Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms

Almost exactly two hundred and twenty-one years ago, on 15 December 1791, the United States Bill of Rights was adopted. Part of that Bill of Rights is the Second Amendment, which enshrines in law the right of US citizens to keep and bear arms.

So how did all this come about? It originates from the English Bill of Rights, an Act of Parliament that coincidentally was passed almost exactly one Hundred and two years earlier on 16 December 1689.

Prior to the adoption of the US Bill of Rights, many of the early settlers armed themselves for protection from the often hostile natives, but also armed themselves as they were expected to be part of the militia that would defend their territory in times of conflict. And it was predominantly because of the need for men to serve in militias, the most famous being the Minutemen, that these citizens were armed.

There was a lot of fear that the British, at that time probably the most powerful nation in the world, would not take the defeat during the American Revolutionary War lying down and may return to reclaim the territory that they believed was rightfully theirs. So it was important that the ordinary citizen had access to arms in order to defend their nation. As a result of this, along with a few other things such as ensuring democracy and self-defence, the Second Amendment came into being.

Fast forward two and a quarter centuries. The United States is probably the most powerful nation in the world. It is (allegedly) the most democratic. The last time that mainland American territories were invaded were during the Mexican-American War, 150+ years ago, and the American armed forces are among the largest in the world. Apart from the odd, and I do mean odd, self-declared militia living in the wilds and convinced that the world is approaching its end, there are no "official" militias within the United States.

Yet I can go to a supermarket in America and purchase an assault rifle, or I can purchase an easily concealed handgun, and I can own both of these legally. The question I have, though, is why do I need them? The answer seems to be that I need them for self-defence. Self-defence against the millions of other Americans who have also purchased their assault rifle or handgun alongside their monthly food shop, because the Second Amendment of the US Bill of Rights gives them the right to do so.

In this country, if I want to purchase a gun, legally, there is a long and protracted process before I can get my hands on that weapon. And even then I can't own a pistol or an assault rifle. Why? Because we have learnt from our mistakes and taken steps to remedy them.

In 1987, a man named Michael Ryan went on the rampage in the town of Hungerford in Berkshire. Armed with various legally owned semi-automatic pistols and rifles he killed sixteen people, including his mother, and wounded fifteen others before shooting himself. This became known as the Hungerford Massacre. Following this, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 was passed which banned ownership of certain semi-automatic rifles and restricted shotguns with a magazine capacity of more than three rounds.

Almost ten years later, a man named Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane Primary School in Dunblane, Scotland, armed with four hand guns. Once there, he proceeded to shoot and kill sixteen 5 and 6 year-old children and one adult prior to killing himself. Following this, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act 1997 have effectively banned the private ownership of handguns. This was known as the Dunblane School Massacre, and one of the children who was at the school at the time of the shootings and hiding under a desk, Andy Murray, later found fame as a tennis player.

Since then, there has only been one occasion when someone has gone on the rampage in this country, in 2010, when a man named Derrick Bird, armed with a legally owned shotgun and a bolt-action rifle killed twelve people before killing himself in Cumbria.

Three mass killings with firearms, 45 people, not including the perpetrators dead in quarter of a century. Compare that with the numbers of massacres that have taken place in the US.

Since 1987 there have been 45 similar incidents in the US and 456 deaths as a result, the most recent being just four days ago, 14 December 2012, the day before the 221st Anniversary of the Adoption of the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment.

That is fifteen times the number of incidents and ten times the number of casualties in a country that is five times the size, but that has very limited gun control laws.

I have access to firearms in my military capacity. In fact, I will be on the range again early next year. As a child, I lived with a firearm in the house, when my father was serving in Northern Ireland. But I have no desire, nor do I feel that I should have the right to "keep and bear arms" in the way that the Americans do. The main reason is that there will be people like Michael Ryan, Thomas Hamilton, Derrick Bird and Adam Lanza who, in a moment of madness, will kill innocent men, women and children, something that it is unlikely that they would have done had they not had the weapons to hand when the madness came over them.

I was listening to a podcast this morning from the Radio 4 Today programme. The man that was being interviewed, Richard Feldman, the President of the Independent Firearm Owners Association,  stated that even if there were tighter gun control laws in the United States, people would still get hold of the weapons. As an illustration he pointed out that the guns that Adam Lanza used to kill the twenty children and six adults in Sandy Hook Elementary School belonged to Nancy Lanza, his mother, and that he had stolen them after he had killed her. He seemed to have completely missed the point that if the gun laws in America were not so lax, Mrs Lanza would not have owned the 5.56mm Bushmaster M4 Type carbine, 10mm Glock handgun or the 9mm SIG Sauer handgun used to kill her son's victims, herself included.