Dividing Words and Unifying Dances, Part Three
Author’s Update: After the writing of this article, two mass shootings occurred in the US within a 24-hour period on August 3-4, 2019. At least 22 people died in a mall shooting in El Paso, Texas, and another nine in a nightclub shooting in Dayton, Ohio. The incidents have left over 50 people wounded.
After leading her country out of a deep darkness following the Christchurch Mosque Shootings, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looked across the Pacific and was mystified. When CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour reminded her that the US has experienced 110 mass shootings since 1982, Ardern said,
“Australia experienced a massacre and changed its laws. New Zealand has had its experience and changed its laws. To be honest with you, I don’t understand the United States.”
The New Zealand law change Ardern refers to is the comprehensive ban of military-style assault weapons enacted in April 2019 by a nearly unanimous vote. What she cannot understand is why the best that the US has ever mustered was a partial assault weapons ban passed in 1994. The ban did not remove any existing weapons from circulation, had multiple loopholes, and quietly expired 10 years later.
Ardern is not alone. Most of the world finds the intensity of US “gun culture” bewildering. Previously, we looked at President Donald Trump’s divisive language and resistance to gun law changes, along with the backlash against US teenagers pleading for government action.
Behind all of the discord and strife over mass violence in America today, there is a lone sentence in a 231-year-old document – the cryptically worded Second Amendment to the US Constitution. The ongoing controversy about the meaning of the amendment holds the key to the myths and mystique surrounding guns in America.
First, however, it is important to set the record straight about whether the US actually is the gun-crazed nation that it appears to be from afar.
Gun Ownership in the US – Facts and Misconceptions
The most commonly cited statistic on US gun ownership is that American civilians collectively own around 390 million firearms. That figure represents 46% of all civilian-owned guns worldwide, even though the US accounts for less than 4.5% of the global population. It also means that there is a privately owned gun for every adult and child in the country. No other country’s people own firearms at even half that rate.
However, the image of every American packing heat is a gross exaggeration. It is difficult to get an exact count because of lax gun registration laws in the country, but most polls indicate that fewer than one-third of US adults own even a single gun. The percentage is far lower in some states with primarily urban populations, such as the 5.8% gun ownership rate in Rhode Island.
Furthermore, research shows that just 3% of American adults own up to 133 million guns between them, an average of over 13 guns per person in the group. If these numbers are accurate, then more than a third of all civilian-owned guns in the US are held by a tiny minority of the nation’s citizens.
It is also worth noting that even according to estimates put forward by the extremely anti-weapons-ban National Rifle Association (NRA), assault weapons account for fewer than 4% of all civilian-owned guns in the US.
In short, true gun fanatics are rare in the US, very few US gun owners have assault weapons, and most Americans do not own any guns at all. These numbers suggest that an assault weapons ban would face little opposition in the country. So why do so many Americans resist a law that would have no impact on their lives, except perhaps to keep them safer?
For one thing, money talks in US politics, and the NRA receives tens of millions of dollars in support from firearms manufacturers. However, the NRA’s greatest advantage lies in the fact that the US Constitution is one of only three constitutions in use today that enshrines a right to own guns. And very few countries revere their constitutions the way US residents do.
How Americans View Their Constitution – Freedom Myths
With the possible exception of oldest national constitution still functioning today. Given that it includes many previously untried methods for organizing a national government, the overall stability of both the document and the government based on it have been remarkable.
Giving credit where it is due, all of the world’s democratic nations owe a debt to the US Constitution. Many of them have used it as a reference when drafting or revising their own constitutions. However, the world also sees this bedrock of US law for what it is: an intelligently written document with glaring flaws that no modern democracy should aspire to emulate.
Most infamously, the US Constitution sanctioned the horror of slavery. That moral failing was only undone by a civil war that remains the bloodiest conflict in the country’s history. The document is also silent on the subject of women’s rights, in spite of a famous appeal from Abigail Adams to her husband John, who went on to become the second US president.
Nevertheless, many Americans view the US Constitution as a virtually sacred document, a nearly perfect expression of the ideal of individual freedom. Some even suggest that the constitution had divine origins, an extraordinary claim given that it forbids government ties to religion.
At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Americans line up under the watchful eye of armed guards to view the original copy of their constitution. In a rather striking bit of irony, both the main body of the document and the accompanying Bill of Rights are encased in bulletproof glass. At night, the parchments reside in a vault capable of withstanding a nuclear bomb blast.
Even among Americans who take a realistic view of their nation’s constitution, the phrase “constitutional right” carries tremendous weight. And in spite of their reputation as voices for change, fewer than half of American millennials favor significant rewriting of the US Constitution. That statistic represents a downward trend compared to the prior two generations. If anything, the document’s mythic status continues to grow.
Yet US founders themselves had no delusions about the imperfections of any constitution. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the nation’s Declaration of Independence and a contributor to the constitution, took for granted that the document would need regular updates. In a letter to activist Samuel Kercheval, Jefferson famously wrote,
“…I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind … we might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy, as civilized society to remain under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
The Second Amendment in Context – The Right to Bear Arms
In spite of the myths, the main body of the US Constitution does not say a lot about personal freedoms and rights. The phrase “constitutional rights” usually refers to rights spelled out in the constitution’s 27 amendments, especially the first 10 amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights. The second of those amendments is the cornerstone of US gun culture:
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.
Unlike other constitutional amendments, this one begins with what amounts to a “why statement” – an explanation of the reason for its existence. Unfortunately, constitutional scholars agree that no one really knows what the reference to a militia was supposed to mean.
Ironically, the author of the amendment, James Madison, was not generally known as a man of few words. The many Federalist Papers he wrote spell out the basis for the constitution in exhausting detail. Perhaps Madison believed that the meaning of the amendment would be clear to others of his time … and perhaps it was. After all, the US Supreme Court did not hear a major Second Amendment-related case until nearly 100 years later (US v. Cruikshank, in 1876).
What we know for sure is that prior to becoming the United States, the 13 American colonies had a militia system brought over from Great Britain. Under this system, most men were not just allowed, but required to keep guns (either individually or in a shared storage facility), so that a local militia could respond to a crisis without waiting on the slow-moving British Army.
However, as tensions mounted between American colonists and the UK government in the 1770s, British troops began maintaining a constant presence in the colonies. As part of their efforts to squash the brewing rebellion, they set about disarming citizen militias.
Some present-day gun rights lobbyists argue that British efforts to seize civilian firearms were the main cause of the American Revolution, which began in 1775. However, the vast majority of historians agree that the primary causes of the war date back well before the British interfered with colonial militias, and that by the time they did, war was almost inevitable.
It is also worth noting that for religious reasons, some colonists objected more to being forced to keep guns than to giving them up. Quakers, for example, are forbidden to carry weapons. Recognizing this issue, Madison added a clause to early drafts of the Second Amendment:
“…but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
This deleted phrase makes clear the connection between the right to bear arms and, to use the US Constitution’s own language, “the common defense” of a state. It also shows how well Madison understood that protecting individual liberty is a delicate matter: What one person sees as protection of personal freedom, another might see as an imposition or even a denial of fundamental rights.
Still, all this history shows that gun rights lobbyists have at least one thing right. To some degree, the Second Amendment evidently was intended to protect citizens from forced disarmament at the hands of a powerful government. However, the claim made by late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia that this protection is essentially unconnected to military service is much harder to defend in light of Madison’s words.
What is the status of state and local militias in the US today? In essence, they do not exist. Technically, the Army and Air Force National Guard divisions within each state serve as that state’s “organized militia”. However, as its very name suggests, the National Guard is a national organization, under the command of the US Army and US Air Force. Weapons wielded by National Guard members are provided by the US Department of Defense, not privately purchased by the members. Truly independent, well-organized militia units like the Massachusetts Minutemen of US Revolutionary times simply are not part of the country’s present-day defense landscape.
The roughly 300 groups calling themselves citizen “militias” in the US are far from well regulated. Most of them are far-right organizations that stockpile weapons and openly oppose the US federal government, which they see as tyrannical. Of course, the very fact that such organizations are allowed to exist proves that the government is not tyrannical, but such is the power of constitutional myths.
How Do Most Americans View the Second Amendment Today?
US founders certainly never imagined the array of weaponry available in the 21st century. Above all, it is America’s resistance to adjusting laws to fit new gun realities that baffles leaders like Ardern. Instead of pragmatically responding to today’s challenges, the US strains its eyes by holding any new gun law up to the fuzzy light of an aging parchment. The debate always returns to words written a century before the first assault weapons were invented.
However, there are signs that the American teens who keep marching today will live to see real change. While very few Americans favor abolishing the right to bear arms, extreme pro-gun views are out of step with the current US political mainstream. According to polls conducted since 2017, the majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws, regardless of their political affiliation. And the numbers are climbing.
The idea that rights described in the US Constitution should (and do) have limits is not new, of course. The Supreme Court has long recognized exceptions to free speech protections, particularly when a form of speech endangers the public. Common sense suggests that if free speech can threaten public safety, surely free access to assault weapons can as well.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court has never ruled that the right to bear arms is unlimited. Multiple have stated over the years that it would not violate the Second Amendment to restrict or even prohibit civilian ownership of weapons “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes”.
For those steeped in US gun culture, however, the myths remain more influential than any thoughtful analysis of how to move beyond the amendment’s puzzling words.
NRA Responses to Mass Violence Promote Gun Culture Myths
“There is no greater personal individual freedom than the right to keep and bear arms, the right to protect yourself, and the right to survive. It’s not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans as our American birthright. So I call right now today on every citizen who loves this country and who treasures this freedom to stand and unflinchingly defend the Second Amendment, the one freedom that protects us all.” —Wayne LaPierre, NRA Executive Vice President
As the most powerful pro-gun organization in the world, the NRA has become the voice of American gun culture. Here is a quick fact check of some NRA lobbyists’ recent claims.
- Any legislation will lead to confiscation.
After New Zealand enacted its assault weapons ban, the NRA sounded one of its favorite refrains: A similar US ban would be just the first step toward government confiscation of all guns, and the resulting loss of every freedom Americans hold dear. In reality, no major US leader has ever proposed a general confiscation of civilian-owned guns.
- “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre spoke these words after the Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting, which led to the 2018 US national student walkout. LaPierre’s words aligned with Donald Trump’s tweets about arming teachers, but not with reality. Many mass shootings are suicide missions, which means that the shooter would not be deterred by others with guns. Unarmed civilians have also subdued a number of shooters, according to the .
- More guns mean fewer gun-related deaths.
There are countries and US states with very high gun ownership rates but low gun murder rates, and vice versa. With clever cherry picking, pro-gun groups can make it look like the available data shows no connection between the number of guns citizens own and how many people die in shootings – or even that a higher gun ownership rate makes a community safer.
However, complete data from US states shows a clear trend of gun-caused deaths increasing with gun ownership. And the US rate of gun homicide absolutely dwarfs the rate of every other high-income country.
Can the US Gun Situation Ever Change?
When New Zealand students drew strength from their nation’s haka tradition after the Christchurch shootings, it showed a key advantage Kiwis have over Americans in responding to mass violence. Their national identity and their national laws exist separately, in parallel.
In the end, New Zealand showed that laws can be changed at the same time as unity and national purpose are affirmed.
The US Constitution, on the other hand, sometimes hangs like an albatross around Americans’ necks. The myths surrounding the formidable but flawed document have interwoven American identity with the laws of the land. More than loving guns, Americans fear that if they tamper with the nation’s foundational documents, everything that it means to be American will unravel.
Somehow, the US must find a way to disentangle its meaning, its hopes and dreams, from those documents. As Jefferson warned, there is danger in equating freedom solely with rights spelled out by long-dead founders. Parents who fear that they will learn about their child’s school day from a newsfeed instead of over dinner are not free. Freedom of religion is an empty promise when a gunman might burst through the door of a house of worship at any moment.
As US presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy pointed out over 50 years ago, oneness should be a source of liberty, not an obstacle to it. Kennedy delivered his famed “Mindless Menace of Violence” speech on April 5, 1968, the day after the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just 62 days after delivering the speech, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles, California.