Published on August 13th, 2013 |
by Liam Anderson
The NRA, the Second Amendment, and the 21st Century
The National Rifle Association (NRA) of the USA has often made headlines, particularly during debates over gun control and ownership. With its relentless rejection of regulation it can be argued to be regressive as a social force and anachronistic as a source of advice on personal safety.
The NRA is a non-profit organization founded in 1871, originally largely to improve the efficiency of firearms use by soldiers and militias, after a poor record in the American Civil War. Now, it promotes the idea of gun ownership as a legitimate feature of self-defence, along with the promotion of firearm-related hobbies such as hunting. It also provides firearms training for a variety of people. Its political activity has its basis in the idea that ‘the right to bear arms’ remains a modern civil right provided by the famous Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, with the NRA self-described as its most prominent defender. It had a claimed membership of around 5 million in 2013 and is still considered an influential lobbying organization in the USA, especially against gun controls and research into the effects of gun violence.
High rates of gun homicide unsurprisingly correlate with high rates of gun ownership and laxer regulation – while there are cases of ‘high guns-low crime’ areas these are exceptions rather than the rule; it is intuitively obvious that with easy access to powerful weapons, i.e. guns, simple domestic arguments, score-settling, gang competition or any other localized conflict can escalate even more quickly than otherwise into serious assault or murder. Fighting fire with fire is not a good reference point for a domestic policy aiming to reduce gun-related casualties as, rather predictably, gun-promotion and lax regulation ends up with many people owning a lot of guns. An abundance of firearms is as accessible by criminals and those who may be more trigger-happy as it is for ‘responsible citizens’. The USA has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world by a large margin, ahead of countries which may be expected to have higher rates due to conflict or weak and unstable state infrastructure.
It is obviously true that violent crime in general occurs even when there are fewer firearms available, for example, London, UK, has had a knife crime problem. However, the fact remains that firearms are more dangerous than many other weapons, and at the same time are potentially more easily controlled, as they are more difficult to manufacture, more expensive, and can be explained away much less easily than, for example, a baseball bat or a kitchen knife; no-one plays baseball or cuts cheese with a gun – they are for inflicting injury. Guns are a more distant weapon than knives or many others, and so in a way probably make it psychologically easier to use for an attack; they are more anonymous, as the distance and speed make it easier to conceal identity; they are more easily used without leaving marks such as DNA on a victim; they can more easily escalate or exaggerate a situation, as they can more quickly hit more people at a wider range, very possibly by accident. They are most certainly dangerous in a potentially uncontrolled manner, with control of their usage in effect resting on the assumption that all of their owners are in consistent and responsible control. They would require a very good argument to be derestricted.
Are guns the ‘great equalizer’? This implies that all have equal access to and ability with firearms, which blatantly is not the case, leaving those who were not insecure, violent, and maybe affluent, enough to acquire their own personal arsenal with a disadvantage in the face of those who were. Even if this were the case it would still assume that people nearly always acted rationally, consistently, fairly, and never lost their possessions or made mistakes, for a mistake with a loaded gun can easily be no small matter.
The NRA, among others, has successfully managed to conflate the idea of defending civil liberties and individual freedoms with private gun ownership and paranoid preparation for self-defence against a plethora of mortal dangers. There may have been some truth in this over two centuries ago at the time of the constitution’s promulgation, where the threats of foreign invasion, banditry, crime, and conflicts with disenfranchised Native Americans may have presented a real threat to safety in the absence of a powerful security apparatus and standing national army, and so lent some justification to the idea of more heavily-armed individual protection. However, it is now 2013, not 1789, and time to update ideas. The British imperial government of King George III does not show any signs of attempting a reinvasion; it, and that time of a pre-modern state with an informal security apparatus, are gone.
Often heard are accusations of government interference in everyday ‘freedoms’, or even totalitarianism, as if basing a policy of gun restrictions on evidence and sensible analysis with a view to reducing gun casualties is nothing more than ‘interference’, or somehow an indication of a creeping neo-Stasi invasion of everyday life. Whatever the American government has or has not done to engender criticism regarding involvement in citizens’ personal lives, gun control cannot sensibly be considered similarly. This seemingly ‘Wild West’ understanding of justice, law and order, and personal safety, is simply anachronistic and internally incoherent as an argument.
Even if private gun ownership is accepted as sensible, for hobbies or some level of self-defence, there is little explanation for full deregulation and, for example, pushing for armour-piercing bullets and military-grade weapons to be freely available; even if you agree with hunting, as many have pointed out – which deer wear armour? Background checks also seem quite an obvious measure to support, as giving lethal force to those who are likely to use it without much forethought may be considered less than intelligent. Even with new gun controls, the USA would still have the highest rate of gun ownership in the world and would likely still be considered by those from many other countries to have an exaggerated personal access to lethal force, but the country may at least then be able to reduce the more extreme negative results of easy access to guns, such as high school shootings involving assault rifles.
With white, right-wing, middle-aged, rural men, a core of NRA supporters, becoming increasingly a relatively smaller demographic, the organization will hopefully gradually lose their lobbying influence. However, the vocal opposition to recently proposed changes to simply buying guns implies that they unfortunately still retain a significant voice in American political debate, although we may hopefully not have to wait too long for this to change.