Full disclosure: I am Canadian. That cultural barrier may mean I will never “get” the fixation of some of my American friends and neighbours on the Second Amendment and its right to bear arms. To me, the Second Amendment is an outdated feature of the early democratic experiment, a relic that has long outlived its usefulness, and the “right” of gun ownership a positive threat to communal safety.
In the US, however, firearms are part of the conception of fundamental democratic rights as understood by many Americans, evidenced by the Second Amendment. Just last summer, Trump appeared to encourage political violence if Hilary Clinton were to toughen gun laws. Evidence also shows that fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than in the 1990s. What is going on?
The first place to look is at the Second Amendment itself. One very common defense of the Second Amendment focuses on the right to bear arms as necessary to maintain the existence of a democratic state, and without which, the government would devolve into tyranny or perhaps be overwhelmed by foreign invasion. For the Founding Fathers worried about the longevity of the republican experiment and drawing on the experiences of the Revolutionary War, the concern may have been warranted.
In the event, this does not appear to be supported by the evidence. One might ask if there has ever been occasion in the past two centuries to think “but for guns…” In other words, are there concrete examples where, but for the existence of an armed citizenry, the US would have devolved into tyranny? The existence and proper function of democratic institutions lies not in ownership of firearms, but in the prevalence and acceptance of these norms by its citizens. This does not require an armed citizenry to flourish. In America, the crucial foundations for this tradition were borne from the centuries of English democratic evolution and confirmed by President Washington’s personal humility and commitment to democracy.
Across the pond, continental Europe and the UK enjoy their own democratic traditions and robust freedoms without such laws. Even Switzerland, famous among European nations for widespread possession of firearms among its citizen army, does not allow most of those militia members to carry bullets at home.
Given the overwhelming might a modern government could deploy against its own citizens with drones, fighter jets, tanks and weapons of mass destruction, the calculus of our current age is also radically different from that of the Founding Fathers. In the early republic, Washington’s generation would have envisioned Napoleonic set-battles or Revolutionary guerilla warfare which featured far greater parity between sides. The asymmetry between a repressive government and citizenry is now orders of magnitudes higher. Fantasies of resistance to that dystopian government may presuppose the empirically dubious causal link between arms and democracy, but even if they did not, the small advantage to be gained in that unlikely hypothetical are outweighed obscenely against the costs paid every day in reality.
Yet these arguments hold little water with supporters of gun rights. Take again these statistics provided by CNN illustrating that far fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than was the case in 1990. Between 1999 and 2013, the biggest justification for gun ownership, “protection”, increased from 26% of gun owners to 48%. Yet the evidence shows there is actually less gun violence today than in the 1990s.
So why does the US seem like a less safe place for gun owners? Perhaps it owes something to the familial and societal breakdown suffered by many lower-income Americans. For an American victim of decades of wage stagnation, and who is also no longer able to depend on the same degree of familial or church support as in previous generations, the world may indeed appear much less safe. The post 9/11 and post-Columbine world, with its spectacular acts of random mass violence, may also play a role.
Another key place to look is in the statements of the NRA itself. This recent NRA advertisement presents a world where firearms are the bulwark against the onslaught of the liberal hordes. This advertisement suggests the need to bear arms is indeed borne from political fear.
Such conceptions appear little more than paranoid delusions and disgusting right-wing fantasies, the indulgers of which warrant Hillary Clinton’s infamous epithet “deplorables”. They are also highly alarming indicators of societal breakdown, fueled in no small measure by lurid imaginations and NRA propaganda. They are part and parcel with Trump’s veiled threat against Clinton.
Yet, like all effective propaganda, they contain a kernel of truth. In this instance, albeit in hideously disfigured form, there is legitimate concern over progressive ideological domination in certain cultural arenas. This is hardly only the concern of the violent extremists that this ad is designed to appeal to. But for the NRA and its supporters, this concern manifests in fetid, overblown fantasies of a hostile regime where armed protection is the answer.
Another reason why there may be less support for stricter gun laws is the notion that, even were the most draconian prohibitions on gun ownership in place, criminals would still obtain firearms, putting law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage. There are good reasons for questioning whether this would actually be true – but conjecture aside, this view is undeniably pessimistic. It presupposes the inefficacy of laws and police on a significant enough scale that citizens must arm themselves to be safe.
Regardless, Americans are for better or worse stuck with the Second Amendment, though long gone are the days of Washington and front-loading muskets. Though there remains much to admire about the United States, I cannot help but be relieved a constitutional right to bear arms does not exist in my country. And while US gun violence is down, the perceived need to bear arms is increasing, an increase which may be explained by fears of a hostile, collapsing world where laws can no longer protect citizens. The existence of the Second Amendment makes possible this unhealthy reaction. Far from promoting the stability of the democratic experiment as Washington’s generation intended, the outdated Second Amendment may be driving it in the opposite direction.