Saturday, 5 May 2007
The National Rifle Association is urging the Bush administration to oppose legislation offered by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-NJ, which would deny people who are suspected of being terrorists the ability to purchase guns in the U.S. The NRA argues that denying the right to purchase a gun on the basis of a mere suspicion of terrorism is both unconstitutional and unworkable. The NRA is right in its analysis of this particular bill, but wrong in its basic premise about the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
The NRA is right in averring that being suspected of criminal activity (in this case supporting terrorism, or other related crimes) is not the same as being convicted of a crime, and citizens do not lose their rights unless they have been convicted by a jury of their peers. The Bush administration has trampled all over this basic constitutional right since 9/11, kicking people off of planes because someone with a name similar to theirs was on a terrorist watch list, arresting people for wearing t-shirts critical of government policies, and denying people their right to protest peacefully, not to mention the most egregious offenses of all, denying the right of captured enemy soldiers (and even some Americans!) to the protections offered by both the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions (i.e., habeas corpus, the right to an attorney, and the prohibition of torture). As for being unworkable, the Lautenberg bill fails to realize that the term "suspect" has no consistent legal meaning across the country. No U.S. citizen should be prohibited from buying a gun on the basis of mere government suspicion, and that applies even to those suspected of being terrorists. Does that mean, then, as the NRA asserts, that terror suspects have a Second Amendment right to buy guns without restriction? No!
The NRA, while right in its interpretation of the Due Process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which prohibit the government from arbitrarily denying the rights of individuals, is wrong in its interpretation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Contrary to the NRA's consistent refrain, the Second Amendment does not prohibit either the federal government or the states from passing restrictions on the sale of firearms or other weapons to individuals, nor does it prohibit restrictions on the possession of such weapons. The Second Amendment, as its text clearly says, only prohibits the federal government from outlawing state militias. In other words, states may form armed militias, and the federal government may not restrict the states' rights in this respect, but states may of their own volition decide to restrict gun ownership within the state. Furthermore, the federal government may restrict the rights of individuals to own or possess firearms or other weapons, as long as such restrictions do not infringe upon states' rights to maintain their militias (for example, by the state's ownership of the militia's weapons).
In recent years, the NRA, one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, has pushed both federal and state legislation regarding guns in an extremely dangerous direction. The federal ban on the purchase of assault weapons expired in 2004 when neither President Bush nor his cronies in the Republican controlled Congress lifted a finger to extend its life. State laws attempting to restrict handgun sales are routinely flaunted by people taking advantage of huge loopholes in federal laws regulating gun shows and Internet sales. Laws regarding background checks are ineffective, as the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech last month attest. The fact of the matter is that guns are rampant on the streets and in homes, and the American people pay an ongoing, tragic price for our failure to stand up to the NRA and other likeminded lobbyists.
The facts that terror suspects may legally buy guns in the U.S., that average citizens may buy assault weapons and "cop killer" bullets, and that some politicians are reacting to the Virginia Tech shooting by advocating that more guns be in people's hands are an indication of the insanity--or idiocy--of the current system and its supporters. The NRA says that guns don't kill people, people kill people. They're only half right. Guns don't kill people, but people with guns do kill people.
Here's how bad the situation is in America. Right now there are more guns in the U.S. than there are adults. Since I don't own any, and since a lot of other people don't either, that means that there are people out there with whole arsenals at their disposal. A 1998 study in the Journal of Epidemiology examined gun deaths in the U.S. and 35 other high and upper-middle income countries. Among the 26 high income countries--which included the U.S., Canada, Australia, many European countries, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong--the U.S. had by far the highest rate of gun-related deaths per capita, more than twice the death rate of its nearest competitors Northern Ireland and Finland. Of course, Northern Ireland was experiencing simmering civil unrest between Catholics and Protestants and the time, and most of Finland's gun-related deaths were suicides. Throwing out Northern Ireland, whose situation is much different today, the U.S. rate of gun-related homicides was about five times the rate of its nearest rival, Italy, and more than eight times that of its next nearest rival, Finland. Not surprisingly, unintentional deaths with firearms, such as children shooting other children while showing them their dad's handgun, was also much higher in the U.S. than in any other high income country, about three times that of Spain and Canada. And in a definitive contradiction of the NRA's "guns don't kill people" claim, the study determined that the overall homicide rate in the U.S., both with and without the use of guns, was more than three times the homicide rate in Finland, its closest competitor, and more than four times that in Scotland, the next closest. The difference in the overall homicide rates are directly related to the superfluity of gun-related homicides in the U.S. in comparison to other countries.
Seung-Hui Cho, the deranged Virginia Tech shooter, massacred 32 people on 16 April 2007, in addition to taking his own life, but the U.S. experiences more than two and a half Virginia Techs every day, as more than 80 people die of gun-related injuries daily. Blame for the ongoing gun violence in the U.S. may be laid squarely at the feet of the NRA and their congressional lapdogs. It may also be laid at the feet of voters who continue to support members of Congress--and presidents--who refuse to back sensible laws restricting access to guns. Blame also lies on those 50% or more who decline to vote in any given election, allowing powerful lobbyists to be their proxies in Congress.
The NRA markets itself as a friend of hunters, but hunters don't use either assault weapons or handguns to hunt deer or quail. In fact, the NRA is a front for gun manufacturers and, intentionally or not, for right-wing paramilitary groups, arms merchants, and criminals. Those who enjoy hunting must see through the distortions of the NRA and look at how guns are destroying their homeland. Sen. Lautenberg's proposed legislation to keep suspected terrorists from purchasing weapons is well-meaning but wrong-headed. The way to keep suspected terrorists from getting guns is to make it much more difficult for anyone to acquire, to own, and to wield guns, especially handguns and assault weapons. Until sensible gun legislation is passed in our country, we can expect many more incidents of the sort we've witnessed at Virginia Tech, Columbine, Paducah, Jonesboro, Lancaster County, and Conyers, not to mention various shopping malls, street corners, churches, courthouses, and post offices. In the meantime, if you want to make money, but it bothers your conscience to buy stock in gun manufacturers, you can still make money with a cleaner conscience if you'll put your money into businesses that provide flowers for the dead.