SHOOTING FROM THE HIP
In a news item which would have to be filed under ‘you couldn’t make it up’, during the very month when the trial of Derek Chauvin, the Minnesota police officer, charged with the shooting death of George Floyd in 2020, is ongoing, a second civilian suspect has also died at the hands of another police officer in the same city. This second death of Daunte Wright was by gunshot from a female officer during a traffic stop but with the cop being white and the deceased being coloured, comparisons are inevitable. The female officer, Kimberly Potter, has resigned from the force and is now in custody, awaiting trail on charges of second-degree murder.
I make no comment on either case as they are sub-judice and I know only what is reported in the press but what I did want to talk about was the general subject of gun use and control in the United States. Here in Botswana, gun ownership is very strictly controlled and licences only issued under very specific circumstances so the concept of complete freedom in this area is difficult for us to grasp but to Americans, it is regarded as part of their birthright and in violable liberty.
That right is indeed enshrined in law. It dates back to the year 1789 when the Constitution of the newly-formed independent United States was formatted by Congress. It is known as the Second Amendment, superseded only by the First Amendment which protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to peacefully assemble and freedom of the press, which is indicative of the importance the founding fathers placed on that right – to bear arms.
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.
Its original intention is clear from the wording. That freedom (of the people) must include the right to rise up and defend itself against a dictatorship, military coup, or any form of unlawful power grab by an individual or group. Ergo, every individual citizen has a constitutional right to own a weapon. The amendment has stood fast for over two hundred years and whilst it is not literally set in stone, it might just as well be since it is fiercely guarded by the electorate. Theoretically it is possible for Congress to overturn an Amendment to the constitution but in this instance, in practice, it would take a quantum shift in public acceptance for this ever to happen.
It is estimated that there are around 393 million guns in the country owned by civilians, meaning that with a population of 382 million, there are more guns than people. Residents of major cities are more likely to own and keep a handgun for personal protection whilst in rural areas, hunting is a massively popular pursuit, with a large proportion of ownership being rifles or shotguns. There is also a significant number of individuals and groups who own what might be called military-style weaponry – machine guns, bazookas etc. In fact, according to a 2016 Harvard-Northeastern survey, about 3 percent of Americans own about half the country’s almost 4 million weapons. Such ‘super owners’ possess an average of 17 guns each. This later statistic is quite terrifying, and yet it is perfectly in keeping with the very spirit of the Second Amendment, whereas that of personal safety from criminals and deer or duck-shooting, was probably not at the forefront of the Founding Fathers’ minds when they enshrined the at in law.
Over the past 2 decades or thereabouts, there has been a litany of horrific gun crimes in the USA, beginning with the 1999 Columbine shooting when twelfth grade students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered 12 of their fellow students and one teacher, before turning their weapons on themselves, the 2012 Sandyhook elementary school shooting when 20-year old Adam Lanza killed 20 6 & 7 year-old children and 6 staff members, the 2017 Florida gay nightclub massacre when Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old local man, killed 49 people and wounded 53 more and the even bigger Las Vegas bloodbath the following year when Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old man from Mesquite opened fire upon the crowd attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival. In the space of 10 minutes, he fired more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition from his 32nd floor suites in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, killing 60 people and wounding 411. Paddock was later found dead in his room from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His motive remains officially undetermined.
The incident is the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in modern United States history. It focused attention on firearms laws in the U.S., particularly with regard to bump stocks, which Paddock used to fire shots in rapid succession, at a rate of fire similar to automatic weapons. As a result, such weapons were banned by the U.S. Justice Department in December 2018, with the regulation in effect as of March 2019.
This was a rare victory for gun control lobbyists who have to contend with the hugely influential145-year old National Rifle Association (NRA) which spends millions of dollars on its own lobbying of Congress every year and which has big name supporters, including former President Donald Trump. On the eve of his 100th day in office, Trump addressed the NRA’s annual conference, the first sitting president to do so since Ronald Reagan in 1983. “You came through for me, and I am going to come through for you,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “I am here to deliver you good news: the eight-year assault on your second amendment freedoms has come to a crashing end.”
His words were aimed at what is often termed the silent majority. Consider this quote from Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at the UCLA School of Law and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America “The NRA is not successful because of its money. To be sure, it is hard to be a force in American politics without money. The NRA has money that it uses to help its favoured candidates get elected. But the real source of its power, I believe, comes from voters.”
However, whilst that silent majority probably doesn’t want to do much more with their personal arsenals than taking out a buck or a duck, annual gun crime statistics in the USA remain frighteningly high, with 14,400 gun-related homicides in 2019, constituting nearly three quarters of all murders that year. Given such statistics, it is scarcely surprising that many citizens feel the need to arm themselves against criminals and also that an armed police force is a necessary evil.
And little comfort can be taken from current president Joe Biden’s proud announcement this month that, determined to take a firm stance on gun control, he intends banning all home-made guns! I doubt Smith and Wesson and Winchester executives are losing much sleep over that and neither are most of the criminal fraternity who are more than happy with the factory-tooled variety of killing machine.
I do have sympathy with the much—mocked phrase that it’s not guns that kill, per se, but people, but that falls into the chicken and egg category of unfathomables. You could ban all further gun sales in the country tomorrow and there’s still enough weaponry around to begin – and win- World War III and as they say in Yorkshire, there’s nowt so queer as folks.