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Guns & rights

Print edition : Jan 04, 2008 T+T-
Robert Hawkins, 19, who on December 5 killed eight people and took his own life at the Von Maur Department Store at Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, seen aiming a rifle, reportedly an AK-47, in the store in this surveillance footage released on December 7.-OMAHA POLICE DEPARTMENT/HANDOUT/REUTERS

Robert Hawkins, 19, who on December 5 killed eight people and took his own life at the Von Maur Department Store at Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, seen aiming a rifle, reportedly an AK-47, in the store in this surveillance footage released on December 7.-OMAHA POLICE DEPARTMENT/HANDOUT/REUTERS

The whole question of violence in the U.S. revolves around the issue of gun control, one that comes to the fore only when there is a rash of crimes.

Robert Hawkins, 19,

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.

(Second Amendment, the U.S. Constitution)

ON December 8, a 20-year-old white gunman just barged into a training centre for young missionaries in Denver in the United States and opened fire recklessly. It was possibly due to his poor marksmanship that no one was killed. Four persons were injured. The offender was at large until a few days ago. This shooting came just four days after a gruesome incident in Omaha (Nebraska) in which a 19-yearold, Robert A. Hawkins, shot 30 rounds indiscriminately at a crowded Westroads Mall, killing eight persons. Another act of brutality that shocked the nation at about the same time was the murder of a young football player Sean Taylor of Washington Redskins at his own home when he tried to overpower an armed intruder.

These three headline-grabbing shootings, however, pale into insignificance if one recalls what happened at the internationally renowned Virginia Tech in April this year, when a mentally deranged student of Chinese origin, Seung-Hui Cho, used his firearms twice one morning to kill 32 people, including a member of the faculty from India.

What impression does one derive from these four happenings? Not unreasonably, one tends to get the feeling that the U.S. is indeed a dangerous place to live. After all the tall talk until a few years ago that crime was dipping dramatically, violence is again soaring high in many American cities, barring possibly New York and Los Angeles, where some hard policing has still some control over the odd insane devil with firearms in his hand.

Philadelphia, a city about which I can speak with some authority, having lived there and one with which I stay in touch, is in the grip of a new wave of gun violence. Many medium-size cities, such as Baltimore, also report a spurt in gun-related crime. I am certain that this subject of popular concern would figure very much during the presidential election campaign that is just gaining momentum.

The whole question of violence in the U.S. revolves around the issue of gun control, one that comes to the fore whenever there is a rash of crime and is pushed to the back burner until there is another wave of violence. Undoubtedly, the gun is availably more easily in the U.S. than in the rest of the civilised world. The nation is sharply divided over whether an average American should have free access to the gun or he should be totally denied access to it, except under special circumstances. This is not very unlike the debate over capital punishment where also opinion is split. The only difference is that there is no moneyed lobby that pushes for either the death sentence or its abolition.

The picture is different in the case of firearms, especially handguns. A powerful weapons trade is backed by the somewhat infamous National Rifle Association (NRA), which is uninhibited in pressing for the untrammelled right for a citizen to buy and carry arms in self-defence. It is again widely known that the Republican destiny is intertwined with the NRA, and whether the country will see more or fewer number of guns on the streets will depend to an extent on who is going to occupy the White House after President George W. Bush.

Many analysts are positive that the present problem is not one of guns but of drugs. The so-called war on drugs is known to spiral other forms of deviance. In almost every major U.S. city, drug addiction is an inescapable phenomenon. The administration cannot just watch, it will have to act, and act tough. This negative impulse of mounting aggression against those who peddle drugs has brought with it the urge for the latter to use firearms at law enforcement and rival gangs. Naturally, the demand for illegal weapons is high, and one logical outcome is gun-related violence. There is the theory that decriminalisation of possession of heroin and cocaine will work wonders and will result in a drastic reduction in the demand for guns. Such decriminalisation will, however, require tremendous political will and extraordinary guts, normally expensive commodities in an election year. Who will be willing to bite the bullet, the Republicans or the Democrats, is a matter of conjecture.

It is against this backdrop that the whole issue of the right to bear arms has gone up to the Supreme Court. A majority of gun protagonists argue that any law that curtailed citizens use of guns would be violative of the Second Amendment right embodied in the Constitution. In a significant order of November 20, the court agreed to hear the constitutionality of the District of Columbias (D.C.) 1976 prohibition of handgun ownership. The last time the highest court in the country wrestled with this was in 1939 (U.S. vs. Miller), when it favoured a collective rights approach. This meant that the right was to be read in relation to service in the militia rather than to assert that an individual was entitled to carry arms in his own private capacity. Since that time it has been generally believed that no one in the country has an unfettered freedom to buy and use guns, and anyone challenging a ban or reasonable restrictions shall be politely turned away by courts.

The 1968 assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King led to a Federal law on firearms, one that was reinforced by the 1994 Bills proposed by the Clinton administration to curb assault weapons. What strengthens the anti-gun groups is the upholding of the collective rights position by as many as nine Federal appeals courts. Only two, namely, the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans and the District of Columbia Circuit, have differed. Interestingly, the Second Circuit in New York has not handled this at all.

The Supreme Court decision to hear the matter surrounding the Second Amendment right is a sequel to the appeal preferred to it by the D.C., which administers the nations capital. The appeal is against a March ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. that the 1976 ordinance was unconstitutional. This ruling had actually upheld an earlier Federal Judges contentious order quashing the D.C. ordinance. The D.C. has about the toughest gun law in the country. Since 1976, under its ordinance, it is illegal for anyone in the district to buy, sell or own a handgun. (It is an entirely different matter that guns are still available here rather easily because of the lax laws in the neighbouring States of Virginia and Maryland.) Also, the D.C. regulation requires other weapons, such as shotguns and rifles, to be stored at homes, either disassembled or with locked triggers.

These stringent provisions have been openly resented by the pro-gun lobby, which has unsuccessfully tried several stratagems to overturn them. The D.C. administration is relentless in warding off such attempts. And rightly so, because Washington has the well-deserved appellation of the murder capital of the U.S. This year has so far witnessed 169 homicides, 77 per cent of which have been the outcome of gun violence.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case in March 2008 and give its ruling in June. There are several interesting possibilities. The strong rightist composition of the current Roberts Court is one factor that cannot be overlooked. It may be unfair to say that some of the pronouncedly rightist judges in the court will allow their ideology to get the better of an essential requirement that the country be made safer than it is now for the law-abiding citizen. Interestingly, during his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., appointed by President Bush, refused to take a position. He merely said that the 1939 Miller decision had side-stepped the issue and had left very open the question whether the Second Amendment relates to a collectivity or an individuals right to bear arms. Holding the key to the courts perceptions, it is difficult to predict whether Roberts Jr. will be persuaded by the stance of one of his distinguished predecessors, Warren E. Burger, who had labelled the individual rights view as one of the greatest pieces of fraud. Burger had categorically stated: The Second Amendment doesnt guarantee the right to have firearms at all.

It is just possible that the light at the end of the tunnel may not yet be seen after the Supreme Court pronounces its judgment in June. This is if it is not wishy-washy in its ruling, a distinct prospect. What the peace-loving U.S. citizen will look for is protection from the gun, especially from the one in the hands of the unstable. Keeping the insane, and those hovering on the edge of insanity, away from being able to acquire weapons is an irreducible minimum. This does not require political will but calls for administrative sagacity and determination. Building a dynamic database is the primary task linked to the prevention of gun violence. There is actually a Federal database that records the profile of nearly 400,000 mentally ill persons and which will be used to monitor gun purchases. This is nearly twice as many as were in the database in the months following the Virginia Tech massacre. This is quite an advance. I understand that only 32 States report names. The other 18 play truant and can hardly be coerced. This is a big gap that could prove disastrous. Also, there is the nagging question of how the Virginia Tech butcher escaped from getting into the database. The facetious explanation: he was not admitted into a mental home, but was a mere outpatient. Can anything be more cruel when one considers the fact that 32 families lost their near and dear ones from the madness of one individual who bore an animosity against not one person, but the entire humanity?

What does all the above mean to us in India? There is absolute complacence in the political firmament and only feeble signs of anxiety among law enforcement agencies. We, no doubt, have a reasonably tight licensing system. The underworld is not very much worried because there is an inexhaustible source of illegal countrymade weapons for them to use at will. Those who are familiar with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh know what I am talking about. (In 2005, U.P. accounted for nearly 50 per cent of the more than 74,000 cases registered under the Arms Act.)

The conviction of Sanjay Dutt no doubt has a moral to it: no one is above the law. Is that enough to curb illegal acquisition, possession and sale of deadly weapons? Not really. Unless we are vigilant we could soon become another U.S. where guns are easily available to settle political and personal scores. Ultimately, you and I will be the unfortunate victims. Is anybody listening?