Wed 3rd Apr 2013
The American Constitution, AMENDMENT II: "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."
I find it incredible that ordinary US citizens believe that they have the right to keep and bear arms in this day and age. Understandably, in 18th century America when there was no institutional army to speak of, they would need to have citizens who could be called upon to defend their newly independent country. Nowadays, like almost every other state in the world, America has an army which is more than capable of defending the country. They also have a regulated police force and State Troopers who bear arms. Surely this is enough to protect the citizen. Apparently though, this Second Amendment has been latched onto as an inalienable right which nothing and nobody can touch.
I live in Britain. I had never even seen an armed policeman until I travelled to Europe as a young teenager. I remember feeling very vulnerable and scared by this sight. As for rifles held by private citizens, this too was way beyond my experience. I lived in a rural area and I am sure local farmers must have had guns but we never saw them. Guns are really not part of our culture in the same way as they are for many other countries.
I guess this is why we find it difficult to understand why anyone would want an instrument of death in their own home. Violence begets violence. We do have gun crime in the UK but it is significantly less common than in America for example. We have also had massacres here. Dunblane, Hungerford and recently, in Northumbria in the north of Britain, Raoul Moat rampaged across a town killing indiscriminately before turning the gun on himself. Fortunately, these incidents are relatively rare and perhaps more awful because of their rarity.
It is not as though the Constitution cannot be amended or even that an individual Amendment be repealed or given a new interpretation. Change has happened on at least thirty three occasions. The Constitution is and was intended to be, a malleable document that can be amended to adapt to the changing demands of the people.
In recent years the Second Amendment itself has had its essence changed by the Supreme Court in 2008 (District of Columbia v. Heller) to allow that private citizens could have guns to protect their property and families. It also indicated that the government could not ban handguns. It did not deny that the government could not ban assault weapons and the like from private hands. Private citizens are not militia and should not take the law into their own hands. This interpretation is also somewhat damning of the Police force: the people do not trust their own appointed Police force to keep them safe?
The Eighteenth Amendment created a period of time known as Prohibition as a result of the Temperance lobby wanting alcohol consumption and sales banned. In reality it did nothing to stop alcohol consumption. It merely caused an underground business benefitting gangsters like Al Capone and his ilk and allowed organised crime to flourish between 1920 and 1933. This amendment was subsequently repealed by the Twenty First Amendment in 1933, demonstrating again that in fact Amendments could be repealed too.
I have recently read two items which actually scared me in terms of children’s education in some States in America. Firstly, sex education is apparently not likely to be on the curriculum but how to use a gun and why one should be able to have a gun is a strong possibility. Secondly, some States are set to pass laws which will allow teachers to carry guns in the classroom. How soon will it be before a teacher shoots a student or students because they have ‘had enough’ of disruptive behaviour? The dots don’t seem to join up here!
Why does one need a gun? Safety, defence, pest control, or just for the sheer thrill of saying one has one? Every violent act can and often is, countered with another violent act but surely this then becomes a vicious circle of ever increasing violence towards each other. There are numerous accounts of people rushing out to buy guns and to stockpile ammunition after atrocities like the Colorado cinema murders last year and Sandy Hook this year. And the deaths continue.
The list of these gun mass murders is seemingly endless. The NRA is lobbying ferociously to prevent any kind of gun control being passed into the Statute Book. Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the NRA, appears to have absolutely no understanding of the pain caused to those families bereaved by the Newtown Sandy Hook Massacre. A father of one of the young victims was actually heckled by the gun lobby whilst trying to give evidence to support gun control. Ms Gabby Gifford made an emotional but succinct presentation on why gun control is more important now than ever before. Her husband, Mark Kelly, joined her and he too was attacked by LaPierre and his supporters.
What is it that makes gun control such an anathema to some Americans? Is it the idea that they live in the ‘land of the free?’ It cannot be because their freedoms have been steadily eroded over time. The First Amendment is a case in point.
The First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, OR ABRIDGING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, OR OF THE PRESS, (My capitals) or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Currently, one cannot criticise numerous things in America. You cannot criticise government Foreign Policy without fear of reprisal under the Patriot Act. You cannot express criticism of Israel and its policies for fear of AIPAC and numerous other pro-Israeli organisations levelling false charges of anti-Semitism.
Educational institutions like Brooklyn College are having their First Amendment rights breached because people like Alan Dershowitz do not want any of Israel’s apartheid and ethnic cleansing policies opened up for discussion because it might undermine Israel’s standing as a ‘victim’ in the psyche of the United States.
A Constitution that cannot grow with the times and with the people it governs is in danger of becoming a stranglehold on those freedoms that democracies like America seemingly hold so dear. Government must adapt, change and respond through the framework of the Constitution to the growing demands from its electorate if it is to remain relevant to them.
If it fails to be relevant, if it fails to respond, if it fails to adapt then democracy itself is threatened and all the so-called ‘inalienable rights’ become just words on a very old document. America condemns the autocratic and dictatorial rule it perceives in other parts of the world but by failing to see its own Constitution as a malleable document? Is it much better than those countries it so readily disapproves of?