The Gun Conundrum

One of the great divides in American politics is guns.  The United States has an enormously high homicide rate with 10-15,000 murders a year. Although the homicide rate in the United States is dwarfed by many countries, especially in Latin America, the American homicide rate is many times that of other industrialized nations. The US’s homicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000 is three times that of the next closest industrialized countries of France with 1.6, Canada with 1.56 and the United Kingdom with 1.0.

This is nothing to be surprised about because the easiest, quickest and efficient ways to kill a person is with a gun. The United States has more guns per person than any country in the world. For every 100 people in the United States, there are 112 guns. Trailing behind the US are Serbia, Yemen and Switzerland. Yes, affluent and orderly Switzerland has one of the world’s highest rates of gun ownership. However, the homicide rate is only a fraction of the United States’.

There is a reason for that. It can be summed up as responsibility. The Swiss have mandatory military service for all adult males. These Swiss reserves also keep their guns at home, although the ammunition is kept at secure, local depots. The mandatory military training teaches safety and gun responsibility. In addition, it weeds out the criminal and mentally unstable from gun ownership.

The large, well-armed and well-trained Swiss militia sounds as if it is right out of the Second Amendment. It is a militia. The very thing that the Second Amendment expressly favors. Those who oppose any element of gun control often conveniently ignore that. The language of the Second Amendment is succinct and relatively straight forward:

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.

However, the gun-regulation opponents like to focus on the latter part of the Amendment. The part where bearing arms “shall not be infringed.” Yet, the first clause clearly states the existence of a “well regulated Militia.” That has led to a century-long argument over “collective” or “individual” rights of gun ownership. The collective being the right of the state to form a militia, as opposed to an individual having the right to own a gun without state burdens.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1939 that it was a collective right. In 2008, the ruling came that it was an individual right. When Supreme Court justices can’t get it straight, then it’s no wonder that the rest of the country can’t either.

In addition to the argument over collective and individual rights, gun control opponents often point to the necessity of having a gun to keep an autocratic government from usurping American liberties. That is essentially the same argument made on a personal scale that if everyone carried a gun, then mass shootings wouldn’t happen because the shooter would be killed immediately.

No one should be delusional enough to believe that in today’s age of high-tech, highly trained militaries that untrained and unorganized citizen militias are going to fight off the US Army.

We also saw what happened to Trayvon Martin when George Zimmerman had a gun. While no one alive but Zimmerman knows what happened, Zimmerman’s gun didn’t create a safer situation. American history is filled with armed vigilantes who have pistol-whipped, tried and lynched those that they deemed evil and unworthy of a trial guaranteed by the Constitution. Although it is true that if everyone carried a gun, then a mass murderer may not kill quite as many people at any individual time. The fact is that people are often emotional and irrational. If everyone carried a gun, the mass shootings might be fewer or less bloody, but they will pale in comparison to the killings of passion found in countries where guns are widespread and regulations unenforced.

Every single country with high homicide rates has either negligible gun laws or has had such laws in the recent past: Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, Lesotho, Swaziland and on. The United State’s murder rate is a fraction of the per capita homicide rate of these countries. The United States has a murder rate barely 1/20th of world leader Honduras. Nevertheless, for an industrialized country, the United States far outpaces all other advanced economies. Only Lithuania exceeds the United States. Greece, Norway, Romania, Canada have half the homicide rate or less compared to the United States. Other industrialized nations have even a lower percentage.

In the US, a huge loophole allows gun sales between private individuals, such as at gun shows, where no background checks are required except in a few states. For much of the US, gun purchases are often easier than getting a drug prescription.

Comparing the homicide and gun ownership rates around the world, leads to a clear conclusion: the more guns; the more homicides. Yes, Switzerland with its high gun ownership has only 1/8th the murder rate of the US, but the differences of that gun culture has already been laid out. Surprisingly, the sensible gun laws found in some European countries create an environment just about as safe as those European countries with more restrictive gun laws. More restrictive laws do reduce the homicide rate only because the mentally ill, criminally inclined or untrained don’t get guns. In these countries guns are respected for the dangerous weapons that they are. While it is a Constitutional right, and that is not going to change, the right to fire off words is not the same as the right to fire bullets.

The Founding Fathers never had any of this in mind. They had a fear of standing armies, so they proposed a well-regulated militia to defend the country. There wasn’t an argument about semi-automatic or automatic weapons. It was about muzzle-loading pistols and muskets. It was a time when people hunted their own food. It was a time when the range of the law did not always protect the citizens in a timely fashion.

If there is a militia in the United States now, it is the National Guard. Unlike Switzerland, they don’t take their guns home. In that sense, the individual right to bear arms as part of a militia is unnecessary. The militia part of the Second Amendment is about as relevant today, as horse-drawn buggy laws of the eighteenth century are to today. It’s a different world and the Second Amendment is only going to mean what a majority wants it to mean.

There is either going to be a majority to regulate firearms or a majority not too. There are some who fear that one law will mean the next law is the abolition of firearms. There are others who want just that. Neither of those choices is going to happen. The gun cultures of Europe still have guns. Guns aren’t going away in the United States. However, it is only a matter of time before more laws will limit gun ownership. The degree of those laws is likely to be influenced by the intransigence of the NRA and other gun-control foes. The longer they delay sensible legislation, the less sensible the legislation is likely to become.

Guns have become an emotional issue for all sides. Yet, it has common sense solutions that just need a little clear-headed thinking. Guns are not going to be abolished, and both sides need to accept that. It is unlikely that guns are going to be as heavily regulated as much of Europe. That doesn’t mean that some restrictions, which aren’t going to impact law-abiding gun owners, shouldn’t be enacted. Unfortunately, it is going to take more than a dozen or so people getting shot every few months to create the political will to make those changes. In the meantime, more people will die senselessly, and a few evil people are going to get their gun-toting jollies.

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