Following the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that claimed nine lives this past week, America has again been forced to confront its apparent addiction to guns. As liberals call for greater firearm regulation, conservatives decry their views as an attack on the constitution and their inalienable second amendment rights. Here in Britain, this debate is perplexing; any mention of guns is usually met with a furrowed brow, a dismissive remark, and a swift return to tea, queuing, talk of the weather etc. As a friend recently put it, “if you want fewer gun deaths, just have fewer guns! It works for us.”
But with an issue like gun ownership which is so inexorably tied to the culture of one nation and so incongruous to the other, it is inadmissible to apply this British ideology to America.
My friend, at first glance, may be right. The U.S. civilian firearm ownership rate is 88.8 guns per 100 people, in Britain it is 5.9. Equally, in 2012 the number of per-capita gun deaths in the U.S. was 2.9 per 100,000, nearly thirty times that of the UK at 0.1 per 100,000. The statistics speak for themselves. Clearly America is racked with a sickness that must be treated; this is not an apology for the flagrant liberalism of their gun laws. However, the cultural significance of firearms in America must be appreciated in order for the voracious defence of them to be understood.
To many Americans, the right to bear arms is not merely political legislation, but an inviolable cultural privilege. As enshrined in the constitution and adopted in 1791, “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.” This is the binding supreme law upon which the United States was founded, the cornerstone of the American political and social establishment. For many Americans, this document is their bible (apart from, you know, The Bible.) Who are we to dismiss it so casually?
The British observer is further confounded by the polarised political landscape of America itself. Wildly divergent positions on the left and right wings are taken and passionately defended; in Britain we tend to be far more fluid with our notions of political and cultural identity. The political acrimony in America is reflected in the gun debate; moderate liberals emphasise the “well-regulated” part of the second amendment, whilst Tea Party conservatives cannot be swayed; they literally and figuratively stick to their guns.
Blindly wading into an American debate over gun culture as a Brit is undeniably problematic. In modern multicultural Britain, we incorporate the ideals and traditions of foreign cultures into our own 21st century concept of ‘Britishness’. Under the guise of acceptance and cultural relativism, we recognise that the moral right and wrong are culturally constructed notions not necessarily compatible with our own. The pro-gun argument should be afforded this same consideration.
However warped the concept of gun ownership may feel, we must attempt to understand the American paradigm however unconscionable it may seem. Reflecting on his past as a vocal advocate of gun control, broadcaster Piers Morgan said, “there is a culture of gun ownership which I didn’t afford enough respect to…if I had my time again…it would be a much more two-way conversation to try and understand why America has an obsession with guns”. Whatever the approach, a tangible solution to gun control is a bullet that America can no longer afford to dodge.
Image: Loren Kerns