By Dr Russell Bentley, Senior Lecturer in Political Theory
The murders in a Connecticut school, the latest jaw-droppingly awful murders in the United States committed by someone who went berserk with a gun (berserk with clinical and calculated planning) are bringing out the set-piece discourses about gun control, both for and against. The terms are familiar and it is hardly necessary for either side of the debate to show up for rehearsals any more. They have their lines perfectly memorised and each party enters on cue. Even President Obama played his part, saying that we have seen too many tragedies like this and we need to take ‘meaningful’ action. These remarks were perfectly complemented by his press secretary, Jay Carney, saying to reporters that today is not the day to talk about gun control – presumably meaning that it would be grossly insensitive to appear to be politicking right after these atrocious acts have been committed, but succeeding only in showing the unavoidability of politicking about this issue, at this time, and, indeed, by these people. The ‘official’ gun lobby, in the form of the NRA, has been invisible in the immediate aftermath. The NRA Twitter feed has been silent, with not one single tweet on the @NRAnews feed on 14 December. The @NRA feed ended 13 December with a tweet that Florida is nearing one-million concealed weapon permit requests, which is a good news story from the NRA’s perspective. The gun lobby’s fellow travellers have not been silent, however. Mike Huckabee has blamed the murders on the lack of God in America’s public schools. Some, especially at-the-fringe characters, have said that protective firearms, carried, one assumes, by the school staff and not by the kindergarten children, would have ensured that the murderer was brought down before so many had died.
The problem about guns in America is the product of the famous ‘right to bear arms’ clause found in the 2nd amendment to the Constitution, as everyone knows. The District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) ruling by the Supreme Court settled what had seemed to be the nub of the issue regarding gun control. Does the Constitution limit the right to bear arms to the needs of a ‘well regulated militia’ or is there an absolute right to bear arms? If the former, gun ownership and possession become subject to regulation (the ‘well regulated’ phrase of the amendment). If the latter, well, the opposite: citizens have a right to acquire and privately keep firearms. The Heller decision confirmed a Constitutional guarantee that private citizens can own guns. The prior and ensuing debate about the case does however, miss the point, which is the 2nd amendment itself. Couching the discussion in terms of a right fundamentally controls how the debate can take place. It limits what can be said and, moreover, places that limit outside the control of political actors. The paradox is that the right is the creation of political actors who, through deliberation and argument, devised the 2nd amendment and submitted it to an electorate for ratification. The 2nd amendment is one of ten that the new states of the union were asked to ratify, confirming that the Constitution was a living and, therefore, changeable document from the moment of its unveiling to the citizens of the thirteen original states. It is time, therefore, for this sense of democratic control over the country’s fate to be re-enacted, specifically by repealing the 2nd amendment. This is not a call to abolish gun ownership. This is a call to abolish the rights discourse that disempowers democratically elected legislators and, indeed, those whom they represent. The interpretation of the 2nd amendment is not the problem; having to live within interpretations of the 2nd amendment is the problem. Do we want private citizens to own firearms? Initiate the public debate, involving the people and their representatives, about this issue and pass the appropriate laws. Do we want exceptions for various reasons? Again, initiate the public debate. Rights can act as protections against governmental invasion of the citizens’ lives, but when a right that was born out of political circumstances and argument takes on the mantle of inviolability, the democratic power to legislate for the common good is compromised. America needs to have a different kind of debate about guns and that can only occur when America ceases to place the question of gun ownership outside of democratic control.