Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gun Ownership in America for Non-Americans

That title is a lie. This is for Americans, too.

This blog is largely a "howto" blog in regards to being an expat, but I often explain cultural issues that might seem strange to outsiders. I've been doing a rotten job of explaining the USA to foreigners who might want to emigrate there (I really need to explain the H1-B visa and other issues), so I figured I should cover one of the things Europeans ask me about the most: why are Americans a bunch of gun nuts?

Civil Disobedience

First, let me clear up a few things up front. I support our right to bear arms. This shocks the hell out of a lot of my non-American friends (not to mention my wife), but there you go. In fact, I used to have a concealed weapons permit. I had it for a very specific (legal) reason that I don't want to go into, but there was a time I didn't go anywhere without a gun under my coat.

You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead mouth.
Photo by Olegvolk.

Second, I believe that, as a general principle, you work to change laws you don't like, not ignore them. However, sometimes popular laws are so heinous and offensive that civil disobedience is appropriate. For example, not many people know this, but I'm an ordained minister (let's just forget the fact that I'm an atheist, shall we?). So when Multnomah County in Oregon started allowing gay couples to marry back in 2004, I went down to volunteer my services and I officiated at 17 gay weddings over two days¹. I also found out that I could be arrested because Oregon law makes it a crime for a minister to knowingly officiate at a ceremony where the couple cannot be legally wed. There were threats that those who officiated at the weddings would be arrested but I suspect that the anti-gay-marriage bigots realized that arresting ministers would be a stunningly bad PR move.

So why did I risk arrest? Because sometimes civil disobedience is appropriate when you're not harming anyone but respecting the law is too offensive to one's conscience — assuming you are willing to face the legal consequences.

Civil disobedience can be a powerful tool to overturn laws you disagree with, but what does civil disobedience mean in the face of our right to bear arms? Are you going to throw away your gun? Are you going to protest outside a National Rifle Association meeting? Those people have guns!

There's really been no strong recourse to protesting private gun ownership aside from various jurisdictions passing anti-gun laws and the issue going to court. But before we go there, it's time for a bit of history.

This History of the Second Amendment

Before the Colonies revolted against England, they were busy reading John Locke. Locke, in his social contract, made it extremely clear that people have a right to organize as they will, including forming their own government, and Locke's writings were heavily influential on the Founding Father's (peace be upon them) justification of their break with England (though they conveniently ignored that Locke was anti-slavery). However, when the Constitution was finally ratified, this also meant that the citizens of the colonies would have every right to break with their new country. In fact, Americans were going to break with the United States before it was formed because the new Constitution did not explicitly guarantee individual rights that people thought they were fighting for. Thus, the Bill of Rights was born. Amongst other things, the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights 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.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that you weren't born in the 18th century and you may not be aware of what the phrase a well regulated Militia means in this context.

First of all, there was no professional military when the US Constitution was signed. There were only guys with guns (lots of them!) and they were expected to take up arms to defend their country if needed. We didn't have the Village People singing "In the Navy" because it wouldn't make much sense. So a well regulated militia of citizens was necessary to protect the rights of the people.

Our Founding Fathers (peace be upon them) would have been confused on multiple levels

So the founders of the US felt that people had a right to overthrow their government and they clearly did not feel that singing Kumbaya outside of Parliament was going to do them much good (and they were right).

Present Day

Every American schoolboy and schoolgirl has the story of the American Revolution drilled into them again and again. I didn't really explain much about the reasons for the Revolution, but I covered the bits which impinge on the Second Amendment: the belief in the right to disassociate yourself from an unjust government and the conviction that this probably cannot be done outside of violence. You cannot begin to understand the American strident insistence upon the right to keep and bear arms without understanding that this bit of US history is drilled into us again and again and again.

But what does the phrase "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" really mean? Is that an exemplifying phrase (an example of why we have this right) or a qualifying phrase (the reason we have this right)? Unfortunately, if you read through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights you don't find many examples of exemplifying phrases (to the best of my knowledge, the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document per se and thus has no bearing on this) and thus, the US courts have often ruled that the "well regular Militia" is a qualifying phrase. That means it's the reason we have a right to keep and bear arms. However, since a militia, in the sense that the Founding Fathers (peace be upon them) wrote, does not exist, strictly speaking, the reason for the right to bear arms is called into question. (However, read this fascinating article explaining why this argument is wrong). US courts have repeatedly either side-stepped the Second Amendment question or ruled in favor of the qualifying interpretation. Thus, the US right to bear arms is called into question by the courts. In fact, I argue that it's called into question because the authors of the Bill of Rights didn't realize this would be controversial and were a bit sloppy in how they phrased things.

And you know what? There are some serious questions here. I think, if you understand the history of the US, that our Founding Fathers (peace be upon them) would have strongly objected to our government stripping our right to bear arms, but as one comedian (whose name I cannot recall) explained, when asked with modern-day America, Thomas Jefferson may have said "holy shit, planes!" What would they have said about grenades, chemical weapons, landmines, tanks, or nuclear weapons?

Surely the right to keep and bear arms shouldn't extend to mustard gas, should it?

The Culture

Today, the US is sharply divided between those who believe in an unassailable right to own guns with few restrictions and those who would ban that right,or at least ask "why do I need a license to drive but not to shoot?" (A powerful argument is always put forward about what would have happened had Jews in Nazi Germany been allowed to own guns.)

This I believe: if the US banned the ownership of private weapons as the UK did in 1997, the Second Civil War would start as soon as people started showing up to collect weapons. It would rend the USA in two and this is the reason why no politician would dare to propose repealing this amendment. They might try to restrict gun ownership in various ways, but outright repeal? No, they wouldn't dare. Virtually all Americans have been taught since early childhood that guns are their last defense against tyranny.

Today, many right-wingers have said that Obama wants to take their guns, but Obama has done nothing to restrict gun ownership while President. Of course, these are the same people who don't understand that Obama is not a Socialist. Obama doesn't dare touch this issue and neither will any other high-ranking politician. It's part of the US culture and it's not going away. If you want to take away this right, you'd have to pass a Constitutional Amendment and there's no way that you can get three fourths of the states to ratify a repeal of the Second Amendment. The Open Carry movement only reinforces this.

Please note that none of this is meant as a justification or condemnation of the right to keep and bear arms. It's only an all to brief explanation of the history that has led to current US culture on this matter.

1. When my wife found 17 wedding certificates with my name on them, she was understandably a bit freaked out until I explained what was going on.


  1. Spot on with this article. Ask your average American if they've even read the Constitution and you'll—eventually anyway—most likely get a "no". Most Americans have no idea where the 2nd Amendment originated from, what it really means and why it was written and implemented. Today, the term militia would most easily identify a group of nutters holed up in rural Michigan. Not exactly what the 2nd Amendment was intended for but that's just me.

    You also nailed it on Obama. He's done nothing to restrict gun rights and probably never will. Your right-wingers just use it as a way to sling shit while still denying he was born in the US. Bizarre what's going on in the US these days.

  2. Very nice explanation. I grew up on the West coast of the U.S. (I have a lot of relatives in fact in Palin territory) and guns were just a fact of life. We did a lot of hunting (as do many people in France). I was taught (as were the majority of my American friends) to be respectful of firearms (safety on, always pointed away from people, a lock on the gun cabinet, practice sessions at the local firing range, classes). That said it's never bothered me that I live in a place with a very different culture around guns. I certainly don't feel less free - on the contrary I feel a lot safer in France for reasons I have never delved into too deeply. But I am glad to have even a very little bit of knowledge about guns. It's a good basic skill to have in your toolkit and you never know when it might come in handy. Kinda like sewing, for example, or cooking. :-)

  3. Just a historical point (ignoring that the Constitution was technically an illegal document that usurped our original "constitution"). Citizens actually did not have a lot of guns back during the Revolution. In fact, rarely did anyone have guns; the British military was there to protect the colonists at that point, so there was no need for weapons. Some far off settlers had rifles for hunting, but that was it. Before the Revolution, the British garrisons were stationed on the frontier not to keep Indians out, but to keep the settlers from going after the Indians (after all, the British military would then need to risk their lives in any rescue operations). Settlers were not happy about that.

    Secondly, after the Revolution, citizens did not have guns on their possession; they were stored at local armories and controlled by the local constables. This is what made Shay's Rebellion so dangerous for the fledgling federal government; there was no organized military to stop angry landowners that went bankrupt from war debts and lost their homes. The local "militia" stormed the armory, and stole the weapons. This was a catalyst for the ability to tax and to raise/maintain an army that was included in the new Constitution (and was not originally included in the Articles of Confederation).

    The reason why the Second Amendment was included was because those sympathetic to Shay's Rebellion controlled the state legislatures of a handful of states. Their bargaining chip for their ratification votes was to include a Bill of Rights (which was ratified 11 years after the Constitution was signed, if memory serves me correctly).

    It wasn't until the 1800s that guns became ubiquitous with American lifestyle as the West was explored and conquered.

  4. I've had a drifting viewpoint of guns to several extents now.

    Firstly, I, personally, would rather die in a home without guns than live in a home with guns. BUT, that is because I live in an urban environment, I'm not paranoid about my safety, and I have good neighbours.

    Secondly, my stance on guns changes once we get outside metropolitan areas. In metro areas, guns are synonymous with crime. In rural areas, they're synonymous with safety, hunting, self-preservation, and defence of property and self. Those are two very different things.

    Thirdly, I've become resigned to the overarching American culture around guns because it is rooted in this notion that we can split off at any time. The problem I have with it is that no one is going to realistically secede, even though they should have the right to do so (and good riddance to those that want to).

    One thing you seemed to miss, that is related to this third point, is that the Civil War was sort of based on this notion. Federal versus confederate: central power versus decentralised power. And it was brought to arms particularly because people had them and wanted to defend their position on this issue.

    The unity of the US is tentative when you delve deep. There are 5 or 6 major cultural groups, mostly set forth by religion, urbanisation, and geographic and immigrant backgrounds. We all speak the same language (except for the newish latino factions), but have very different mentalities. It is surprising to me that we've stuck together as long as we have, especially considering our background.

    That said, if Cascadia wanted to ally with the republic of California and split off, I wouldn't have issue with it... but I also wouldn't take arms to make it happen.

    And, @Eric Stepp: Thank you for the history about armouries. I learned a lot there!

  5. One other amusing thing: if you renounce your U.S. citizenship, you can no longer legally buy a gun in the U.S. (18 USC 922(g)(7)) --- just like a fugitive, child abuser, or mental-illness sufferer. The U.S. fought so hard to convince other countries to recognise the right of expatriation (e.g. with the Bancroft Treaties), but when Americans exercise that right, they're treated as criminals.

    Of course, the obvious reason such a restriction got created is that it's a win for both parties. The Democrats get to tout it as a "gun control success" and a punishment for fatcat tax evaders despite the fact that it does absolutely nothing to restrict access to guns by people who actually live in the country. And the Republicans get to look "reasonable" on gun control to centrists without giving any actual ground that affects their base, and if the outside wing of their party really tries to call them to account on it, they'll say it's appropriate punishment for "un-American traitors".

  6. Technically, the Firearms Act 1997 banned private automatic & revolver pistols; non-automatic rifles & shotguns may still be privately owned, with the appropriate certificate (issued by police), and automatic rifles were banned in 1988.