Did January 2016 mark the moment when America’s anti-gun lobby finally lost the argument?
The tears of the President were testament to what has become an increasingly obvious truth: that the only answer to the growing number of guns in America is yet more guns.
It is the familiar see it/shoot it reasoning by which some Americans seek to solve their problems down the barrel of a loaded automatic. The debate has been best summarised in typically blunt terms by Donald Trump whose Republican platform has been largely built on aw-shucks truisms such as the goddamn terrorists would not kill as many civilians if those civilians were armed. That has to be an indisputable point of fact. Mr Smith or Mrs Wesson would happily drop Tango One at fifty paces so long as we don’t countenance any argument that suggests that each year an unarmed America would be blessed by significantly fewer firearm-related deaths and injuries.
In absolute numbers, America would be a safer country without guns but the reality is that Americans are unlikely to disarm. That the President should be moved to tears about that fact is perhaps the sign that the battle is really lost. There are too many guns in circulation and an unspoken threat looms large over the national debate. If you try to take my gun, I will shoot you.
If America isn’t at war with itself, then the relationship is at the very least an abusive one. That abuse says much about the state of the national psyche. The victory of the gun lobby is one largely won by the unspoken threat, paraphrased in the semi-official motto of the NRA: ‘I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands’. Yet they soften that threat with distractions about safety and security. With yearly profits in excess of a billion dollars, the gun industry can afford to do just that. They paint America as a country so vast that guns are necessary to protect the vulnerable beyond the shelter of law and order. Then there’s the argument that guns provide a barrier between the criminal and the victim. The householder shouting out into the night that ‘I’ve got a gun’ means as much as actually dropping a bead on a target and pulling a trigger. We’re told that such examples never figure in the statistics. Nobody knows how many rapists have been dissuaded by the snub-nosed revolver pointed at their face. How many home robberies haven’t happened because of an NRA sticker in the porch window?
It would be churlish to deny the efficient logic of the gun lobby’s argument. Peace can obviously be achieved either by disarming combatants or by ensuring that both sides have the means of their opponent’s destruction. The latter is the rationale of the zero-sum game that drives America’s belief in guns.
Yet, sadly, the sum is rarely zero. Most likely it will be closer to 12,000, which is the number of people who die each year from gunshot wounds. Not that such logic leverages much sympathy. The only sentiment deeper than the American love for guns is their love for God and the odds are diminishing that the big guy will ever intervene to halt a business worth an estimated $13.5 billion a year. The NRA could count on the support of five million people in 2013. In comparison, America’s army has 1.3 million personnel in 2015 compared to China’s 2.2 million. When we ask who the ‘well regulated militia’ of America’s Constitution now serves, I think the answer is clear: America’s gun lobby controls the world’s largest standing army.
In the light of such numbers, Obama was perhaps right to weep. Escaping the abusive relationship between America and its gun owners was never a realistic proposition. Instead, politicians seek scraps from their master’s plate and haggle about rates of fire and clip capacity. They are the politics of impotence, tinkering with details that never figured in the logic when The Second Amendment came into power in 1791.
Back then it was the age of duelling pistols and the flintlock rifle. In the hands of a capable solider, the musket could shoot as many as three or four rounds per minute and the need for a militia was obvious. Only by standing together could a community hope to defend itself against a well-drilled English infantry regiment capable of sustained fusillades of shots. It is not clear why the logic of 1791 is supposedly relevant to 2016. The guns used in the San Bernardino mass shooting were modified versions of the AR-15. Unlocked, the AR-15 can fire as quickly as the shooter can pull the trigger for as long as they can switch the often-oversized clips. A battalion of English foot infantry of the Revolution wouldn’t stand a chance given the range and firepower of a single modern automatic rifle.
Critics of the Second Amendment would argue that those that originally framed the ‘right to keep and bear arms’ lacked the necessary foresight and they should have specified what kind of arms citizens might bear and when they might bear them. Supporters argue that they knew exactly what they were doing. It is now merely an academic exercise to wonder what Thomas Jefferson would have made of the Glock pistol capable in fully automatic mode of emptying an extended 33 round clip in less than a second. Perhaps he would have seen it as a force for good, a guardian against the overreach of the state. He might equally have been horrified at the thought of such firepower being released in a classroom of teenagers being taught how to read poetry.
This is the essential problem America faces. Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Franklin: names from America’s past are too often invoked in order to deny the pragmatism of our modernity. It assumes that men to whom the biro would have been a miracle were more wise or capable than those born in the age of digital communications and space flight. It might be laughable but there is no way of countering logic that elevates cold statues over thinking bodies. America is unwilling to change. The President’s warm tears testified to that fact.