For British people who are not necessarily familiar with what a written constitution means imagine it as 1 part case-law, 2 parts statute, 2 parts European law, 1 part tradition and the rights of the Monarch, and 3 parts the European Convention on Human Rights. Traditionally written constitutions describe the relationship between the governed and the government and both of them with the state.
So, the typical argument against gun crime regulation in the United States is that people have a constitutional right to ‘bear arms’. This is not inaccurate, the 2nd amendment to the US constitution enshrines “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”. Upon looking at this for a moment one might think “hang on, they’re right, whether we like it or not the constitution is pretty clear on this one, people have a right to bear arms”. No matter which way you look at it, it could be argued that human beings have a general freedom to do what they want. But take a second look… and now specifically at the commas. Those are the tricky part. The commas here set out what is the law and what describes the law. We all know how a single comma can fundamentally change the meaning of a sentence and I think now is one of those times.
Let’s try this again but this time I will change the font style to make it clearer. “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”. So this time the parts in bold is the right that is being set out whilst everything else describes the right. Now hang on, wait, the 2nd amendment suddenly means something completely different! This right describes accurately a state-run, regulated, police force of private individuals working on behalf of society and appointed by the state to protect the both of them, who may or may not be armed. Much like exists in the form of the FBI or any national force elsewhere.
This all comes back to the intentions of the writers of the Constitution. These intentions are constantly debated and scholars of the intents of these men are highly trained legal experts in their field. In fact an entire, extremely powerful, institution exists to interpret the meaning and intention behind the words of the Constitution: The United States Supreme Court.
I cannot begin to fathom the intentions of these people, nor do I think I need to. Of course it would be great to have consensus on the meaning of the 2nd amendment, or … one better, it would be great to have consensus with my interpretation, not the opposite, but that simply isn’t possible. This brings us to the issue of human rights. Do we have a human right to carry an instrument that has the highest conceivable (and no practical other use) potential to remove the human rights of another person, permanently? One of the cornerstones of human rights law is that when human rights conflict one must back down. As far as I am concerned the Right to Life is going to win against every other human right in the book. to put it glibly: what use are other rights when you’re dead? It seems a matter of no contention that human beings should not be allowed to increase their killing potential a hundred fold because they have a right to freedom to do as they like.
This is where the word regulation comes into it. The amendment clearly states that the right to bear arms should be well-regulated. Now what we consider ‘well’ regulated on either side of the Atlantic differs massively. In the United States many argue that current legislation on guns already represents heavy regulation, in the UK we tear out hair out at the very thought of an unloaded gun being within a 10 mile radius of us. This may be a difference in culture but in fact I think that it is our cultural similarities causing the trouble. In Britain we are well accustomed to state regulation and although we grumble at it we don’t reject it outright, we don’t have that frontier spirit of pulling yourself up by your boot straps and doing it for yourself. So we look at our TV screens in horror as a Congresswoman gets shot and go ‘how could this happen, we’re so alike the United States and Britain, how can we be so sensible with this one and they so irresponsible?’ We think to ourselves ‘what could possibly be causing this, why have we outlawed guns so completely and they not taken the same decision, when the effects are so clearly beneficial?’ It’s got two more facets to it. In the UK we have rejected the question behind guns: ‘are they the disease or the symptom?’ essentially after Dunblane we said ‘both, who cares, let’s get rid of them’. Whilst in the United States that old maxim reigns supreme, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. On the surface this may be true… but if you take away the guns, as so many countries across the world have done and which I would argue has now become the hallmark of a modern liberal democracy, you may notice a dramatic decline in the number of people killed by them.