By Robert Silvey
An angry person with a knife can kill one or two people. An angry person with a gun can kill 32.
The carnage in Blacksburg yesterday was avoidable. Guns are dangerous technology, and if they were carefully regulated in Virginiaâ€”as other dangerous technologies are regulatedâ€”the death toll would likely have been one or two, not 32. But we Americans, in the course of our violent history, have developed an obsession with guns, transforming them into hollow symbols of political freedom and personal independence. We are taught in school that flintlock-wielding farmers won the Revolutionary War, that the six-shooter cleared the West of Indians and rustlers and all manner of other troublesome varmints, and that the only thing standing between us and a totalitarian government today is a brace of guns in every citizen’s closet.
The Second Amendment to the Constitution was written to ensure that state militias (now known as the National Guard) would maintain the armaments required to carry out their duties. In the last half-century, its meaning has been distorted in the public mindâ€”by the National Rifle Association and by fear-mongering Republicans (including some right-wing judges)â€”so that many people think the amendment forbids the government from regulating guns. This interpretation is ridiculous on the face of it:
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.
As Garry Wills points out in a thorough 1995 essay in the New York Review of Books (available by subscription only at NYRB, but republished here), the subject of the amendment is how to regulate the militia in order to ensure state security, not whether rifles ought to be widely distributed to individual citizens. Furthermore, all discussion of James Madison’s original proposal concerned military matters; in fact, Wills writes, “To bear arms is, in itself, a military term. One does not bear arms against a rabbit.” The phrase “to keep and bear,” he writes, does not in this context describe two actions, but is “a description of one connected process” encompassing how “a local militia‘s function was always read in contrast to the role of a standing army,” which was permitted locally in each state but frowned on at the federal level (until the development of our current national security state and its enormous standing army). The phrase “the people” here refers to those members of the citizenry who constitute the militia, thereby representing collegially the interests of the state, rather than individuals who might arm themselves against other individuals. The history is clear.
But it doesn’t require a close reading of the Second Amendment to understand the insanity of allowing anyone to own as many guns as he wants. Nearly every developed country in the world has more stringent gun-control laws than the United States, and the laws of Virginia are particularly weak, allowing anyone to buy without background check at gun shows, requiring no gun locks or safety training for owners, and providing no “restriction on the sale or possession of military-style semiautomatic assault weapons like the AK47 and Uzi.” Many states have gun laws that are even less restrictive.
The results are startling. As of 2001, 41 percent of American households possessed guns, and the intentional gun death rate was 13.47 per 100,000. This compares with much lower rates in other developed countries, where guns are registered and owners are licensed:
- Japan: 0.6 percent gun possession, with a death rate of only 0.07 per 100,000 (200 times lower than the US)
- the UK: 4.0 percent possession, 0.4 death rate
- France: 22.6 percent possession, 5.48 death rate
Even in Finland, with 50 percent possessionâ€”higher than in the USâ€”the death rate is less than half, at 6.65, thanks to sensible regulation.
My own preference would be to see all personal firearms outlawed completely. I understand that not many Americans would agree, but there is a perfectly rational alternative that would be acceptable to a majority. Like Japan and Finland and the UK, the US should register all guns and license all gun owners and users. The logic is no different from car registration and driver licensing, and gun technology is arguably much more dangerous. It certainly was more dangerous in Blacksburg yesterday, and without gun control we can expect to see many more Blacksburgs.
Cross-posted at Rubicon.
Categories: American Culture