It is not uncommon for people in the UK to suggest total disarmament as a solution to the United States’ gun problem. Far removed from the realities of the US, the right to keep and bear arms seems strange to many people here. However, to suggest that “disarming US civilians and police” is in any way an “obvious” solution is rather naïve. The final sentence of last week’s article gives an alarmingly throwaway tone to what is, in reality, an extreme solution.
On a practical level – regardless of your own beliefs on the right to bear arms – the difficulties with such a “solution” are great. “The right of the people to keep and bear arms” is entrenched in the US constitution. It is the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, composed of the first ten amendments to the Constitution. An attempt at nationwide disarmament would be struck down as unconstitutional, so it would require either a dramatic re-interpretation of the Second Amendment by the Supreme Court or an amendment of the constitution, which requires super-majority votes for proposal and ratification, to succeed.
These requirements may not seem so great but they are given the political landscape in the US. The strong influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA) remains a factor – in the 2012 elections to Congress, over 80% of the candidates funded by the NRA won their races. Indeed, many politicians from the Democratic Party (considered the more pro-gun control of the two main parties) remain anti-gun control, particularly those from rural or mostly Republican states. Take West Virginia, for example, which has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the US, with 58% of adults living in households with firearms. Its one Democratic Congressman in the House of Representatives, Nick Rahall, votes consistently against gun control and is rated A by the NRA, showing a strongly pro-gun record. Even those who do campaign in favour of gun control campaign for stricter background checks, rather than total disarmament.
Gun culture in the US is deeply entrenched and the keeping and bearing of arms is, for many, part of their way of life. The American people are fiercely protective of their right to defend themselves. After mass shooting incidents like Aurora or Sandy Hook, gun sales soar, with customers citing self-defence and fear of stricter gun regulations as their reasons. Most polls do not even bother to survey people on total disarmament of civilians and police, as it is seen as such a ludicrously unlikely prospect. Gallup, which has been tracking opinion on gun control since 1990, has found that the number of people in support of very strict gun laws is actually falling. 74% of Americans surveyed in 2013 were against a ban on the possession of handguns (except by police and other authorised persons). The percentage falls slightly amongst those who identify as Democrats, but still 63% of those oppose a ban on handguns. There may be support for some restrictions – a recent survey by the Pew Research Center has shown that 85% favour making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, and 80% favour preventing mentally ill people from buying guns.However, there is little support for total disarmament.
Assume for a moment that something as radical as disarmament of US civilians and police were to take place. Given the general opinion in the US on disarmament, civil unrest would be inevitable. Undoubtedly, a great many guns would remain in circulation. To put things in perspective, it is estimated that there are already 310 million guns in circulation in the US as of 2009. It seems rather unlikely that law enforcement would be able to seize even the majority of them. Handguns in particular are easily concealed. The black market would be vast. Guns would be in the hands of criminals, particularly gangs. Many criminals use illegal guns, which the government cannot track as they are traded and sold between criminals. How would banning guns get the many illegal ones, used in crime, off the streets? Let’s not be so naïve as to suggest that disarmament will stop gun violence. Armed police are needed to respond to such incidents. Disarmament is not the answer for the US.
The premise of last week’s article appears to be that the US’s gun laws justify and incentivise the use of arms by officers. However, Michael Brown was clearly unarmed. The suggestion that the availability of firearms to the police increases the risk of them falling into the hands of “potentially irresponsible and aggressive officers” is much more indicative of a problem with the police in general than it is of a problem with police carrying guns. “Irresponsible and aggressive” officers no doubt pose a threat to the public and should not be in the police force.
There is certainly something to be said for more gun control, like mandatory, strict background checks and preventing mentally ill people from buying guns. Ferguson, however, is about complex issues of race and disillusionment, not about guns. The total disarmament of US civilians and police is an extreme “solution” and isn’t in any way going to solve the issues America has with race, poverty, mental illness or police. Trying to address some of those underlying problems might go some way towards improving the US’s situation with gun violence, but sudden disarmament of civilians and police is most certainly not a realistic option for the United States – whatever your own opinion on the right to bear arms.
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