The Right to Keep and Bear Arms; and to use them

Feb 21, 2018

Guns and arms are embedded in US culture. It seems unable or unwilling to fix this, even though its people want it fixed.Its arms manufacturers are opposed to any solution. This shapes US foreign policy. Our engagement in this syndrome endangers us.

In July 2016, in this blog, John Menadue posed the question: “is war in the US’ DNA?”

On the basis of the evidence of the US being continuously at war, in multiple theatres, by its choice; that was a fair question. The answer seems to be in the affirmative.

A question posed continually and, shockingly again in the last week in the Parklands, Florida school shootings, is that of the availability and the use of guns in US civil society. Is this in the DNA of the US: homicide by the use of guns? Also, a fair question and one, which through its political aspect, affects us.

Those politics can be summarized as follows: at present, no candidate for election for virtually any political office in the US has a realistic chance of being elected if they challenge the current interpretation of the “right to bear arms”, or advance a platform of effective domestic gun control; similarly, candidates who express concern about the scale of the US arms industry, the size of the military budget or, the regular threat of the use of force by the US in the conduct of its international relations, can expect to win.

The repetition of domestic tragedies; from Columbine, through Sandy Hook, to Parklands has done nothing to alter these politics. There is a syndrome at work: that is, the hopeless repetition of a clearly unacceptable set of behaviours.  And, it seems that nothing will change following Parklands, the latest large-scale outrage.

The mention of scale, here, is relevant, because only events on such a scale as Parklands, are reported. Gun based homicides at a street or family level occur, almost daily, somewhere in the US and are barely reported.

The Supreme Court is partly responsible for these circumstances. In a case in which it pronounced, in 2008, District of Columbia vs Heller, it disconnected the two parts of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.

That 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”.

In a 5-4 vote, with the opinion which prevailed being written by the late  Justice Antonin Scalia, argued against the context of the Amendment, that is, of the ability of citizens to form a militia, as having any bearing on the right to bear arms it consequently goes on to establish. The latter was declared to be absolute, in its own right. This resulted in the dismissal of the District of Columbia regulation against the carrying of concealed handguns. That regulation had been made because of the level of gun-based homicide in DC. The Court’s decision had nationwide force.

By the way, the arms which were at issue when the Second Amendment was written, were flintlock muzzleloaders. There were no high capacity automatic weapons of the kind now readily available at today’s US gunshops and used in mass shootings. So much for the Court’s attachment to Constitutional originalism, of which Scalia was a devoted servant.

Another decision by the Supreme Court which has had a heavy impact on the conduct of US domestic politics was the Citizens United decision of 2010, in which it ruled that political donations were a form of the exercise of free speech, as protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Enter, the National Rifle Association, (NRA) the major pro-gun lobby, in the face of which candidates for election tremble and, with reason.

The NRA has had a telling effect on the fortunes of targeted candidates. During the last Presidential elections, it spent $30 million in support of Trump. During elections, it runs lurid, frightening, dishonest advertisements.

Its membership is usually exaggerated. It is somewhere between 3 and 4 million. But, it is impossible to know how many citizens support it, without joining, but if gun ownership is a guide, estimates for the US are in the range of 101 guns per 100 citizens; Australia’s comparable figure is 24.

Joining these domestic politics to international politics, the US arms industry is spread throughout the US. There is virtually no constituency or County which does not have situated in it, elements of the industry. Candidates cannot fail to embrace it, leaving aside the irresistible call of patriotism, because of the jobs it provides.

So, there it is. All politics in the US is shaped mightily by the arms manufacturers: Colt and Smith and Wesson at home, to name just two of many and, Northrop, Grumman, General Dynamics abroad, from amongst many.

The attachment of Americans to guns is embedded in their culture. It now seems true, through the ever-increasing militarization of US foreign policy, that this has carried through into their pursuit of their interests in the world; their determination to always have the largest firepower, far exceeding what a “well-regulated militia” might need for their national defence. And, now its re-embarking on a  nuclear arms race, as set out in last month’s US Nuclear Posture Review; all a light year distant from muzzleloaders, but of a piece with the same culture.

US politicians and parties deceive themselves and their people when they cringe in the face of the NRA and, the arms manufacturers and, proclaim that its all too hard to fix the problem of guns in America, even though a substantial majority of citizens say they want it to be fixed.

Our politicians reciprocate when they insist that we cannot survive outside the Alliance and the protection it affords us, in spite of the fact that it engages us directly in the great dangers of US militarism and possible nuclear war fighting.

The US culture is not ours. They are caught in it and, need to fix it.

International politics is not a question of which team you are on. Our disposition to think that way has its place at the MCG or SCG. It is about national values and interests and, ours are different from America’s in certain key respects.

Our interest should be in asserting an independent Australian foreign policy, one which, obviously, would include a respectful, constructive relationship with the US.

Richard Butler AC formerly Ambassador to the United Nations, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.

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