns, or at least that the average citizen is a threat to society for owning a firearm capable of inflicting the kind of mass carnage found in war. The Founding Fathers shared none of these delusions; they recognised that individuals in positions of power, being self-interested, expand their authority and power for personal gain, coming at the expense of the citizens. They also understood that once rights are voluntarily conceded, they aren’t regained. A disarmed American public would leave a concentration of unchallenged coercive power in the hands of the government. Any entity with a monopoly on violence is a threat to a free society.
There’s an elephant in the room. We need to talk about the Second Amendment for what it is.
Every single amendment in the United States Bill of Rights is designed to protect the citizenry from government abuse. Let me restate that so it’s absolutely clear: the right to bear arms protects citizens from any future regime that would hold a monopoly on violence and use that to oppress them. The system of checks and balances limits one branch of government from dominating the others; the Second Amendment is the citizens’ check against its government. Consistent with the ideal that government’s legitimacy depends on the consent of the governed, the Declaration of Independence makes clear that citizens reserve the right of rebellion:
“[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Prudent laws are not made for political expediency or to “do something”. We are immeasurably fortunate to not bear the shackles of tyranny upon our wrists today, but let us not be so arrogant to think that despotism could never occur on these shores — not today, not likely in our lifetimes, but if you watched The Hunger Games and dismissed it as an impossible fantasy, its message was lost on you. American democracy is not guaranteed; it must be actively cultivated and preserved. The survival of liberal democratic institutions and norms in the United States requires that The People remain its custodians.
“[W]hat country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”3
— Thomas Jefferson
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Comparing the rate of gun violence in the United .States to the rest of the developed world is problematic because the American historical experience is unlike any other. The U.S. is the world’s longest continually-established democracy.4 The second-longest was forged by comparable processes, making for an interesting parallel. Amid the liberal Revolutions of 1848, Switzerland emerged as a new, unified state in the wake of a civil war. Its Constitution of 1848 transformed the country from a loose confederation of cantons to a federal parliamentary republic; modelled after the U.S. Constitution, it reserved powers to local jurisdiction in similar fashion. Lacking a national firearm registry, the Swiss are allowed to keep military-grade weapons at home, rights they reaffirmed in a 2011 referendum in which a 20-6 majority of cantons and 56.3% of overall citizens rejected tighter gun control measures. Switzerland also joins the U.S. at the top of the list of firearms per person, yet has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world.
The case of Switzerland illustrates that owning automatic firearms bears no necessary correlation to violent crime. Perhaps, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the dramatic difference in gun violence is a matter of how our institutions shape our society. The most glaring difference is in the foreign policies of the two. Switzerland has been officially neutral since its declaration was issued and recognised in the 1815 Treaty of Paris, while the United States’ involvement in international conflict has been prolific (to put it mildly), lately in search of dragons to slay.
What makes Americans such a violent lot, compared to the rest of the developed world? Theories abound. It may be the case that our formative experience has left us with unique scars. If there is one singularly salient locus, it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint, but whatever it is, it’s so deeply embedded in “American-ness” that I doubt it’s a problem that can be legislated away. China, where guns are illegal, has a similar problem of violent knife attacks. Yes, it is easier to spray bullets into a theatre than it is to stab the same number of people. But robust gun control would undermine an important aspect of democracy without addressing the matter of what makes Americans especially prone to wanting to kill so many innocent victims. Violent people are violent people before they have committed an act of violence.
From 2009 to 2013, mass shooters killed a spouse, partner, or family member in 57% of the cases. Relying on the government is a convenient moral solution; it absolves the individual of any culpability. We should not be asking “how many more shootings have to happen before the government tries to stop them?” Nor should we accept the false choice fallacy presented to us, that the country can either choose “common sense” gun control measures or accept mass murders as a part of life. Reducing gun violence in the U.S. cannot occur by a quick and easy fix. Americans need to look in the mirror and ask the most pressing question, one which is completely lost in the debate:
How many more people have to die in mass murders before we start treating our family and friends with compassion, and strangers with respect and decency?