The Sun News

The US gun curse

The famous John Ploughman’s Talks was clear that for every man there is one thorn-bush, and he is fortunate if there are not two. And, so, even the United States, with all its natural gifts, enormous resources, is not spared this affliction. It came in the form of guns.

Earlier in the week, US President Barack Obama, one of the toughest men alive, was wiping tears from his eyes on account of the tragedies that guns have continued wreak in his country. It was not his first time to weep publicly about this “affliction.” It only goes to show the extent of the powerlessness of the mighty US government over an issue that has become a Frankenstein’s monster.

But what would the United States have been without guns? No one is sure. But the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, found the guns a ready source of protection in such uncharted territories as they found themselves in the 17th Century. Having to insert themselves in another man’s land meant the possibility of having to fight for survival. The Native Americans were not hostile at first until competition for resources, as always, kindled some hostility.

The guns helped in huge territorial acquisitions. The entire New England became theirs with minimal fighting. The original 13 states that eventually came together to form the United States of America in 1776 were freed from colonial rule and freed from domestic native intrusions by guns.

And so, it was no surprise that the second amendment to the US constitution decreed that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms (note the capitalization of arms), shall not be infringed.”

The first time President Obama dropped tears was on 14th December 2012 when Adam Lanza, armed to the teeth, and having killed his own mother at home, forced his way into the Sandyhook Elementary School and opened fire on those little children, almost all of them six-year olds. Lanza killed 20 little children and six adults including heroic teachers who tried to protect their pupils, before he killed himself. It was the closest thing to the Biblical massacre of the innocents.

Now, those guns were lawfully acquired bought by Adam Lanza’s mother with her money. No one can say why she bought them. A few people also had the knowledge that Adam had some psychological problems, but no one thought they were serious enough. He had seen a psychiatrist but not much was done. “Our hearts are broken today,” Obama said, as he dripped tears on television.

Now, a rational person would imagine that after this massacre of six year olds, the United States Congress would in revulsion move to pass a law to control guns, at least, to make sure that they are kept out of the reach of the mentally unstable. The National Rifle Association (NRA) made sure that no such thing happened as it has done through its history.

In 2013, the total number of deaths caused by guns in the United States as computed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stood at 33,169. In Japan for that period the figure was under 70. The breakdown of the figures showed that 11,208 deaths were the result of homicide; 21,175 deaths resulted from suicide; 505 deaths resulted from accidental discharge, and 281 deaths were due to firearms use of “undetermined intent.”

Guns seem to be so accessible that in 2009, the Congressional Research Service estimated that there are 310 million firearms in the United States, and these exclude, of course, the weapons owned by the US military. Of that number, 114 million were hand guns, 110 million were rifles and 86 million were shotguns. That year the census figure for the United States was 306 million.

The US President is also the consoler in chief. He has to pay condolence visits on behalf of the country, comfort the injured and the bereaved and it is easy to imagine the burden of receiving the body of soldiers killed in wars, and then having to bury innocent people in what often seemed like senseless murders.

The Tucson massacre in Arizona on 2nd January 2011 got the country’s attention as all the massacres with the distinguishing fact that a member of Congress, a most beloved Member of the House of Representatives, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head and no one knew she would survive. You would think the US Congress would be shocked to act. She was holding a constituency town hall meeting in a shopping complex before all hell was let loose. Yet the US Congress could not move a limb.

“Guns don’t kill. People do.” That’s as close to the dogma and slogan of the NRA as one can get. The association can raise millions of dollars within hours. As everyone who followed the issue in the week could see, indeed, they were already making moves to capitalize on the President’s executive orders to begin fund-raising to oppose any attempt to control firearms under any guise.

The President would want gun sellers to at least have a license. How can that be construed as unconstitutional? The President wants gun sellers to do some background check on anyone trying to purchase a gun, if only to know whether the buyer is of sound mind or has a criminal record. How can that be considered a bad thing?

The President wants to strengthen mental healthcare so that the mentally disturbed could have easy access to care? How can this not be a good thing? The President wants to slow by a few hours the speed of gun purchases. Men have quarreled with their wives or neighbours and gone off to buy guns as tempers ran high almost always leading to tragedy, whereas a few hours wait might get tempers to cool.

It is difficult to compute comprehensively the tragedy of mass killings in the US. San Bernadino left 14 dead on 2nd December last year and on November 19, three were killed in Colorado Springs, Colorado while nine died at Roseburg, Oregun on 1st October. On 16th July five were killed at Chattanooga, Tenessee and on 18th June nine were killed in Charleston, South Carolina, all in 2015.

The US |Supreme Court is cited as the biggest culprit in the inability of Americans to do more having decided in its 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment meant an unrestricted individual access to firearms. The 2nd Amendment reads: “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.”

Critics of the Supreme Court decision have noted that “to find in that wording an individual right to possess a firearm untethered to any militia purpose, the majority performed an epic feat of jurisprudential magic: It made the pesky initial clause about the necessity of a ‘well regulated Militia’ disappear. Poof! Gone.” The Conservative Majority was of course Chief Justice John Roberts, and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy; dissent was signed by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer; a narrow 5-4 decision).

First published January 9, 2016.

PS: Even after last week’s massacre in Las Vegas where a 64-year old killed 58 and injured nearly 500 persons, the US Congress is still paralysed to do anything about guns.  The gun curse subsists. — L.O.

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