Home on the range

Vanessa Drucker 160 byline

The UK and other Western nations are mystified by American gun culture.

The tradition of civilian gun ownership in the US has been mythologised and venerated as a link to a romantic past of frontiersmen whose survival depended on self-protection. In fact, gun ownership increased most dramatically after the Civil War, when millions of decommissioned soldiers were permitted to keep their weapons. Meanwhile, Colt Firearms had launched an aggressive marketing campaign, using Wild West legends to promote its products. The Hartford, Connecticut-based manufacturer even engraved its guns with tiny images of men defending their cabins from Indians. (The Marlboro man much later performed a similar role for cigarettes.)

Today, 80 million Americans possess in total about 400 million firearms. Most own rifles and shotguns for sport, while handguns are kept for self protection. After each horrific massacre – Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine and Sandy Hook high schools – sales escalate.

“People who already own guns often buy more – either to make a political statement or prepare against possible future restrictions,” says Robert Spitzer, chair of political science at SUNY Cortland University. Assault weapon sales particularly soar. “Manufacturers love that, since those are the big money makers,” Spitzer adds.

A sizeable public segment, mistrusting the government, believes a personal gun is the ultimate bulwark against loss of liberty, à la Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. “One consequence of fragmented modern media is narrow channels of information that feed existing points of view,” Spitzer notes.

That paranoia bewilders foreigners. While overall crime rates between the US and other Western democracies run generally in tandem, gun homicides depart radically. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 42 per cent of civilian-owned firearms are in the US, where 3.2 gun homicides are committed per 100,000 people annually. For comparison, Switzerland, with the next highest ownership, weighs in at 0.52, Canada at 0.5 and the UK at 0.03. Mexico actually outstrips them all at 10.

The Second Amendment

Oddly, the legal right to bear arms originated in England. In 1689, the English Bill of Rights limited that privilege to Protestants, when Catholics still represented a threat after the Stuart monarchy. Incorporated into the American Constitution, the Second Amendment reads: “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.”

Many scholars and jurists view the amendment as an anachronism at best, or even a constitutional embarrassment. They point out that the Founding Fathers had never seen bullets, only musket balls that required continual reloading, and a “well regulated militia” refers to a trained and organised military group, like those that supported George Washington’s Continental Army.

The purpose was to supplement and support, not overthrow, the government.

University of Virginia professor of law and public affairs A.E Dick Howard was chief draughtsman in 1971 of the State of Virginia’s current constitution. He dispels the argument that the phrase is intended to protect the states versus the federal government. “I think they have misread history,” he says.

But is the right collective, and so pertaining to clusters of citizen vigilantes, or individual, for people like you and me? While right wing conservatives adhere to the individual interpretation as an article of faith, Howard maintains that history and language both argue for a collective reading. He explains that the very phrase “to bear arms” clearly connotes military usage.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled otherwise in its 2008 landmark decision in DC v Heller. In a narrow interpretation, Chief Justice Scalia’s five to four majority held that the only clear individual right from the second amendment is to keep a traditional or conventional loaded weapon in one’s home. “Beyond that, the area is open for debate,” says Howard, including such thorny issues as the right to bear arms in public places, non-traditional firearms such as assault weapons, and registration. Scalia’s opinion does not limit the rights of states to ban possession by felons or the mentally ill; or to regulate guns in court rooms, schools or government buildings; nor does it address buying and selling firearms.

Howard foresees further litigation, expecting that the Supreme Court will eventually be asked to clarify. He points out that it may be problematic to enforce gun laws locally, even once they are on the books. Public opinion is divided regionally, with fiercest gun support in rural areas.

Arm in arm

The National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturing industry enjoy a cozy relationship. Until 25 years ago, the industry lacked its own lobbyist in national politics, relying exclusively on the NRA as its political front and spokesman.

The industry has contributed vast funds over the years to ensuring their common goal, to press as many guns into as many hands as possible as a base of support.

How much money? It is impossible to pinpoint.

As a Social Welfare Organisation, the Internal Revenue Code terminology, the NRA need not report its sources of funds, as long as the majority of its activities remain apolitical.

Even its membership numbers are an enigma, and “some recent research suggests they puff them up”, says Spitzer.

For example, each member receives a magazine, of which about 3.1 million circulate. Yet the organisation claims 4 million people. Gun manufacturers advertise extensively in the magazines and on the website; they also write articles and review new guns, always positively.

The NRA was essentially nonpolitical until 1977, when an extremist faction seized control at its annual convention in Cincinnati.

Since then, the rhetoric has become angrier, more defensive, and less compromising. While that harsh political stance has attracted some, it has also put off many of the 76 million non-members who own guns.

We can only speculate about the exact relationship between gun lobby and manufacturers, drawing on circumstantial evidence. It will be interesting to note whether and how far the Connecticut legislature may tighten firearm laws. Connecticut, of course, was the site of the most recent Sandy Hook tragedy. It is also traditionally a center of gun manufacturing.