(Michael Saechang May 14, 2011)
It’s pretty hard for an Australian to understand the gun situation in America.
I remember the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania and the speed and certainty with which then Prime Minister John Howard established and implemented new laws restricting ownership and sale of semi-automatic weapons.
The premise was simple: the Port Arthur killer could not have murdered 35 people and wounded 23 so quickly and easily if not for the two large-capacity semi-automatic rifles he wielded.
Australia hasn’t suffered a mass-shooting of the like since the implementation of the gun laws in 1996. Most Australians seem content with the trade-off.
But with each new massacre in America, the US gun debate only seems more entrenched. The idea of making it difficult for would-be perpetrators of mass-shootings to obtain the weapons they need is met with fierce opposition from citizens and lobby-groups.
Distrust of the government is a big piece of the puzzle. The Second Amendment right to bear arms doesn’t just protect gun ownership, it imbues it with a higher democratic purpose.
It’s as if gun ownership is a means of political participation, not just for militia-groups readying themselves to face Federal Government “oppression”, but for ordinary citizens exercising their constitutional role.
In other words, the existence of a heavily-armed citizenry is viewed by many as a necessary component in the “balance of powers”, a supremely democratic check on the power of government.
For many Americans, the thought of the government trying to restrict or control their access to guns is akin to the executive branch interfering in the operation of the judiciary. The separation of powers must be respected, and when it comes to “We the people,” that power is ultimately grounded in the practical ability to resist tyranny and oppression – the right to bear arms.
At least that’s how it looks from an Australian’s perspective. Here in a former British colony we take a different view of our political rights and powers. As a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, our political rights as citizens are such as have been wrested over centuries from the King and his nobles.
Having never risen up to form a republic, we are, ironically, much less afraid of potential tyranny.
That’s at least one reason why America resists the Australian solution of simply removing semi-automatic weapons from circulation. Many Americans would view this as impossibly paternalistic and near-tyrannical.
But for Australians our political rights have never rested on the threat of popular insurrection. Howard may have been paternalistic in banning and restricting the weapons, but so he should have been.
Like a responsible parent he took the reasonable position that the horrific murder of dozens of innocent people outweighed the sporting, hunting and hobbyist pleasures of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns.
But if this won’t work in America, then what hope is there? The romanticisation and politicisation of gun ownership looks like the inevitable legacy of the War of Independence.
So are regular mass-shootings just the price Americans must pay for their form of democracy?
Taking the Second Amendment seriously
From a pro-gun perspective the need to preserve the Second Amendment isn’t just about protecting the lifestyle of hobbyists and enthusiasts. It’s a political sine qua non more fundamental than freedom of speech and the right to vote, because it underwrites those concessions.
In America political power really does – at least historically – grow out of the barrel of a gun.
Consequently, strategies for preventing or curtailing mass shootings are severely limited, and the mass shootings themselves are viewed primarily in moralistic and almost fatalistic terms.
Emphasis is placed on the wickedness or evil of the perpetrator, and on the heroism and virtue of the victims and bystanders, because there isn’t much else that can be said from a pro-gun perspective.
In fact the recent Texas massacre is held up in a positive light because – as gun advocates often argue – it was a responsible, trained, courageous gun owner who eventually stopped the killer and forced him to flee.
A clearly distraught and traumatised Stephen Willeford denies being a hero, yet he undoubtedly saved lives:
“I was scared for me, and I was scared for every one of them,” he said of the people at the church. “And I was scared for my own family that lived less than a block away. I’m no hero. I am not. I think my God, my Lord, protected me and gave me the skills to do what needed to be done. And I just wish I could have gotten there faster.”
Considering the stalemate in the gun-control debate, perhaps it’s time to take the pro-gun position seriously? What if the problem in America is not too many guns, but too few?
The burden of responsible gun ownership
It’s responsible gun owners and advocates who resist attempts to restrict or control the availability of guns, and who point to the role of armed citizens in preventing or minimising casualties.
As the NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre put it: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, LaPierre went so far as to demand “an active, national database of the mentally ill”, apparently trusting the government to identify and monitor potential killers more than he trusts it to identify and monitor gun ownership.
Once gun control is off the table, there aren’t many options remaining. The most logical solution is in fact to have more guns, more “good guys” carrying guns at every conceivable public and private event.
It might sound jarring to admit this, but the fact is that mass-shootings will likely continue, gun control will not happen, and so the only viable solution is to have more people like Stephen Willeford around.
The burden is then on responsible people to become gun owners, and on responsible gun owners to be armed at all times, in case of attack.
Guns in churches, restaurants, schools, movie theatres, synagogues, mosques, libraries, sporting events, and so on. Whenever two or more are gathered together, guns should be with them.
That’s the logical extension of devolving public safety to the level of “Good Samaritan with a gun”.
But if a good guy with a gun really is the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, then in light of this knowledge, the good guys clearly aren’t doing enough to uphold their responsibility for public safety.
If we really believe that, then we shouldn’t celebrate the fact that a Good Samaritan with a gun happened to be nearby; we should question why there weren’t two or three or four of them.
“Good Samaritan” implies happenstance and luck, but if responsibility for stopping the bad guys lies with gun owners, then happenstance is actually negligence.
In other aspects of life we have designated first aid officers, fire wardens and emergency evacuation plans. We don’t just hope that a random person in our office or at a public event will know first aid, or take the initiative and lead people in a crisis.
Mass shootings are, tragically, a part of American life. Absent the will to restrict access to semi-automatic weapons, perhaps it’s time for responsible gun owners to start doing their duty? Perhaps it’s time to make gun ownership and training mandatory for all good guys, as in Switzerland? If Americans are stuck with their Second Amendment, perhaps it’s time to follow its logic to the bitter end?