Gun in campaign

Print edition : May 18, 2012

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA has drawn criticism from the anti-gun lobby for his reticence on tightening gun control laws.-

The recent spate of gun crimes in the U.S. and the flip-flops by presidential candidates on gun control reopen the debate on the right to possess firearms.

GUN violence is synonymous with the United States. In no other country is the subject discussed with such passion and intensity as in the U.S. because the rate of crime using firearms remains very high there. According to the Uniform Crime Reports (equivalent of Crime in India) released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation last August, 67 per cent of the homicides reported during 2010 were committed by assailants carrying firearms.

Ironically, the whole nation, far from being united on the issue, is sharply divided, especially with regard to the interpretation of what is guaranteed under the Second Amendment of the country's Constitution, comprising a part of the Bill of Rights. This Amendment reads: 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. Does the Amendment refer only to a right of the government to keep an armed militia or is the right also that of an individual to bear arms? This discussion will remain inconclusive for eternity if the fundamental differences in peoples' perceptions are not resolved.

Interestingly, the forthcoming U.S. presidential election has revived a debate that had become somewhat muted over the past few years. This gives a clear indication of the politics that clouds the whole issue. Incidentally, the present lowering of decibel levels by contending parties does not square with the fact that there have been several incidents in the past few years in which a firearm had been blatantly misused to take innocent lives.

In Virginia Tech, a mentally ill student, Seung Hui Cho, went berserk and shot down 32 innocent persons in 2007. Here the main question was how a youth with a known psychiatric history could manage to get a firearm licence. Another incident was the serious injury caused to a woman member of the House of Representatives, Gabrielle Giffords from Arizona, in a January 2010 shooting, which resulted in six deaths.

More recent was the shooting down of a hapless black youth, Trayvon Martin, by a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, in Sanford, Florida, in March this year. After a national furore in which the police were roundly accused of racism for protecting the White-Hispanic offender, Zimmerman was arrested for second-degree murder. Later he was granted bail, a decision that has again angered the black community. These gory happenings should normally have triggered an uproar among the anti-gun lobby. On the contrary, this section of the U.S. population has given the impression that it has lost its verve, a perplexing development. There are now only feeble voices heard in parts of the country that seek more stringent conditions for gun sale and ownership. Many public opinion surveys confirm that the fight has gone out of those who had traditionally stood against free licensing and sale of firearms. This subdued stance has boosted the morale of the gun lobby powered by the aggressive National Rifle Association (NRA), which has a membership of four million.

Presidential flip-flops

It is interesting that the exchanges between political rivals have once again energised the gun debate. The main reason for this is the obvious differences between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, his likely opponent in the presidential election in November. The country's media, looking for some meat, have spoken of them being locked in a combat over gun control, spreading the false impression that this alone could decide the fate of either candidate. This is an aberration of sorts. Opinion on this could, however, build as election day approaches.

On gun control, Romney is accused of changing his stance during the past few years, and Obama of soft-pedalling (read ignoring). An analysis of the stands attributed to the two highlights the complexity of the issues involved. It reveals that in politics there are no permanent views, and there are only permanent interests. How else would you explain Romney's transformation from an ardent supporter of restrictions on gun ownership to one preferring a hands-off approach?

As Governor of Massachusetts, he had once warmly supported a ban on assault weapons as also the Federal Brady gun control law. In doing so he had annoyed the NRA greatly. Today, Romney's position is that the country does not need more gun control laws. This has persuaded the NRA to lend strong support to his candidacy. In fact, Romney spoke at the NRA's recent annual convention at St. Louis (Missouri), where he accused Obama of diluting the citizen's constitutional rights to bear arms.

Romney said Obama in his second term would actually be unrestrained in clamping further restrictions on the right, while he, if elected, would protect the rights of hunters and sportsmen. This amazing turnaround is unabashedly political, and it should influence the NRA to go all out to win him valuable support. Actually, it is planning to raise $30 million to oppose President Obama's return to the White House.

As for Obama, he is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He is conscious of the might of the NRA and the validity of opinion polls that suggest a declined public interest in opting for more restrictions on gun ownership. Although he has not openly admitted a lack of zeal, he does seem to believe that he should not rock the boat by pledging further support to the movement that demands more laws on the subject. His own partymen are credited with the view that there would be no gains by sticking to a stridently anti-gun posture. There could actually be a backlash and an erosion of support from traditional Democrats. Obama's reticence has invited criticism that he is non-interventionist and unenthusiastic in bringing more legislation to curb the growth of weapons in the country.In any country, a discussion on gun control independent of the crime situation would be myopic. This is especially so in the U.S., where there has been a marked fluctuation in crime figures. Except in some major cities, crime, in general, has been falling in a large number of places. This phenomenon can be interpreted differently in the context of burgeoning crime leading from guns in individual hands. The pro-gun lobby can say that in view of the declining trend of crime, those who are opposed to guns can no longer take the position that more guns mean more violent crime. The other camp can argue that since crime is anyway falling, there is little for the average citizen to fear and acquire weapons for their protection at home. Such an articulation would, however, amount to nothing but a measure of sophistry that is ill-suited to an analysis of a serious societal problem like gun-related crime.

Judicial decisions

Judicial decisions have also contributed a little to the confusion in the minds of some citizens. A major instance in point is the U.S. Supreme Court ruling four years ago in District of Columbia vs Heller, on the D.C. Administration's statute that imposed a ban on handguns that were unregistered as of 1976. A D.C. Federal Court had earlier held that the law violated a citizen's Second Amendment rights. The D.C. authorities took the issue on appeal to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 ruling, the latter upheld the Federal Court stand. On its part, the Supreme Court, which in 1939 had held that the Amendment could not be said to guarantee the right to keep and bear arms, this time, took the position that the Constitution did not permit the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defence in the home.

The majority opinion in the case was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, recognised as the most conservative of all others currently on the Bench. While saying so, the court also said that this was not an unrestricted right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. Scalia further qualified the decision by saying that the judgment did not affect earlier rulings, which clearly prohibited possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.

But the Supreme Court's position left behind a doubt as to whether the decision applied to jurisdictions outside D.C. also. One of the dissenting judges, John Paul Stevens, was incensed by what he considered an expansive reading of the Amendment's ambiguous text by the majority. He added that the judgment also leaves for future cases the formidable task of defining the scope of its impact.

I quizzed my good friend Judge Eugene Sullivan, a former Federal judge, on what he thought was the real intent of the Second Amendment. He had no doubt that the Amendment conferred an inviolable right on the citizen to keep a gun in his home for protection. This was however without prejudice to the State's right to regulate under what circumstances the weapon can be taken outside the home. A trial attorney for the Department of Justice for several years, Sullivan's distilled wisdom possibly conveys the correct legal position.

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