x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 November 2017

The US constitutional 'right to bear arms' is contextual. Any other reading is an excuse for inaction

Fear leads to many Americans demanding guns, but demand for guns also increases fear, writes Gavin Esler

The US constitution is interpreted by some to mean anyone can have any amount of weapons of any kind without restriction. AP
The US constitution is interpreted by some to mean anyone can have any amount of weapons of any kind without restriction. AP

The talented literary agent, Ed Victor, once wrote a book with an intriguing title: The Obvious Diet. He was trying to lose weight and he read various how-to-diet books with increasing disappointment. He was struck by something, well, obvious. Diet books are often ways of selling more food. Some involve the purchase of special diet supplements, diet plans, fancy juices or supposed wonder foods. Others involve purchasing books full of menus, calorie counts and bizarre rules about what you should and should not eat – a load of bananas, blended vegetables, high-protein, low-carb meals. Mr Victor decided that effective dieting was obvious: you have to eat less food and fewer calories. In particular, you need to eat a lot less of the things people (obviously) know are bad for you: sugar, fizzy drinks, potato chips and so on.

But for some reason, humans are often hard-wired to seek complicated answers to what should be obvious – avoid bad stuff, embrace good things. Ed Victor’s Obvious Diet principle could work for other human messes we get ourselves into, such as the mass shooting epidemic in the United States.

The obvious solution is fewer guns in the wrong hands. A recent study shows that since 1970, more American civilians have died as a result of gun violence than all the war dead in every American war since the war of independence.

The recent mass murder in Las Vegas was made possible by two factors – human wickedness and the availability of massive amounts of weaponry that should only be permitted to soldiers in combat or a few law enforcement organisations. Assuming that we will never have an obvious solution to human wickedness, then the obvious solution to America’s continuing death toll from gun deaths has to be gun control, but – rather like Victor’s Obvious Diet – this obvious solution appears to be impossible in real life. It is worth understanding why. One reason, we are told, is the constitutional “right to bear arms”.

As much as I admire the US constitution, this is a red herring and a convenient excuse for inaction. The right to bear arms in the constitution's second amendment is couched as part of the need to form “a well-regulated militia”. The Las Vegas murderer was not part of any kind of militia.

Moreover, the word “amendment” has an obvious meaning. It means America’s founding fathers wisely recognised that their constitution would contain flaws and therefore, could be changed.

In pictures: The 58 killed in Las Vegas shooting massacre

Slavery was once permitted. The 13th amendment means it is no longer allowed. The real reason why the obvious solution – gun control – cannot be followed in America is one word: fear.

On a shooting range in Houston, Texas, I once met a young woman blasting away with a LadySmith – a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, medium frame, 6-shot revolver to be precise. She was wearing hospital blues and said she was a nurse in a hospital emergency room and about to go to work. She told me that at work, she saw a lot of gunshot victims, but that fear of violence meant she needed a gun to protect herself.

During the Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s, business owners in Koreatown drove off a mob of looters by firing guns at them at a time when the police were nowhere to be seen. And friends of mine who own a cabin in Arizona point out that the nearest town is 40 miles away. They – quite reasonably in my view – say they need a gun or two for protection.

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Read more on the Las Vegas tragedy

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Las Vegas suspect was a mystery even in his own retirement town

The deadliest shooting rampages in the US since 2012

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People in the US who feel they need guns or enjoy gun sports of various types, are, in other words, decent, law-abiding, generally honest members of society. Their wish to have guns should be respected. But what should not be respected is the bizarre way in which the US constitution is interpreted by some to mean anyone can have any amount of weapons of any kind without restriction. The powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, has a constant refrain that “it’s not guns that kill people, it’s people that kill people”.

This is obvious nonsense. Kim Jong-un may prove that “it’s not nuclear weapons that kill people, its people that kill people”, but that does not mean we should all have the constitutional right to nukes.

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More on the Las Vegas shootings in Opinion

We can't blame mental health problems for every massacre, but we can blame guns

Las Vegas: a quintessentially American tragedy

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Moreover, the constitutional argument was used a few years ago in Virginia to kill off a law that stated that no one should be allowed to buy more than one firearm a month. The NRA argued this was unconstitutional because someone might “need” to buy 13 guns a year.

If the obvious diet is fewer calories and less food, then the obvious solution to mass shootings is fewer guns and less defence of constitutional arguments that date from the time slavery was permitted. All this also means recognising that fear leads to many Americans demanding guns, but that demand for guns also increases fear. This deadly circle of fear must – obviously – be broken.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author