Anybody brought up in a different culture wonders, with considerable uneasiness, what is in American culture that allows such an easy ownership of guns in the United States. And although violent incidents occur in other countries, they are not as frequent—or as lethal- as in the United States.
The recent shooting rampage in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that resulted in the deaths of 20 children between the ages of 5 and 10, and 7 adults—including the gunman’s mother—should be the last wake up call to a country ravaged by civilian violence. According to the police, the gunman, Adam Lanza, a young man believed to be 20 years old, had two handguns and an M4 carbine.
The issue of gun ownership is particularly relevant in the United States where, according to different statistics, civilians own an estimated 270 million guns, making Americans the most heavily armed people in the world on a per capita basis. Florida announced recently that it will soon be the first state to have issued 1 million permits allowing people to carry concealed guns.
The issue of gun ownership in the United States centers on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Opponents of gun control emphasize the last part of the sentence: “the right of people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” They neglect to give much weight to the first part, which names a “‘well-regulated militia” as the holders of this entitlement.
Average citizens are not the ones entitled to claim a constitutional right under the Second Amendment; rather it is those belonging to a group of civilians trained as soldiers who, in case of an emergency, must make themselves available to supplement regular armies.
Accordingly, in a 1982 ruling, the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held: “Construing [the language of the Second Amendment] according to its plain meaning, it seems clear that the right to bear arms is inextricably connected to the preservation of a militia. We conclude that the right to keep and bear handguns is not guaranteed by the Second Amendment.”
However, landmark Supreme Court rulings in 2008 and 2010 dramatically curtailed the authority of state and local governments to limit gun ownership. In addition, approximately half of the 50 states in the United States have adopted laws that allow gun owners to carry their guns openly in most public places.
Although self-defense is often cited to justify the people’s right to bear arms, research has shown that a gun kept in a home is 43 times more likely to kill a member of the household or a friend than an intruder. Resorting to firearms to resist a violent assault has shown to increase the victim’s risk of injury and death.
In a study by Dr. Arthur Kellermann published in The New England Journal of Medicine, it was found that, excluding factors such as previous history of violence, class, race, and other factors, a household where there is a gun is 2.7 times more likely to experience a murder than a household without one. It has been found that the number of teenagers who die from gunshot wounds in the United States is greater than for all other causes combined.
A study conducted by Jeffrey A. Roth, author of Firearms and Violence, found that guns make it easier to kill or injure and make it easier for an irrational person to cause greater damage. According to a recent Gallup survey, 47 percent of American adults keep guns, a figure which is the highest since 1993.
Groups opposed to gun control in the United States spend enormous sums of money lobbying elected and government officials. It is estimated that the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful groups advocating gun ownership, has spent more than ten times as much as gun control interest groups on its lobbying efforts in 2011 and the first three quarters of 2012.
After this last tragedy, there is no excuse for lawmakers not to enact laws that control gun ownership by private citizens. The “right” to bear arms argument is a step backward from controlling violence. It contradicts experience and the belief of peaceful people everywhere that eliminating guns will lead to a safer, more humane world.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and the author of the Pan American Health Organization publication “Violence in the Americas.”
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