Oram: Guns symptomatic of America's woes

ROD ORAM

Last updated 05:00 20/01/2013
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A nation's pain: The Sandy Hook massacre threw America's gun ownership tradition into sharp relief.

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OPINION: The more guns Americans buy, the more they weaken their nation; and the weaker the United States becomes, the greater the threat the country is to the rest of the world.

Americans buy guns for two reasons: they want to hunt animals; or they are afraid of people. If the latter, they fear their democracy and government will fail to protect their safety and freedom.

If their fear is justified, their political system has no hope of constructive resolution of the country's myriad problems. Then the rest of the world should fear the loss of American political and economic leadership.

As the perceived effectiveness of US politics, democracy and government declined over the past few decades, gun sales soared. Today, US civilians own almost 300 million guns - 106 million handguns, 105 million rifles and 83 million shotguns.

That's more than one gun per American man, woman and child. It is the world's highest per capita gun ownership rate. Yemen has the second-highest rate, at less than half America's. It has a better excuse for guns: it is a failed state.

But all is not yet lost in the US. Although the number of guns has soared, the proportion of people armed has fallen. In 1980, one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010 one in five did. Similarly, one in two men owned guns in 1980 but only one in three in 2010. The rate for women remained constant at one in 10, probably because of gun-makers' aggressive marketing of self-protection to them.

In other words, a smaller proportion of the public are armed. But those who are, are massively more heavily armed in terms of number of guns and the effectiveness of the guns, given the rapid rise of semi-automatic and automatic weapons such as assault rifles.

This gun culture based on fear of people rather than hunting of animals is a relatively new US phenomenon, and one that is heavily political, as Jill Lepore described in "Battleground America: One nation, under the gun," a New Yorker article published last April and available at http://nyr.kr/11A7rjM

For example, in 1980 only five states allowed private citizens to carry concealed weapons in public. Since then, 44 states have followed suit. Illinois is the sole holdout.

These law changes and many others that have weakened gun control are pushed on the premise that the US Constitution's Second Amendment gives American citizens the right to carry arms.

But this is a radical reinterpretation of the amendment away from the right to create citizen militias to uphold society, to an individual's right to personally carry arms, as Gary Hart, a former US senator and presidential candidate described in a December blog entry, available at http://huff.to/W80MHH.

This new interpretation of the Second Amendment is "one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud', on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime," Warren Burger, a conservative former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, has said.

A 1991 opinion poll found that Americans were more familiar with the Second Amendment than they were with the First: the right to speak and to believe, write and publish freely, as Ms Lepore reported in her New Yorker article.

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Yet it is this first freedom that has always been by far the most powerful safeguard of effective democracy and good government in any country. It is even more potent protection now it is pervasive thanks to the internet and cellphones, as people in oppressed societies demonstrate daily.

But rather than promote freedom, the US gun lobby peddles fear. Its supporters are predominantly white and conservative. Their political agenda is to weaken society and eviscerate government.

As Grover Norquist, one of the most conservative of Washington lobbyists, famously said: "I'm not in favour of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Political war has long been intense between those who believe in society and government and those who don't, causing deep deadlock over a vast range of issues from economics and immigration, to education, health and science.

But the latest gun massacres, in Aurora and Newtown, have escalated America's social and political tensions to dangerous levels. Attempts by President Barack Obama, state governors and city mayors to close even a few gun control loopholes are hardening conservatives' stands across the entire political agenda.

Yet, tragically, this dysfunction is the absolute antithesis of what made the US great. Once it was a country that could reach some measure of bipartisan agreement on its ambitions, and on the support it would give people so they could contribute to those towering national goals.

Maybe, eventually enough conservatives will return to this common ground so the country can reclaim its political and economic leadership in the world. But if they don't, the world will be much the worse off.

This, though, is not just a US story. All countries are capable of suffering in their own way from political intransigence and social fragmentation.

We are no exception. Like the US, we are changing very fast in social, ethnic and economic terms. And we, too, have some people who, like others across all societies, turn to violence when their frustration, anger and disappointment overwhelm them.

In many ways we are a long way off a breakdown in constructive political and social discourse of the sort racking the US. But there are still far too many New Zealanders who are suffering from economic and social deprivation because we are denying them the sufficient support that is their basic human right.

Rather than dismiss the US as an aberration, we should heed it as a cautionary tale.

- Sunday Star Times

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