Last week I went to a conference on this topic (organized by the Commonwealth Club), and it was the occasion for me to try to understand why it is such a big issue in the US. So here is what I learnt and some of my thoughts.
First of all, it is important to understand why Americans have a permission to carry guns. It is one of their fundamental rights as it is inscribed in the 2nd amendment of the United States Bill of Rights. A little historic insight: when the text was first written, America was a wild country with a lot of dangers as bears, wolves or natives who wanted to fight to keep their land free of the “pale faces”. Moreover, the pioneers were a mix of people who had left their European country for a lot of reasons but one of them was because they wanted to build something new. They didn’t like the idea of creating a government because they wanted to stay free, to realize their dreams without an authority that would tell them what to do but in the meantime as the population was growing they had to get organized. When they finally agreed to build a government, they wanted to keep their destiny in hand, to be able to rebel against it if something turned badly. They didn’t blindly trust it. This is one of the main reasons, along with the fact that the lands were wild, why they wrote the 2nd amendment, why they wanted to carry guns. And as a constitutional text, it is still in application today.
Now, you would think that, as the context is not quite the same, Americans would be eager to change their mind. But it’s not that easy. People want to be safe and for them, carrying a gun is the best way to be responsible for their own safety – they still don’t totally rely on their government.
But what happened in Newtown – Connecticut – a few weeks ago, shook so deeply the US that now some Americans are asking themselves: is this the solution? If I want to be safer, is it good to have all my neighbors armed? Plus, as Mrs Nancy Skinner said during the conference, “here, it is easier to buy bullets than cigarettes or alcohol”. This was one of the crucial issues raised during the event. Therefore two critical steps were suggested: to have background checks and to register when someone wants to buy a gun or bullets. I won’t give all the technical details (10 or 20 round magazines?) because I think it’s not the most important thing.
One of the main difficulties, as for a lot of issues in the US, is that it’s a huge country with a great variety of situations. Therefore, some people could think that the best solution is to adapt the law to each state. The problem is that if one state enforces strict measures on gun registration and its neighbor-states are less strict then some people will go to these surrounding states to buy their arms. And consequently, the new law will be inefficient for the state.
Therefore, most of the speakers agreed that a federal law – as Obama suggested – would be more appropriated and that the main questions that have to be answered by this law should be “how can we control who has access to a gun to ensure more safety and in the meantime to allow people to defend themselves as it is authorized in the constitution?” and “what do we need to protect ourselves (do we need machine guns)?”. The only speaker who stood apart was a member of the NRA (National Rifle Association – 4 million members), a powerful lobby who strongly defends the right to carry guns.
Even if the president’s proposal was a critical first step, with the Senate election coming in two years, it will have difficulties to pass…
It was really interesting to participate at this conference. I realized that the situation was more complex than what I had imagined…