Monday, February 28, 2011

Why US clings to the right to bear arms

Feb 27, 2011

Powerful gun lobbies and a belief that it is a Constitutional right bar debate on issue
By Lee Wei Ling

The recent shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona, where Jared Lee Loughner killed six people and wounded 14 others, was merely one of many such incidents in the United States where innocent people are injured or killed for no other reason than that guns are freely available to all and sundry. Loughner is alleged to have targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived the shooting.

The Loughner case is similar to that of Seung-Hui Choo, who in 2007 shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. Both assailants had shown signs of being unbalanced for at least 18 months before they carried out their massacres. After the event, many wondered why these psychologically disturbed and dangerous people were not treated earlier.

Congresswoman Giffords herself is pro-gun and owns a gun. It is difficult to say whether any American politician genuinely believes that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution - which states: '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' - remains relevant in today's America or that it gives any Tom, Dick or Harry (as opposed to a 'well regulated militia') the right to bear arms.

But such is the power of the gun lobby, American politicians will hesitate to say gun-ownership should be prohibited, as it is in almost every other civilised country. Even Senator John Kerry, a Democrat who supports gun control laws, had to appear in public wearing hunting gear and carrying a rifle during the 2004 presidential race, to show voters he wasn't opposed to guns per se. As the executive vice-president and chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Mr Wayne LaPierre, put it two years ago, the guys with the guns make the rules.

I lived in the US for three years and in Canada for a year for my post-graduate training. My fear of being mugged, robbed or killed was much higher in the US than in Canada. I am more vigilant when I hike in the US than when I do so in Canada. Gun violence in the US is the worst among developed countries.

Coming from Singapore, where there are strict laws against the illegal ownership of guns and any person who uses or attempts to use guns can face the death penalty, I have always been puzzled how a country like the US could have such a strong aversion to controlling firearms.

One Time magazine columnist explains it thus: 'Like them or not, guns are as American as covered wagons and the infield-fly rule. The revolutionaries and pioneers who forged the nation and peopled its wilderness really did cling to their guns as tenaciously as they clung to their religion.'

It appears that individual liberty has higher priority in the US than the safety of the community. So the American media scoff at our rules against chewing gum, and consider our death penalty for drug dealers cruel. I have no doubt the NRA would consider our gun laws as an infringement of individual liberty too, although the US media as a whole has not condemned our anti-gun laws.

(Not sure that they do. They reference their 2nd amendment to legitimise their right to bear arms. That we do not have such a provision in our constitution renders it moot. The right to bear arms being specified in the 2nd amendment makes it part of their individual right, but it is unique, and the US and NRA probably sees it as unique to their society.)

Yet when one talks to ordinary American citizens, many would prefer Singapore's anti-gun laws and even our anti-drug laws. I wonder how it is possible that at each election, at all levels, from city councils to the presidency, the winners are overwhelmingly pro-gun.

There are two possible explanations. First, voting is not compulsory in the US. As a result, even at the presidential election level, only about 60 per cent of the electorate exercises its right to vote. It is probable that those who feel more strongly about certain issues are more likely to vote. So the pro-gun as well as pro-life groups (who oppose abortion rights) are more likely to vote than the more passive anti-gun and pro-choice groups (who support abortion rights).

(It has been commented that the contradiction of being pro-gun (and thus presumably willing to take a life) and pro-life (being unwilling to take even life at the foetal stage) does not seem incongruent to the right. Of course, being anti-gun and pro-choice might also be incongruent. The natural partnership should be pro-gun and pro-choice.)

Second, there are powerful lobby groups in the US. Why lobby groups are considered legal in America puzzles me. In Singapore, what some of these lobby groups do - for example, contribute to the campaign funds of politicians they are lobbying - would be considered corruption. And, of course, the NRA is one of the most powerful and richest lobby groups in the US.

(Yes. I agree that lobby groups are a corrupting influence and unless it is removed from democratic process, it will undermine the democratic process as it is already doing in the US.]

It should be obvious to any rational person that the Second Amendment, which the NRA relies upon, is inapplicable in today's world. But the NRA quotes it as some would quote scripture. In fact, many Americans regard their Constitution as scripture. Once scripture is cited, rational debate seems to end.

[This seems to be a recent phenomena. Instead of WWJD, they are asking, what would the framers of the constitution want, or what did they mean. Or What would Reagan do. It is sad and frightening that the Right is co-opting the founders and Reagan, put the words of the right into these long-dead people to justify what they are unable to justify with reason and rationale.]

'Live free or die' is the motto of the state of New Hampshire, where I used to hike. There was something catchy about the words, so I once bought a T-shirt with the motto printed on it. But if one thought about it, it would be obvious that one can live totally free only by trampling on the rights of others. So every society requires its citizens to live within rules and regulations so the community as a whole can function.

This is so even in the 'Live free or die' state, New Hampshire. For instance, I like to drive fast - and a strict application of the motto should have allowed me to drive as fast as I liked. But there are laws against speeding, even in New Hampshire, and I can personally attest to the fact that people who speed are liable to be caught and fined.

If every individual in any society has total freedom, there will be anarchy and all members of that society would suffer. 'Live free or die' may be a catchy logo, but in reality, if there is total individual freedom, it would be more accurate to say: 'Live free and die'.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

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