May 5, 2013

Gun Control Versus Gun Rights

Out of all modern states, the U.S. has the longest democratic tradition. Most democratic norms, freedoms and rules of functioning of political institutions have been enshrined by the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1787. However, this continuity has not only positive consequences: the creators of the Constitution could not have foreseen how the situation in the domestic and foreign policy would change within centuries, that is why many provisions of the Constitution need to be adapted to today’s realities, and without such an adaptation can create problems. In this case, the traditional legitimacy of these provisions could be a serious obstacle in trying to reform them in accordance with the changed situation. One of the examples is the right to own weapons, the debate around which in the USA was renewed after the mass shooting in Arizona in January 2011, during which the U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was heavily wounded. The right to own weapons is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, the Second Amendment that states: “As a duly organized Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be limited.” To understand the amendment, and the controversy surrounding it in the modern United States, it is necessary first to recall the historical situation in which the amendment was adopted.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

It is necessary to pay attention to the fact that the right to gun ownership was initially associated with the activities of militia. This militia consisted of all adult males, which, if necessary, could defend their colony, and later the U.S. state using guns they possessed. After independence, the existence of militia in every state was one of the key attributes of the original state system of the United States: a national army was absent, security was maintained by militia in every States, thus, the states emphasized their independence in a relationship with a weak general federal government. The weakness of the federal government created a lot of problems, so in 1787 the convention was convened to develop a constitution to strengthen the central government and solve these problems. To adopt the Constitution, it was necessary to adopt a number of amendments to protect individual rights and thus become additional guarantees preventing possible power usurpation. Thus, the Second Amendment not only guarantees that any U.S. citizen can own a gun to defend the country from external threats, but also the fact that the same gun can be used to protect the freedom of the country, if a government tries to destroy the democratic regime in the U.S. This inner political aspect of the history of the Second Amendment gives it a special significance, and explains the difficulties faced by today’s opponents of the free gun ownership in the U.S (Blocher, J. 2012).

During the existence of the U.S. Constitution, courts, including the Supreme, have considered numerous cases related to effect of the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court repeatedly affirmed that the right protected by the Second Amendment is an individual, that is, all citizens of the United States, with few exceptions (former criminals, mentally abnormal citizens, etc.) have this right.

In the twentieth century, the nature of the debate surrounding the Second Amendment has changed: the main controversy unfolded over the meaning that this amendment has to public safety and order. Opponents of free gun ownership indicate that as the result of the Second Amendment, the criminals get more access to guns and, therefore, become more dangerous. Proponents argue that the Second Amendment gives every citizen the opportunity to arm himself against criminals, and acts as a deterrent to potential offenders, fearing armed resistance on the part of potential victims. This discussion became particularly intense in the second half of the seventies – early nineties of the twentieth century, when the constant and rapid growth of crimes, especially those related to the sale and use of drugs, and murder, was both for supporters and opponents of the Second Amendment the argument in support of their positions.

Gun Ownership Right and Public Safety in the U.S.

Today, it is obvious, that ignoring of the problems caused by the availability of weapons in the U.S. is explained by the fact that the American politicians do not have solutions to these problems.

What are the problems? According to estimates of the NGO Brady Campaign to prevent violence with weapons, only in 2007 due to the use of weapons 31, 224 people died, of whom 12,632 were killed, 17,352 committed suicide, 613 people were killed in the accidents, 351 were killed due to the actions of the police, 276 for other reasons. Also, this year 66,678 people were injured due to the use of guns, of whom 44,466 persons were attacked with firearms, 3,013 people tried to commit suicide, 18,610 people were injured in accidents, 679 were injured due to the actions of the police. Nearly twenty thousand people from this number of the dead and injured have not reached the age of 20 (Miller, Hemenway, 2008).

Supporters of the Second Amendment do not regard these figures as an argument against the right to own weapons, arguing that it is impossible to calculate how many of these victims are explained by the general availability of weapons in the U.S.; on the contrary, they show that the crime situation in many parts of the country force the Americans to acquire weapons. For reference it should be noted that the gun is the most common means of suicide in the U.S. and in 2012 the total number of suicides amounted to 34,598.

Meanwhile, from year to year in the United States another problem associated with the right to freedom of gun ownership is becoming increasingly evident. The number of victims of the mass shootings, when, as a rule, mentally ill criminals open fire at random victims in crowded places is growing steadily. Mass shootings indicate the extreme danger of the freedom of gun ownership to public safety. U.S. security agencies are faced with the need to solve a complex problem: as a result of the Second Amendment in fact at any time in any place, any citizen can open fire on the surrounding people. Not surprisingly, that the U.S. law enforcement agencies cannot cope with such a huge task of ensuring security – police can hardly prevent such mass shootings as long as the rights to freedom of gun ownership exists.

Today, there is no even centralized statistics of mass shootings in the U.S. If we analyze the particular high-profile cases, which were detailed by the U.S. media, it is possible to pay attention to some common features of perpetrators of these crimes. Typically, these attackers have serious mental problems and make the object of their crimes the institution which has become the personification of life’s challenges. In recent years the places of mass shootings were educational institutions, drug addiction testing center, unemployed immigrants help center, that is, objects of social infrastructure, often engaged in work only with the categories of citizens having problems in their relationships with society and the state.

Tragedy in Arizona

The mass shooting in Arizona in January 2011 was typical in many ways. On January 8, 2011 Jared Lee Loughner opened fire during a meeting of the U.S. Congress deputy Gabrielle Giffords with voters in Tucson supermarket. Six people, including a judge of the District Court, were killed, fourteen were wounded, Giffords was among them.

First, it should be noted that Loughner experienced serious problems in social adaptation, apparently, he abused with alcohol and drug and personal problems have led to the development of mental illness. He was expelled from school, was constantly discharged from work, friends, relatives and colleagues noted the difficulties in communicating with him. Loughner did not manage to enter the college and join the army. Despite the obvious mental problems and negative results of the examination by army recruits, Loughner has not only managed to get the gun, but also the cartridge clip for the gun, which has led to such a great number of victims of his crime. In the case of Loughner the experts say that the organizer of the January shooting in Arizona needed compulsory psychiatric treatment, which is almost not applied in the U.S. now, since it is believed that it violates human rights (Jain, 2011). However, whatever was Loughners state and possible causes of his crime, it is obvious that if the attacker had no means to carry it out, the shooting would not have happened. In this case, it goes even not about the existence of the right to own weapons in the United States – in the case of Loughner the questions arise concerning the exercise of this right.

First, even the most ardent supporters of the Second Amendment would agree that there should be some limit of the number of those whom it concerns, for example, it is clear that it is impossible to arm children, prisoners, and mentally ill people.

Second, even we do not question the right of gun ownership, the question is what weapon Americans may possess. Arizona is known as one of the states with liberal laws concerning arms trafficking. For Loughner it was not a big deal to get the increased cartridge clip in Arizona to increase the number of cartridges, which led to more victims of his crime – instead of the standard clips containing 17 cartridges, he used the increased one with 33 cartridges.

It is clear that the right to gun ownership should be subject to reasonable restrictions to ensure that it does not compromise the protection of other rights, above all, to life and security. The U.S. lawmakers at all levels face a difficult task to find a balance between respect for the Second Amendment and the protection of public safety and order.

Prospects of Legislative Regulation

From 1994 to 2004, in the United States a ten-year federal ban on assault weapons was in effect and severely limited the types of weapons that the Americans were able to buy. This limitation was primarily related to automatic and semi-automatic weapons. It should be noted that 1994 the law was passed quickly as the number of murders in the U.S. reached unprecedented levels, and crime prevention was declared the main task by the politicians at all levels. However, in 2004 when the law expired, the number of crimes has dropped significantly, and several attempts to extend the law failed. Most observers attribute the failure of attempts to limit the right of gun ownership in the U.S. to the operations of the U.S. National Rifle Association (NRA) and other non-governmental organizations that have declared their aim to protect the Second Amendment to the Constitution (Persky, 2010). The success of all these organizations has two main reasons: first, they are able to very effectively appeal to political reasons of the Second Amendment (protection of democracy and prevention of tyranny). The second reason is lobbying of interests of arms dealers by some influential politicians. Given all this, it is little wonder that even the shooting in Arizona has not changed the situation: the question of tightening control over the circulation of weapons in the U.S. continues to remain on the periphery of the public debate and the political process. Of course, there are organized and very active groups of supporters of restrictions on the right to gun ownership. For example, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, supporting the view that exists in his electorate, advocates the restrictions on arms trade, but at the level of the federal government, most Congressmen do not risk to make initiatives limiting the Second Amendment.

Even President Obama who has considerable powers, as well as a serious political capital is trying to avoid a confrontation with the NRA. Meanwhile a new information about the serious problems associated with the existence of the United States of the right to own guns continues to emerge. Often it is revealed in special journalistic investigations (Peterson, 2013).

For example, in late 2010, The Washington Post told about the great difficulties faced by the Federal Bureau of alcohol, tobacco and weapons trafficking control when trying to resolve numerous violations of the arms dealers activity. According to the investigation of the newspaper, it is obvious that the powers and resources of the Bureau are so limited, and the regulatory environment is so imperfect that the arms dealers violating various rules, can easily renew their license, that is, avoid the toughest punishment available in the arsenal of the Bureau.

This situation raises serious doubts regarding the desirability of maintaining the action of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In this case, it seems unlikely that this amendment will be limited in the near future – diligence and campaign contributions of gun lobby, as well as close to a religious veneration of the Constitution of the United States exclude any changes. Moreover, a large number and severity of problems faced by America today, makes even the beginning of a serious discussion of possible ways to prevent the negative consequences of the Second Amendment unlikely (Yanagisawa, 2011).

It appears that one of the factors contributing to the increase in the number of mass shootings in the U.S., is an acute confrontation that exists today in American social and political life. Confrontation in society extends to the level of political elites, and the two major parties are not able to even begin a dialogue that can at least alleviate the serious problems faced by America. Even a careful and balanced position of the president did not find understanding in gun lobby – NRA turned down an offer of the Administration to meet and discuss possible measures to reduce the number of victims of firearms. In reality, the position of gun lobby is so strong that even if Obama resolutely tried to abolish the Second Amendment, he could not overcome the resistance of the Republican-controlled Congress.

From my point of view, the most effective solution to the availability of weapons would be decisive repeal of the Second Amendment and the right to gun ownership in the U.S. However, I am aware of the difficulties and prejudices related to this drastic measure. At the same time, we must admit that the problem with the availability of weapons in the U.S. is extremely sharp and we should take steps to address it.

Effective step to solving this problem would be an option with a thorough checking of the background of all people intending to buy a gun.

In addition, I propose to create a national database containing information on all movements of weapons, including resale. In addition, it is necessary to tighten the requirements for mental health of people intending to buy weapons and increase the penalty for the appearance with weapons near schools and their transfer to minors.

President should take measures to limit the activity of gun lobby in the Congress and restrict the right to gun ownership or even abolish it, since in the current situation this remnant of the past contributes not to maintenance but to destruction of the order in the society.