Thursday, April 16, 2009

Comma again?


Recent developments in the US and abroad brought the discussion on gun control front and center. To begin with was the notion that a democrat in the White House enjoying comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress would certainly mean an attack on the people's right to "keep and bear arms". Then, an unfortunately not unusual spike in gun related violence, which always makes one wonder about the relation between the number and types of guns around and these tragic events. Last, the Mexican drug wars, and the idea that the US gun market could be supplying the Mexican drug lords and thus playing a part in the unprecedented level of deadly violence, spreading to the American side of the border.

As European, I've always wondered why the right to keep and bear arms as establish in the US is incompatible with gun regulation.
There are other countries around the world where people have access to, keep and use high caliber guns with little or no regulation at all, known in Europe as "war caliber guns", as in "army guns". Those I can think of are all in Africa and the Middle East, usually known as "developing countries" - the kind euphemism for the former Third World countries, back when the USA and it's allies were the "First World" and the USSR and it's allies the "Second World". Apart from the obvious differences, the United States do have such right printed in the law (article 4 of the Bill of Rights versed to the second amendment of the Constitution). Going through these documents two things got my attention at once (apart from the fact that they are a legacy of the 18th century in the wake of a revolutionary war, of course): the word "militia" and the expression "to bear arms".

According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, "Ten companies of riflemen were authorized by a resolution of the Continental Congress on June 14, 1775. However, the oldest Regular Army infantry regiment, the 3d, was constituted on June 3, 1784, as the First American Regiment." I already knew that militias were the backbone of the American forces during the fight for independence but I had no idea the first army regiment was created after July 4 1776 and as I read the second amendment it seemed clear to me what the lawmakers were referring to. It was a rather wise decision at the time, but is it so today?
You can't have militia without armed citizens and you can't have armed citizens without a law that permits them to own their own guns, so as far as militias are concerned it all seems fine, except for the fact that the United States has the most formidable military in the world, including a National Guard with it's own Air Force, so... Why exactly do they need the militias helping them out? Militias often perform valuable service in case of natural disasters, reinforcing the help provided by professionals, such as firefighters and engineers, but considering that police officers, federal agents and, in the extreme, the National Guard are responsible for the safeguard of populations and their property - which means law enforcement - why exactly do they need to "keep and bear arms", or more precisely why do they carry war caliber arms?
It seems to me that the discussion around the scope of the "militia" concept expressed in the original Bill of Rights and it's meaning depending on the number of commas in it's fourth article is purely academic, so lets leave the militias and it's pertinence in today's world and move on to individual rights. As for the expression "bear arms", it clearly indicates some form of organized action (militia related), and it infers that the bearer is part of a unit, not an individual, but that's the discussion of 18th century terms versus todays terms and, trully, it gets us nowhere in itself - the fact of the matter is the original was writen then and is valid now, so we either take social evolution into account or we are living in another world/time.

No matter what role militias played in the thoughts of the original bill writers, article fourth of the Bill of Rights and it's verse to the Constitution's 2nd amendment is the cornerstone of individuals standing right "to keep and bear arms", which means the right to own a fire arm and to use it when justified. The problem resides in this last part: the justification for the ownership and use of a fire arm. Such must be and is based on the rule of law, meaning there is such a thing as the illegal ownership and use of a fire arm, obviously. Disagreeing with this is assuming anyone can own and use any type of guns available in the market for whatever they wish - including crime - so it's fair to say the vast majority of people already agree with the need of gun regulations and it's enforcement; for instance, it's commonly accepted that a FBI background check is necessary to give someone the permission to buy a gun; no one would presume such check is a violation of individual rights. Then it gets tricky. Among those who have a libertarian like view of this problem that's where the buck stops. The government should not interfere with anything beyond the buy permit - from storing conditions to types of guns available. This means, of course, one could leave a loaded gun abandoned in a porch and not be responsible for it or that one can own and use a .50 caliber rifle. Somehow, the responsibilities that apply to many other situations where people have to answer for negligent behaviour would not apply to gun ownership. And somehow, the rule of proportional force also would not apply to gun use; hence the "no problem" attitude towards such quaint self-defense and/or hunting guns as the Barret .50 caliber rifle, available in various versions from little over 4.000,00 up to 13.000,00 usd!! (well, 12.999,99 usd and a "unique opportunity: (...) This exclusive model has previously only been available to our US Military!" - right here!)

Americans, like citizens of all civilized countries, rely on their history and traditions to improve and perfect their legal system and the laws that govern them, so it's unrealistic to expect a total ban on the ownership of firearms by US citizens and many of them are responsible people who actually have a justification for owning a gun and for using a gun (like hunters). I think it's safe to say that apart from hunting, the only justification for using a fire arm outside of a shooting range is self-defense. But having a law that at the same time permits ownership and use of guns by everyone and does not effectively regulate both is dangerous. Some say that it should be that way, so the government is afraid of citizens and thus kept in check... To these people, living in a democracy must be indeed a frightful experience, for they never understood the power of the people in a democracy is their right to choose the ones that rule, and trully believe that power should be expressed by the right to shoot the ones that do not meet their expectations as their leaders. To these people, in a democracy, government officials should be more afraid of their bullits than of their votes! A simple example of how distorted the gun rights staunch defenders view is: the obligation to register a fire arm. People see no problem in registering a motor vehicle but they see a problem in registering a gun? The only reason I can think of for not wanting to register a gun is the intention to commit some sort of crime with it and not wanting authorities to be able to trace it. Guns cannot be compared to any other objects available in the market and yet less dangerous items, such as automobiles, are commonly accepted to be heavily regulated - within limits dictated by a mix of sense and reason, as all laws should be.
Appealing to both, sense and reason, is not only reasonable but essential when discussing the future of the right "to keep and bear arms" in America today. Without semi-automatic guns and high caliber guns available it would be considerably easier for the authorities to hunt criminals and without them it would be a lot more difficult for some derranged person to walk into a school and cause a blood bath... That alone should justify getting those guns out of the market, turning them into illegal fire arms, and there would still be plenty of very effective guns left available for hunting and self-defense. The right to own a gun should not be mistaken for the right to own an arsenal.

I served my country in arms when I was in the army; once I left I found no need to keep and bear similar weapons for that reason - others took my place and I implicitly trust them and the government I am responsible for as a citizen. To me, invoking that right today as it is by those opposing serious regulation is a clear sign of mistrust and disrespect for their defense forces, their law enforcement agencies and their government and also a sign of their belief that some day, in a democracy, guns - not votes - will be needed to overthrow the government.
Enough food for thought. :)

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