April 19, 2007 - Issue 226
Color of Law
Those Who Live By the Gun...
By David A. Love
When used as directed by the manufacturer, a gun will make it easier to take a human life. So, should we be surprised that a nation such as the United States—with over 200 million privately-owned guns, nearly one gun per adult—violence and murder are so prevalent?
The Virginia Tech shooting, in which a student, Seung-Hui Cho, gunned down 32 people before killing himself, has been described as pure evil, the act of a disturbed and insane man, a loner. To be sure, it was an insane act. But then again, America's love affair with the gun is nothing short of insanity.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution mentions nothing about the right of ordinary citizens to amass weaponry like an army of one. The amendment states that "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." Somehow, this outdated 18th Century concept of militias, conceived at a time when the nation was a loose confederation of states with a weak national government, is cited by gun advocates to justify the unlimited personal ownership of weapons of mass destruction.
Common sense would dictate that such a proposition is incompatible with a stable and healthy society. No other industrialized democracy would tolerate it, certainly not Japan, with its tight restrictions and a mere handful of gun murders a year, nor the European Union. Switzerland is often cited by Second Amendment advocates as proof that high gun ownership does not necessarily lead to high murder rates. That small European nation does have a high rate of gun ownership: as a country with a small standing army, guns are part of a collective responsibility. The Swiss rely on a militia and compulsory military service for national defense. However, unlike America, there are few gun murders. Switzerland is a stable, wealthy nation with low unemployment, nearly the world's lowest level of poverty, and one of the world's best education systems.
From day one, America has maintained a decidedly different relationship with the gun. The United States is an especially violent nation with a brutal past. Guns were used to make Manifest Destiny a reality, to massacre the native population in order to free up real estate, and to kidnap Africans and maintain a wage-free, captive labor pool. The barrel of the gun helped maintain a reign of terror in the Jim Crow South through intimidation and lynching, and the murder of civil rights workers. Meanwhile, many who have taken up arms for the purposes of liberation or self-defense (e.g., Nat Turner, John Brown, and the Black Panthers) were effectively suppressed and neutralized.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of America's most powerful lobbyists. This influential organization represents gun manufacturers, so naturally the proliferation of weapons is in their interest. They have a stranglehold on politicians, particularly the Republicans, and apparently on some courts, such as the federal court that struck down the District of Columbia's handgun law.
Thanks to the misguided policies championed by the NRA, ostensibly in the name of our civil liberties, we have the legalization of concealed weapons in some states; lethal hollow-point bullets for use by the general public; ownership of military weapons as a matter of course; a friendly environment for illegal gun traffickers; workplace and domestic violence made easy, and background checks so relaxed that, apparently, even mental illness or a criminal record may not be a bar to ownership. This has little to do with civil liberties, it seems, and everything to do with an accessible, profitable and deadly form of conflict resolution. Any meaningful efforts at gun control would almost certainly involve breaking the back of the NRA and loosening its grip on U.S. politics.
The NRA crowd responds to Virginia Tech, Columbine and other mass murders by calling for even more guns, that is, a heavily-armed, law-abiding population that can protect itself from criminals. How would the NRA tackle the alarming rate of gun violence in our urban centers, in cities such as St. Louis, Detroit and Philadelphia?
In one sense, Philadelphia is an up-and-coming city, oddly nicknamed "New York's sixth borough," with visible displays of downtown prosperity and development, trendy restaurants and luxury condos galore. Yet, at the same time, one-third of the city languishes in poverty. And its murder rate is more than one person per day, mostly young Black men. Certainly, the solution is not to make more weapons available and heighten the carnage, nor to warehouse more and more bodies in an already overcrowded and unjust prison system.
And empty condolences to the victims' families do little to change atrocious public policy.
Meanwhile, the current occupant of the White House is silent on the issue, not only because he is owned by the NRA, but because he is busy perpetrating his own senseless atrocities in Iraq, against innocent people who meant him no harm.
BC Columnist David A. Love is an attorney based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune News Service. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention and Prisons (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former spokesperson for the Amnesty International UK National Speakers Tour, and organized the first national police brutality conference as a staff member with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. He served as a law clerk to two black federal judges. Click here to contact Mr. Love.