America, government, and gun control

By Erin Riley

There is no doubt that gun control in the United States is a tough and important question and, in my mind, there is no doubt that something needs to change. But after the awful events in Connecticut on Friday, simply saying “Hey America, you should ban guns” or “We did it in Austraia after Port Arthur and it worked” isn’t particularly useful. The fact is America’s relationship with guns is complicated, fraught, and intwined with questions of what Americans believe about themselves and about their government. Re-examining gun laws requires America to fundamentally re-examine itself.

Part of this goes to how Americans think about themselves, their country and the way they feel about government. Obviously, this isn’t all Americans — like anything else, there’s a range — but there’s a certain kind of American mythmaking and American exceptionalism that underpins much of this.

It’s a myth to suggest that America was founded on an ideal, but that myth is one of the key American stories. Certainly, there were ideals involved. But the process of developing, refining, and ultimately passing the Constitution was fraught. It was two years between when New Jersey — the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights — signed on and the tenth and final one required, Virginia, agreed to it. The three hold-outs, Connecticut, Georgia and Massachusetts, didn’t actually ratify the Bill of Rights until the 1930s. As Akil Reed Amah so rightly pointed out in an interview with Ezra Klein, the way we now understand the Bill of Rights is largely a result of post-Civil War, post-reconstruction reinterpretation. The Constitution is a living document.

Which is why the near deification of the founders — and the memory of the founding — is a problem. It reinforces false ideas about what America is, how it came to be, and how the framers saw the document working. It was never meant to be a perfect document — it was meant to be refined, it was meant to change. Jefferson himself believed the Constitution should be thrown out and re-written every twenty years. But instead, it’s used as a shield to protect the status quo. And the problems of American gun culture are fundamentally problems of the American constitution and the way Americans understand it.

It’s not just the Second Amendment that causes the problems — though that’s the obvious place to start. Of course, the actual text of the Second amendment 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.

The first part is often overlooked — that the right to bear arms is about protecting the free state, not the individual. While the protection of the natural right to defend oneself is arguably part of this right, the protection from tyranny and capacity for the individual to participate in law enforcement are also crucial parts of the Second Amendment. But as the nature of modern government has evolved, the protection from tyranny aspect has long since fallen by the wayside: few would argue that civilians should have ballistic missiles or nuclear bombs. The state absolutely has superior firepower to its citizens.

Similarly, participation in law enforcement would in no way be hindered by more restrictive gun laws — in the time before institutionalised and professionalised law enforcement agencies, it made more sense, but it is now largely irrelevant. So Second Amendment rights come down to the protection of the ability to defend yourself. This is complicated: anytime you have to balance individual liberty with the needs of society, it’s a tough ask to come up with a compromise. But at the moment, talk of compromise is hindered by a largely archaic law.

But more than just a Second Amendment problem, the issue of gun laws is about enumerated powers, limited federal government power, and beliefs about what government exists to do[1]. While I certainly believe this is a useful model of government, it has its limits, and the United States has sometimes erred too far on the side of limiting federal government in the domestic sphere. Relating to gun culture, this is demonstrated in both problems around health care (specifically mental health care) and restricted access to firearms.

For all the talk of keeping guns away from the mentally ill — by far the most popular proposed gun control measure — it hinges on the crucial ability to identify the mentally ill. In a country without universal health care, this is especially difficult. And why isn’t there universal health care? Largely because of American beliefs about government. Many Americans believe it is not the government’s responsibility to provide health care to its citizens, or the responsibility of citizens to pay taxes that would then be used to finance the health care of other citizens. While it by no means stands alone as a solution, better and more easily accessible mental health care is part of the solution — but to do so effectively requires rethinking the role of government in health care provision in a way many Americans are reluctant to.

Finally, much of the real work that needs to be done to change laws must happen at a state, rather than federal, level. With 50 different states, and each state having a governor and a bicameral legislature to deal with (with the exception of the only unicameral state, Nebraska), there is tremendous legislative difficulty in passing these law changes. Even at a federal level, the challenges are significant. Currently, rural voters are over-represented in Congress, both in the Senate, where Wyoming and New York have the same number of seats despite a 34:1 population differential, and in the House, where gerrymandering by Republican-controlled state houses after the 2010 census has contained many urban voters into large-majority districts. On the whole, rural voters are more likely to oppose restricting access to guns, so this legislative inequality stacks the cards against legislative change.

The American system is designed to work slowly. It’s designed to be difficult to change. But as the country grew, technology developed and interpretations of the system changed, the slowness has become the system’s defining feature. Some things have become near-impossible to change.

And this is why gun culture and gun laws are the quintessentially American problem[2] — because they go to the heart of the way the system hasn’t changed and needs to. They go to some of the core hypocrisies of the dialogue around freedom. But changing them isn’t as simple as saying “just bans guns”. What Australia did in 1996 could never work in the United States, because this isn’t just a problem of guns: it’s a problem of government.

To change things, the United States would have to fundamentally reexamine itself, its government, its identity and its political culture. That’s a big ask of anyone. To me, it's a necessary one. But it’s much easier for most to forget even the most horrifying events than engage in a long and frightening process.

1. I refuse to frame this in terms of “big” and “small” government, because many who claim to believe in small government are happy to have large military spends. “Big” and “small” is misleading. It’s about what government exists to do.

2. I should also add that this post doesn’t get into the tough questions about guns and specific identities in the United States. There are fairly large subcultures for whom guns are a big part of the way they conceive of themselves. It’s difficult to talk about this without getting into class and regional issues. Beyond the complication of rethinking America’s founding documents — which is necessary to really transform gun culture — anyone looking to really effect significant change on this issue would have to engage with these complicated questions, adding another element of self-reflection that naturally impedes change.

This post was originally published at

17 December 2012