Editor’s note: Originally published on Jan. 8, the San Diego Free Press is republishing this three-part series in honor of the one year anniversary of the Newtown school shooting, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.
While US gun crime and all crime levels are slowly but almost imperceptibly declining, they still remain relatively astronomically high compared with Europe. In this article, we compare US and European levels of gun violence and gun control to see if we can make any sense of the gun debate in the wake of the increasing frequency of mass murders as well as the almost mundane everyday killings in urban areas like Chicago and Detroit. Frank is an ex-pat who has lived in Europe for over 30 years. John has lived in San Diego for over 40 years.
It’s time to get serious on prohibiting gun acquisition or possession by people with a history of mental illness and by high risk groups such as felons, drug addicts or alcoholics. It’s time to get serious on limiting civilian gun sales to one shot at a time pistols and rifles with cartridge or chamber capacities of no more than six bullets. It’s time to get serious on conducting thorough criminal and mental health background checks and having waiting periods for high risk people and first-time buyers seeking gun permits.
Complicating matters, in my (John’s) view, is that most mass murderers have no prior record of mental illness nor have they obtained their guns illegally. The main problem, we believe, is that so many legal and illegal guns are out there, particularly powerful high bullet capacity semi-automatic weapons and assault type pistols and rifles, that only an all-out effort to get them off the street and out of households is going to do any good. It’s the easy availability and sheer number of guns that creates our unique climate of gun violence.
Part 1 – The 2nd Amendment Right to Keep and Bear Arms
While our nation has had a somewhat constant, but international-wise very high, level of homicide violence, gun proliferation has enabled a greater portion of that violence to become deadly in sharp contrast to Europe. Pro-gun advocates like to say that violent crime rates are far higher in Europe as a result of restrictive gun controls. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Clearly, the original intent of the 2nd Amendment was to create a militia of citizens to protect the country from foreign invaders, especially the British who had just been beaten in the War of Independence and would have had another try at it in the War of 1812. The militia concept took the place of a standing army.
The English Bill of Rights of 1689, which predates our Bill of Rights by 100 years, codified an ancient self-protection right with the words, … “subjects who are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” This gave birth to the English common law right to keep and bear arms for self-defense, but the vague wording is a far cry from the absolute wording of our 2nd Amendment: “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.”
In the 18th century, the Swiss “citizens militia” model was cited in support of passage of the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution on the rights of citizens to keep and bear firearms. Since its founding in 1291, Switzerland has allowed and even required its citizens to arm as a defense against Europe’s despots. For centuries a well-armed Swiss populace has kept its independence by defeating the mighty armies of European monarchs. The Swiss learned early that tyrannical invading foreign forces kill more people than do criminals or the deranged. The Swiss militia took the place of a standing army as did American citizen militias in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Thomas Jefferson was the first to suggest we should not have a standing army and wrote a series of letters in 1787 urging James Madison and others to write this into the Constitution. The idea was that, instead of a standing army, every able-bodied man in the nation should be required to be a member of a local militia, under local control, with a gun in his house. If the nation were invaded, word would come down to the local level and every man in the country would take arms and constitute a de facto army (following the Swiss model).
Militias were clearly meant by the Founding Fathers to take the place of a standing army. However, a permanently standing US army was established in WWII. As such, it took the place of militias making them unnecessary and also to a certain extent making the basic intention of the 2nd Amendment superfluous.
In 1791, US Representative Andrew Jackson acknowledged the Swiss influence on the right to bear arms when he said: “The inhabitants of Switzerland emancipated themselves by the establishment of a militia which finally delivered them from the tyranny of the lords.” Similarly, the right to bear arms as part of a “well regulated militia” formed the original basis for our 2nd Amendment. General Wingate, founder of the NRA, heaped praise on the Swiss militia model as being the ideal model for securing the country’s security.
First came a legal challenge in Aymette v. State (1840) where the court held that, “citizens have an unqualified right to keep and bear arms.” The court held this right is not just for those individuals who are members of the militia.
Then came the vague, poorly arrived at and seeming contradictory decision in U.S. v. Miller (1939) where the court held that the 2nd Amendment “protects the right to bear arms only if the arms in question are those that would be useful as part of a civilian militia.”
Finally, Justice Scalia in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) held that the 2nd Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in the militia.”
Then came a landmark case McDonald v. Chicago (2010) where the Supreme Court held the right to “keep and bear arms” under the 2nd Amendment applies also to the states. The District of Columbia v. Heller ruling was vague on the scope of gun rights in regard to states.
However, under the banner of linking “freedom” to personal armed “readiness,” the NRA has long adopted the position that efforts to restrict gun sales – whether semi-automatics, AR-15s, AK-47s, machine guns, or hunting rifles – are an “assault” on our constitutional rights under the 2nd Amendment. In truth, the 2nd Amendment does NOT sanction the individual right to semi-automatic and automatic firearms.
Further, the NRA propagandizes that inadequate gun control laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings. “People kill, not guns”´ is the NRA’s motto … rather than “People kill with guns.” According to the NRA, the way to make people safer is MORE semi-automatic guns and better background checks on society´s psychiatrically disabled.
In Europe today, there is no absolute right to own a gun. The British strictly control the possession of most types of arms for the common good. Criminals, children, and the mentally ill are not allowed to be armed. The UK Firearm Acts of 1968 and 1998 setrigid requirements for a firearms certificate. Firearms such as rifles and shotguns as well as ammunition must be stored and locked securely – preferably in specially manufactured firearms cabinets. This is to prevent to the extent possible any “unauthorized” person from taking or using them. An “unauthorized” person is someone who does not have a firearm or shotgun certificate.
Ad hoc inspections control this regulation, including regulations regarding carrying a gun on the street. Violations result in serious fines plus up to six months in prison (and possible loss of firearm certification). Center-fire, self-loading, and pump action rifles are banned as well as automatic weapons. Gun rights and strict rules have culturally evolved to a point where today Britain has one of the lowest gun ownership levels and gun homicide rates in the world. Further, this has not resulted in high non-gun homicides or a high violent crime culture as purist anti-gun control believers like to say.
Switzerland also has no constitutional guarantee of an individual´s right to bear arms. The national legislature could ban gun ownership anytime if it wished. But today Switzerland is a heavily armed nation (but at half the rate of gun ownership as the US). This reflects a centuries old Swiss culture of having arms to resist possible invaders or despotic tyrants, for example, Hitler in WWII.
The country’s high gun ownership level comes with a very low gun homicide rate compared to the US. All males at 18 must join the military and can take their military assault weapon home with them when they leave the army. Thus, up to 500,000 military assault weapons (or approximately 6 guns per 100 population) are estimated to be in Swiss households today. These weapons must be locked up and ammunition is kept in central arsenals. However, there is a movement afoot to relocate these military weapons out of the home and into depots.
The government supplies bullets for shooting festivals. Canton police may issue special permits for civilians to own assault rifles – typically as licensed collectors – and such weapons may not be fired in full automatic mode. While gun ownership laws have tightened on handguns and non-military weapons, it is still relatively easy to get a hand gun. But, it is illegal to carry guns in public.
Switzerland has many guns but few murders … thanks to strict gun control laws and a popular recreational shooting culture. The country hosts some of the largest rifle shooting events in the world. Swiss households use firearms mainly as a peaceful, sport-shooting family occupation at contest festivals where eating, drinking, socializing abound. Shooting-range festivals have come to be recognized as a wholesome community activity. Well-enforced rules apply to permits, safety training, and gun/ammunition handling. Ammunition sold at ranges must be used there. Males 20 to 42 must keep their rifles and pistols at home. This culture fosters gun safety. Over time, these social attitudes have helped to keep Swiss total gun and non-gun homicide rates far below those of the U.S.!
Continued in Part 2: Some Factual Gun Statistics (Tomorrow)