President Obama, in a recent speech, has said that one of his main aims in the last years of his term would be to institute gun control laws. Exactly how many Americans would like to see stronger gun controls is not certain, but according to polls recently reported in the New York Times, 87% of voters support background checks for all gun sales, which includes sales between private individuals. Significant majorities, including gun-owners themselves, said they “supported banning assault weapons along with high-capacity magazines that allow the shooter to fire dozens of rounds without reloading.” Looking at it from the other direction, there are in New York City around l00,000 gun owners, mostly people who go out into the countryside to hunt. A hundred thousand sounds like a lot of people, but it means that about one New York City family in twenty has a gun. Huge majorities of American families don’t have guns, don’t want guns, and would like to see stronger gun laws enacted. If this percentage of the voters favored, say, requiring all dogs to wear muzzles, or all bicycles to have bells, the necessary laws would pass in a moment; but this is guns.
What’s the problem? The National Rifle Association, which is largely backed by the gun industry, is desperately determined to fight off any sort of gun control. Wayne LaPierre, head of the N.R.A., has been battling hard to prevent governments from passing any gun control laws, on the nose-of-the-camel principal, which says, no doubt correctly, that once these laws are in place there will always be pressure to make them tougher. He believes that people need guns as a defense against “intruders” and similar to gun owners in general, points to the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which they claim supports their case. Unfortunately, Congress has been listening to LaPierre, not their constituents.
As it happens, I am a gun-owner myself. I bought my first gun from a friend for $2 when I was twelve. It was single-shot bolt-action twenty-two with the rifling so worn that the bullets tumbled end over end in flight. Yet the question arises, why was a twelve year old with no training in guns allowed to buy a lethal weapon?
Not many years later, during my stint in the U.S. Army, fortunately not in combat, I fired a variety of weapons, including a fifty caliber machine which used a bullet the size of a carrot and could take down an airplane or tear off your arm if it hit the right place. Currently, I own a pump-action twenty-two with which I occasional slaughter soup cans and less frequently the woodchucks dining in my wife’s gardens.
More to the point, the parcel of land I own upstate has for 40 years been used by local hunters for shooting deer and less often, game birds. There is good reason for this. Contrary to what Bambi-lovers think, white-tailed deer in the northeast are a menace. In 1900, there were 500,000 white-tailed deer in the area. Today, there are some 25-40 million of them. They cause untold damage to crops and woodlands, driving out song birds. They carry Lyme disease and far more lethally, cause 3-4000 automobile accidents a day. This proliferation of deer has several causes: the growth of woodlands where farms once lay, a decline in hunting, and the disappearance of their natural enemies, like wolves.
However, while the deer population needs to be reduced, the government can hire professionals to deal with the problem, not leave it to amateurs, including twelve year olds. Furthermore, the “intruders” who gun-advocates are always prating about are largely mythical. My upstate place sits empty and unguarded for six months of the year. It has only been broken into once in forty years, and that was a long time ago when some kids broke into my tool shed and stole a battered chain saw. One UN study “showed that people who used a gun to defend themselves against armed assault were far more likely to be injured or killed than if they had no weapon.”
This is particularly true of suicide. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that of 30,000 gun deaths annually, 20,000 are suicides. There is, according to the experts, an “impulsive component” to suicide. If you use a gun to kill yourself, you’ll succeed 85% of the time; if you use pills, it’ll be 2% of the time. A Herald Tribune story says flatly, “Most researchers say the weight of evidence from multiple studies is that guns in the home increase the risk of suicide.”
Given all of this, it is clear that the “self-defense” argument of the N.R.A. falls on its face. Guns do not protect; they kill. Yet as obvious as this many seem, a great many rational people insist on their right to own a gun. The Tribune story quotes a woman after she had taken up target shooting as saying, “It was awesome. The sense of control, of being in charge of me.” An author, Justin Cronin, says, “The AR-15 is…a gas to shoot…There are a lot of reasons that a gun feels right in my hand,” and then adds, contrary to all evidence and common sense, “I am my family’s last line of defense.”
This, essentially, is the problem: many people get a kick out of firing a gun. Yet of course, many get a kick from cocaine, from driving too fast on public highways, from practicing musical instruments late a night—the list is endless. We generally feel that such activities need to be controlled, if not curtailed.
In the end, the gun lobby always falls back on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which says, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The point of this rule was to prevent governments from becoming dictatorial, whether the recently thrown off British government or the newly established American one. In fact, the Founders were only recognizing reality: the British remained a threat for some time. In addition, most Americans were farmers who needed guns to protect the livestock on which they subsisted from wolves, eagles, and other carnivores. However, the British stopped being a threat to us a couple of centuries ago and few Americans today need protection from predators.
Whatever the case, Americans have never held our Constitution to be sacrosanct. As originally written it condoned slavery and denied the vote to women, among other things. The Second Amendment was not passed down to us from Heaven, like the Ten Commandments, but was the creation of a certain group of people at a certain time. Like the Constitution as a whole, it needs to be adjusted as new conditions arise.
Regrettably, the conservative Supreme Court recently, in the face of ordinary logic, has interpreted the Second Amendment to mean that nearly anyone has a right to own any sort of gun they want. Whatever gun control laws Obama may succeed in getting through will undoubtedly be pushed up to the Supreme Court by the N.R.A. and its allies.
Unfortunately, memories of the massacre in Newtown are fading and the interest of Americans in gun control is fading with it. Says one legislator hoping to control guns, “The overwhelming majority of Americans have been on our side, but they have been the silent majority.” Obama has said, “Shame on us if we’ve forgotten…We need everybody to remember how we felt 100 days ago and make sure what we said at the time wasn’t just a bunch of platitudes.” Will we forget? We have to hope not.