Love affair with firearms won't be quelled by mere statistics


AMERICA:Cities and states that restrict gun ownership are seeing that prerogative threatened by the Supreme Court

‘WE AMERICANS, we cling proudly to our guns and religion,” Sarah Palin, the failed vice-presidential candidate and darling of the Tea Party movement, said at a recent rally for Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas.

The historian Richard Hofstadter coined the phrase “gun culture” to describe America’s love affair with firearms. An estimated 25 per cent of American adults own guns, and one in two American adults live in a household with guns.

This streak of irrationality flowing through the American psyche has a little flag stuck in it, with the words “Second Amendment” emblazoned on it. Gun enthusiasts cite their God-given right so often that one must quote the passage from the Constitution in full: “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.”

This irrational streak is impervious to the fact that guns kill. The Centre for Disease Control confirms that in 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, firearms accounted for 67 per cent of the 18,573 homicides in the US.

And if the statistics weren’t convincing enough, there’s a long line of assassinations and mass killings, made possible by the easy availability of weapons: Columbine High in Colorado, where two students killed 13 people before committing suicide in 1999; Virginia Tech, where a student killed 32 people and himself in 2007. Just last month, Amy Bishop, a professor at the University of Alabama, shot six of her colleagues, killing three of them.

On February 23rd, the governors of Colorado State University voted to ban students carrying concealed weapons on campus. At a time when the “concealed carry movement” and “open carry movement” are campaigning aggressively nationwide, the Colorado ban was vigorously opposed by a student group that argued guns would give them a better chance of survival in the event of a Virginia Tech-style massacre. James Alderden, the Sheriff of Larimer County, said he was outraged by the ban and would seek to undermine it in the interest of student safety.

On the day of the Colorado decision, a gunman with a high-powered rifle shot and wounded a boy and girl at a middle school in Denver.

In Virginia, which is home to the four-million-strong National Rifle Association, the legislature recently voted to repeal a 17-year-old law that bans residents from buying more than one gun a month. The gun-a-month law came about because Virginia had become the gun-running capital of the east coast. A Batman cartoon book portraying it as such made the state a laughing stock, and led to the 1993 law.

L Scott Ligamfelter, the Republican legislator who led the drive for the repeal, said limiting gun purchases was comparable to limiting church attendance. On Thursday, a Virginia state senate committee stocked with anti-gun Democrats struck down the repeal, a minor setback for the Virginia gun lobby, whose 21 pro-gun Bills last year are known as the “21-gun salute”. These include a law allowing the carrying of concealed weapons in restaurants and bars.

In 29 US states, it’s legal to carry a loaded handgun without any form of permit. And those cities and states which restrict gun ownership now see that prerogative threatened by none other than the US Supreme Court.

In the 2008 District of Columbia v Heller case, the Supreme Court struck down a ban on hand guns in the nation’s capital on the grounds it violated the Second Amendment – ignoring the fact that the amendment apparently referred to state militias, not individuals.

Because the District is not a state but a federal enclave, the ruling did not immediately apply to the states. But it opened the way for numerous lawsuits by would-be gun owners.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in one of those cases, McDonald v Chicago.

Otis McDonald, a 76-year-old African-American with a gentle smile, is demanding the right to keep a handgun in his home on the south side of Chicago to protect himself from gangs.

The conservative justices made it clear they will overrule the Chicago ban on handguns.

When Steven Breyer, a liberal justice, asked if cities couldn’t ban guns if that meant “saving hundreds of lives”, the conservative justice Antonin Scalia retorted: “We don’t resolve questions like that on the basis of statistics.”

President Barack Obama has disappointed advocates of gun control, who recall he promised to stop dealers at gunshows selling weapons without background checks, to revive the ban on the sale of assault weapons and to force states to release gun-related crime statistics.

Instead, Obama last year signed Bills allowing guns to be carried in national parks and in luggage on Amtrak trains. Both provisions were attached to larger pieces of legislation that the president wanted to see passed.