In matters of the gun, America bites the bullet
Published in Gulf News, 31 July 2009
By Gordon Robison, Special to Weekend Review
It was a scene difficult to envision anywhere but in the United States. One Saturday afternoon recently, about 200 people gathered at the New Bethel Church in Louisville, Kentucky, to celebrate and reaffirm their right to own guns.
The event was organised by the church's pastor. In an interview with The New York Times he said the feedback prior to the event had been "90 to 95 per cent positive", and compared criticism of it with "honking and making obscene gestures" at someone driving the speed limit on a freeway.
"I'm not doing anything that is illegal, unbiblical, unhistorical or unconstitutional but people still want me to justify it," Reverend Ken Pagano said.
"If it were not for a deep-seated belief in the right to bear arms, this country would not be here today," he told the Associated Press.
Though the event was officially billed as the "Open Carry Celebration" (as in carry your gun openly) it was impossible to tell how many people at the event were actually armed.
Kentucky law makes it fairly easy to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon: anyone over 21 who has no felony convictions and passes a simple safety test is approved.
America's love affair with firearms has long baffled and frightened much of the rest of the world. It is not just that buying and carrying a gun legally is so easy to do in the US, despite a murder rate that is significantly higher than anywhere else in the developed world (2.8 times higher than neighbouring Canada, 3 times higher than the United Kingdom and 37 times that of Qatar).
What many non-Americans find disconcerting is the way US politicians and their constituents tend to look at all that violence and see reasons why the country needs more, not fewer, guns.
In October 1991 an unemployed former seaman named George Jo Hennard crashed his pick-up truck through the front window of a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas.
Hennard then pulled out two semi-automatic pistols and began shooting, killing 23 people and wounding 20 before turning the weapons on himself.
At the time it was the deadliest such shooting in United States history (since supplanted by the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech University).
In most other countries such a horrific event would have spurred immediate calls for tougher gun laws. This being the US, however, the reaction was quite different.
Within hours of the bloodbath, Chet Edwards, a congressman who had a number of constituents among the victims, had abandoned his support of a gun control measure then making its way through the House of Representatives.
Though Texas, like most western and southern states in America, already had relatively easygoing gun regulations, the massacre sparked a drive to loosen the existing rules. In particular, gun advocates cited the Killeen shooting in arguing it should be easier for citizens to carry concealed weapons in public.
Dr Jim Brown, a spokesman for the Texas State Rifle Association, explained: "Maybe somebody could have stopped that crazy guy in there had there been an armed citizen."
The concealed weapons law was signed in 1995 by then Texas governor George W. Bush. He had won the governorship the previous year by defeating an incumbent, Ann Richards, who had vetoed an earlier version of the measure. Bush made that veto one of the major issues of his campaign.
It would be a mistake, however, to think this attitude is confined to the South and West - the regions often thought of as the centre of America's gun culture.
Last autumn, campaign workers at an Obama phone bank in New England, the part of the country generally viewed as most liberal, found that the single issue most often raised by sceptical voters was guns.
In a region where hunting has been a recreational mainstay for generations, voters found it all too easy to believe that the candidate's call for stricter controls on handguns in urban areas meant that he was really planning to take away everyone's hunting rifles (on election day, however, Obama carried all six New England states).
All of this finds its origin in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. This reads, in full:
"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."
Judges and scholars have puzzled over the precise meaning of those 27 words for two centuries. Even the sentence's odd 18th-century punctuation has been subjected to the legal equivalent of a forensic examination.
The amendment's roots lie in the fact that the early US had no standing army. The Continental Army formed to fight the American Revolution was dissolved as soon as it won independence from Great Britain.
Though a professional military took shape in the generation that followed it remained tiny well into the 20th century. Wars brought swarms of volunteers into military service - virtually all of whom returned to civilian life as soon as the war in question ended.
Historian David Fromkin has noted that when the US entered the First World War in 1917, president Woodrow Wilson had fewer soldiers available to him than George Washington had commanded almost 150 years earlier. The gap had always been filled by state militias, the precursors of today's National Guard.
In their modern form these consist of part-time soldiers who receive the same sort of training as regular army units and can be called into full-time service should the need arise (the US forces in Iraq have made extensive use of the National Guard).
In the 18th century, however, it meant ordinary citizens who kept a gun in the house (in frontier areas that would have meant just about everyone) and could be summoned to service whenever there was a threat from, for example, the British, the French or a hostile Indian tribe .
Gun control advocates argue this is what the constitution means by "a well-ordered militia", and that the document's authors never envisioned an absolute right to own a firearm.
That, however, is exactly what successive generations of Americans have been raised to believe.
Just as few people believe themselves to be poor drivers, pretty much every American who owns a gun believes him or herself to be responsible in its storage and use.
Everyone agrees that criminals and irresponsible people should be denied guns, but no one believes themselves to be irresponsible.
Just how deeply ingrained this attitude is in America is evidenced by the fact that no one really knows how many guns are in private hands.
Even the pro-gun lobby, which unabashedly contends that more firearms are better, reaches its favoured number of 250,000,000 plus by extrapolating from a decade-old government study and a 2005 research paper from the National Academy of Sciences.
Because of varying state laws, the gun lobby's opposition to registration and licensing and the fact that older weapons were never registered in the first place (the alleged Holocaust Museum killer used a model of rifle that has not been manufactured since the 1920s), there is literally no way of knowing how many weapons are actually out there.
Meanwhile, recent weeks have seen both several high-profile shootings and several equally high-profile setbacks for American gun control advocates.
In late May US President Barack Obama signed sweeping legislation designed to give consumers more protections vis-à-vis the credit card companies.
Buried deep within the Bill, however, was a provision inserted by Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, authorising the carrying of loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges.
The president is required to sign or veto a Bill in its entirety. Obama opposed the gun provision but was not willing to lose the credit card safeguards over it; so, to the horror of the gun control lobby, he signed.
An even bigger setback came a month later when the Supreme Court ruled a long-standing ban on handguns in the city of Washington DC to be unconstitutional.
Writing for the Court's 5-4 majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said the wording of the Second Amendment will not allow "the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defence in the home".
The wording of the judgment was unusually far-reaching. Legal scholars believe it goes a long way towards cementing into law the popular belief that gun ownership is an absolute right.
Few doubt President Obama's preference is for a stronger, further-reaching, gun control. Events of recent weeks - from Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court to a church in Kentucky - have, however, reinforced the extent to which that sort of change in American attitude and law simply is not possible.
Not, at least, in political terms; and not at the moment. For the foreseeable future the US seems set to remain the most heavily-armed country in the Western world. Its gun culture is built from equal parts tradition and fear; uniquely enduring and uniquely American.
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List of shooting incidents
The following list of significant shooting incidents in recent US history is far from comprehensive. These are merely some of the better-known killings:
- June 10, 2009: An 88-year-old man with a history of anti-Semitism allegedly shoots and kills a guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.
- May 31, 2009: George Tiller, one of the few doctors in the US performing late-term abortions, is killed while attending church in Wichita, Kansas.
- April 10, 2009: A student at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan, kills a female classmate and then himself.
- October 27, 2008: Two people are killed and one is wounded in a shootout at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Arkansas. Four men, aged 19 and 20, are charged with the crime.
- February 14, 2008: At Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, a former student kills five people and injures 16 before killing himself.
- February 8, 2008: A student at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, kills two fellow students and then herself. Notably, the shooter and her victims are female.
- April 16, 2007: A student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, kills 33, including himself, and injures 20 in the deadliest peacetime shooting by a lone gunman in US history.
- October 2, 2006: Gunman kills five girls at an Amish school in Nikel Mines, Pennsylvania, before killing himself.
- March 21, 2005: A high-school student in Red Lake, Minnesota, kills eight schoolmates and then himself.
- April 20, 1999: Two students of Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, kill 12 students, a teacher and themselves, and injure 21.
- March 24, 1998: Two boys, aged 11 and 13, kill four girls and a teacher at their middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
- October 16, 1991: An unemployed man crashes his truck into a cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and opens fire, killing 23 and injuring 20 before killing himself.
- July 18, 1984: A gunman at a McDonald's near San Diego, California, kills 21 and leaves 19 injured before he is shot dead by police.