Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Right to Bear Arms

I do not wish to speak directly of the dreadful calamity that has befallen the people of Newtown, Connecticut. It is a tragedy, and like all genuine tragedies, words are profoundly empty vessels when confronted with such loss. But I would speak generally of the United States, for there is much that might be said here.

The United States of America is a remarkable country. For those of us who witness it from afar, it is all too easy to point out its manifold shortcomings, our smug criticisms an expression of the resentment we feel in the face of a country so much more powerful than our own. But like all the easy positions and attitudes we adopt, it is egregiously flawed. We like our views to be simple, easily held in the mind, but the reality is that reality is not like that - it is complicated, uncertain, changeable. We pass over the facts that do not fit our preconceptions, but as we do so, we also pass over any possibility of actually understanding the world as it is. So, too, with America. It exhibits, quite literally, the very best and the very worst that humanity can do. It is a country stretched taut with contradictions, and as now one, and now another, dogma is in the ascendant, the country shifts itself heavily from side to side. And all the world moves.

Among these contradictions, there are few as fundamental as America's relationship to guns. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were the founding ideals of this great country. But the country was also founded, quite literally, at the point of a gun, whether it was held by a patriot confronting a loyalist, or a settler expelling natives, or a Yankee against a Confederate, or the United States itself against one of its neighbours (even if it later tried to make this look like a reasonable sale and purchase by giving Mexico a certain sum of money).

No other country I can think of has such veneration for the gun, its place in the collective psyche enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Yet no other country I can think of has been hurt so much by the gun - in peacetime, at least - as has America. And as tragedy follows tragedy, its collective psyche is again and again traumatised.

The Second Amendment is as the Gospel for those who carry guns in America. Yet despite the perversity of certain Supreme Court Justices, it is clear enough that the framers of the Constitution intended only that arms could be borne for the purposes of serving in a militia in the defence of the nation. In the absence of a need for such a militia, the right to bear arms itself evaporates. There never was a freedom for anyone and everyone to be armed in the United States. And thus, this is perhaps one contradiction that the country would do well to resolve sooner rather than later.

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