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21 Jan

Guns and Constitutions – America’s Great debates

Martin Petersen Martin Petersen

In the aftermath of the tragic Newton shooting just before Christmas, guns are once again making headlines in America and the debate is more heated than ever before.

While President Obama attempts to push tighter gun laws through Congress, the American people have engaged themselves in one of the many great debates that do more in terms of dividing the nation than uniting. Surprisingly, since you would think that a country that had 11.000 gun-related murders last year would be ready to make a concerted effort to try and tighten gun regulations. Well think again. The push for stricter gun laws has so far been met with massive protests and the people behind have successfully managed to turn a debate about a critical issue into a question about protecting the founding principles of the country. What should have been a rational discussion about the use of semi-automatic assault weapons among civilians is now a matter of protecting the Second Amendment in the Constitution, which guarantees the right for every American to bear arms. For someone who follows American politics closely and has done so for years, this comes as no surprise. We have seen it so often before in American politics. Questions on everything from abortion, to health care and taxation end up being a matter of what did the Founding Fathers say. And when contemporary political issues are addressed by looking for answers in the Constitution, the real issues at hand are often overlooked. Newtown seems to confirm just that.

Americans are proud of their Constitution and rightly so. The Constitution was an extraordinary piece of work and with its implementation of liberal ideals revolutionary for its time. But does that instinctively make it a sacred document not to be questioned or more importantly, modified to fit the changing nature of society? Fact is that despite extraordinary changes in the American economy, society and culture, the American Constitution remains essentially the same document as was written in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. This poses some immediate challenges when you try to solve contemporary political issues by looking for answers in a document more than two hundred years old. We saw it recently with the government bailouts in the wake of the Financial Crisis and we saw it with the debate on health care. Nowhere in the Constitution has Congress been given the authority to run banks and car companies and nowhere in the Constitution has Congress been given the authority to regulate and mandate health care. Yet we do these things, because that is part of governing a modern society in the 21st century. Indeed the concept of a Living Constitution means that the Constitution ought to be dynamic and that it was written in flexible terms so that it could be adapted to fit the ever-changing nature of society. But for all of those people who believe in a strict adherence to the original writings of the Constitution, questioning its intentions is quite frankly unacceptable. To these people, tightening gun laws is nothing more than an attempt to infringe on the liberty of the American people. First they took away our freedom to decide what health care to choose and now they want to take away our guns as well. However, one can’t help but feel that the frequent use of the Constitution in the gun debate is merely an attempt to divert the discussion in order to protect vested interests, in this case those of the NRA and the gun-lobby in America. They certainly have been very vocal on the matter.

Since the Sandy Hook massacre, several pro-gun advocates have voiced their opinion on gun control but very few have managed to tackle the real issue at hand. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul recently said that he and others were ready to fight executive orders “that wants to infringe on the Second Amendment”. This Monday, the NRA made a post on Twitter saying that gun owners in America are under assault and that Washington had “declared a war on the Second Amendment”. In a recent debate with CNN’s Piers Morgan, pro-gun lobbyist Larry Pratt closed his remarks by saying, “the Second Amendment means what it says.” As if that automatically settles the argument. In another CNN interview, conservative political commentator, Ben Shapiro was asked why any civilian today would need a semi-automatic assault riffle, and he answered by referencing the Second Amendment, "They need them for the perspective possibility of resistance to tyranny from the US government or any other government”. That argument might have made sense if this was 1776 and you had just declared independence from England. But get this. This is not the Revolutionary War. We are not fighting the British anymore nor are we stopping tanks on Tiananmen Square. This is America and the year is 2013. You would think that the American people would have worse things to worry about than government tanks rolling into the streets of Manhattan. In fact, using fear of a tyrannical government as an argument not to do anything about gun control in America is quite honestly absurd.

The Second Amendment argument makes no sense because instead of taking a point of reference in present day America it bases it’s reasoning on what society looked like when the Constitution was written. And at that time, semi-automatic military-style assault weapons weren’t around so how could the Founding Fathers in any way have predicted a scenario in which such weapons would be used to slaughter innocent people? Matter of the fact is that the kind of technological advances that have been made in terms of constructing guns has made weapons today much deadlier than they were in 1776, which is why we need to deal with the matter at hand instead of looking at historical documents. Adam Lanza, the Newtown gunman, was carrying a semi-automatic Bushmaster riffle when he walked into Sandy Hook Elementary, not a musket!

It is indeed one of the great ironies of modern American politics that politicians and the public alike continue to guide their political agenda and personal believes according to some sacred documents and writings drafted over two centuries ago. Especially since we know from countless accounts and testimonies that the Founding Fathers themselves had no intentions of becoming oracles to future generations. Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human”. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your past, of knowing where you came from and what made your country what it is today. But if America is not able to do anything about gun violence because the Second Amendment says that people need weapons in order to protect themselves from a tyrannical government, then we have seriously lost sight of the real matter at hand.

It’s a shame that the debate on gun control in America has turned into a contest between those concerned about protecting the founding principles of the country and those who couldn’t care less. Especially seeing how this is not at all what the debate is about. No one, the President included, is trying to prohibit Americans from owning a riffle or handgun for the purpose of hunting, sporting or personal protection. No one is interested in sidelining the Second Amendment. This is merely a matter of trying to control the use of semi-automatic assault weapons, some which are capable of firing hundred shots in a single round. Retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal recently weight in on the matter arguing that the kind of weapons that were used at Sandy Hook and Aurora are made for one thing and one thing only. Killing as many people as possible. When you shot them into human flesh, they do serious damage and they’re supposed to do so because they are used on the battlefield to fight an enemy that wants to kill you. Can we really say the same for civilians walking the streets of America? The weapon that was used in the Aurora shooting could fire 30 rounds in 27 seconds! Against such a weapon, you stand no chance of protecting yourself, armed or not. Knowing this, can anyone honestly argue that there is any need for those kinds of weapons in terms of protecting yourself and your property? More importantly, can anyone really argue that the Second Amendment protects the use of these weapons? The fact that this is even a matter of discussion shows just how far the debate has sidetracked these past few weeks.

Make no mistake. Reinstating a ban on semi-automatic weapons won’t alone do the trick. Whether you crack down on gun laws or not public shootings will happen again in America. Insane people will continue to commit horrible crimes and those who believe in fighting fire with fire will continue to lobby for more guns on the streets of America. But why is it that just because the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms, the pro-gun lobby and everyone else in favor of preserving the status quo are so unwillingly to at least consider whether weapons used in combat missions in Afghanistan have any place on the streets of America? Because Thomas Jefferson said so? Try selling that argument to the relatives left behind from Columbine, Aurora and Sandy Hook. I’m sure they’ll understand.

Last modified on Monday, 21 January 2013 20:17
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Martin Petersen

29 year old globetrotter and recently graduated cand.soc with special focus on American domestic politics.

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