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This Is America

America has been facing ever-increasing scrutiny over its current stance on gun control. It would seem that in 2018, hardly a day passes where the mainstream media do not report a mass shooting. As of Thursday 8th November, there have been 307 mass shootings in the United States in 2018 alone. This number has increased during the time this article has been written and refined for publication.

For the purposes of this article, any reference to ‘mass shooting’ means: the circumstances whereby four or more people are shot in one incident, at one location, at approximately the same time. It is submitted that the distinction between death by and injury from shooting is irrelevant; in order to obtain an accurate understanding of gun crime in the US, a broader definition is needed. However, the need for a definition of ‘mass shooting’ is somewhat secondary. Given the sheer number of incidents, regardless of whether more people were killed or injured, it is indicative of need for change. It is argued that the contemporary situation in the US is not satisfactory by any means.

There is no doubt that the phenomenon of mass shootings in the US is at least partially linked to the freedom to obtain a weapon as per the US Constitution. At present, there are approximately 200 constitutions in the world. Of those, a mere three include a right to bear arms. These countries are: Guatemala, Mexico and the United States. It is only the United States that does not create explicit, restrictive limitations to that right. The right to keep and bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Second Amendment, in its entirety, reads as follows:

“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.”

Much emphasis has been placed on particular words of the Second Amendment. It is apparent that the latter half of that right has been the justificatory response by gun-right supporters. There is also a tendency to rely on the argument that if the state were to turn on its citizens, this would be justified. However, three words have been repeatedly overlooked: “well regulated Militia”. It is submitted that these three words are the essential component to the Second Amendment. Logically speaking, the militia (or citizens) need to be regulated and therefore controlled. Adopting the Oxford Dictionary meaning of ‘regulation’ it implies the existence of: “a rule or directive made and maintained by an authority”. It follows, not unreasonably, that the militia referred to in the Second Amendment can be subject to rules, whether internal or external to that body. Clearly, rules regarding who can access such weapons or the conditions in which they are used, were borne in the mind of the framers of the Constitution. It is submitted that to suggest otherwise is illogical. If these matters were not considered, one must beg the question: why use the term “well regulated” at all?

It is clear from previous legislation that restrictions on those who can obtain firearms in the United States would not be contrary to the Second Amendment. Such rules would restrict access of those with well-documented histories of violence and serious mental illnesses (that would pose a threat to the public when combined with access to a weapon) to guns that appear to be at the centre of these incidents. There is a dire need for more stringent gun control laws. This is preferable on the basis that the current restrictions and lists of ‘prohibited persons’ found in the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the later Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986 simply fail to have much, if any, impact on this issue. Further, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which creates the obligation to undertake background checks, requiring licensed sellers to inspect the criminal history background of prospective gun purchasers also does not go far enough in that these events continually occur despite this piece of legislation. Whether this is due to lack of enforcement is unclear.

There have been numerous high-profile commentators on this particular matter. One example is journalist John Oliver, the host of ‘Last Week Tonight’. Oliver has covered the issue surrounding gun ownership for some time, starting with a three-piece series on ‘The Daily Show’. This was a comparative piece between the American experience with the Australian experience. This is because Australia radically changed its gun laws (in a very short period of time) following the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996. Interestingly in this segment, it appears that the member of the ‘Virginia Citizens Defense League’ interviewed by Mr Oliver outright rejects the idea that any such country has banned guns, despite the history of Australia being raised numerous times. Mr Oliver also interviews The Honourable John Howard, the former Prime Minister responsible for the radical change in gun laws in Australia. Other recent pieces that Mr Oliver has covered include a piece on the National Rifle Association (NRA) themselves and the NRA’s own TV station. The most concerning point that can be taken from Mr Oliver’s segments is the sheer stubbornness of those against gun control to even consider arguments contrary to their position. This concern is further compounded when one considers how much of a stranglehold that the NRA has on US Politicians.

More recently, the matter has been revisited through the music industry. Earlier in 2018, Donald Glover (a singer who performs under the name ‘Childish Gambino’) released a song titled “This Is America” (the title of which inspired the name of this article). The song’s accompanying music video was at the centre of much attention: from depictions of people being shot, through to Childish Gambino’s adoption of a ‘Jim Crow’ stance. Jim Crow is a pejorative term for African Americans. Its origins stem from a song and dance from the 19th century, designed to mock the African community. Due to its wide use, racial segregation laws in the US were known as “Jim Crow Laws”. “This is America” provides highly accurate social commentary on the current issue as well as attacking racism and discrimination of African Americans. There are numerous references throughout which suggest that American politicians currently treat guns better than human lives. This can be seen from the use of guns being handled with red material, indicating that Republicans treat weapons with more respect than citizens. It is apparent that this is the case: thousands of students protested against gun violence across the US earlier this year but were ultimately ignored. This point is even further supported when one considers that Childish Gambino is wearing trousers of a confederate-esque uniform during the music video. The confederacy was typically made up of Southern States, which are particularly protective of gun rights.

One reason the Second Amendment has not been modified is the NRA wields significant political power, particularly in the Republican Party. Owing to this, Republican politicians are inclined to support and promote the interests of the NRA through fear of losing future support, both in terms of votes and funding for their election campaigns. As a result, any attempt to change the Second Amendment or American Law on the matter has been forcefully rejected. Such a model is unacceptable in modern day politics. It is submitted that a private entity ought not to be able to dictate the policies or the stances that politicians of that country adopt. A politician is required to act in the best interests of their constituents, not in the best interests of their own career or for economic gain. Sadly, this is an all too realistic part of American politics which does not seem to show any signs of letting up. However there does seem to be some positivity. Following the recent mid-term elections, many NRA-backed candidates lost their seats. A full breakdown of the mid-term elections can be found here. This could signal change in US politics and the views of its citizens towards the need for gun control. One can hope that in the near future, perhaps after the 2020 elections in the United States, some headway is made towards creating tighter guns laws in the US.

There are a number of factors which impact on the rate of mass shootings in the US. This article focuses the two most significant. Firstly, there is a higher accessibility to and ownership of guns. The US has the highest per-capita gun ownership in the world with 120.5 firearms per 100 people. The sheer number of guns suggest that such incidents are much more likely to occur. The reduction of the number of guns, however, would mean that the number of such mass shootings would be significantly curtailed. An argument to suggest that the illegalisation of guns is impractical because it would not reduce the number of guns to zero is not a sufficient response. To suggest this would to undermine any other law. Should the US then strike down law regarding murder, theft, drugs or tax fraud simply because it cannot ensure that no such events will ever occur? Secondly, there appears to be a systemic failure on the part of the US government and its agencies to carry out the necessary background checks due to a combination of incomplete databases and staff shortages. It is either a systemic failure or a flagrant disregard for the safety of its citizens. In either event, it is submitted that this amounts to outright negligence. This submission is bolstered when one considers that there are cases whereby the authorities are aware of issues surrounding individuals, yet still fail to act. These individuals then proceed to carry out shootings at a later stage. Such examples include the shooter at an Orlando Gay Nightclub and the shooter of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

When one considers all of the above, the current policy and legislation surrounding gun control in the US needs to be changed. Whether such change is pursued by the US is unclear. Unfortunately, even if such change is undertaken, it is uncertain those changes will be brought into effect any time soon. This is due to the Republican party currently holding a majority in the Senate. The best hope, therefore, is that the winner of the 2020 elections is able to muster a strong campaign to at least limit access to guns to prevent mass shootings from occurring.

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