US gun policies – leading the world by example?

19 Dec

Editor’s Note:  This is the final blog for Marianne Rijke as our Disarmament Fellow.    Soon she will move to Vienna to work for the CTBTO and hopefully will stay fully connected to our office as well.  Here, Marianne addresses an issue that has caused pain and controversy in the US — gun violence and what to do about it.  Her piece is thoughtful and relevant, and GAPW will continue our struggle to find the most effective and viable policy options in her absence. 

December 14 may have seemed like an ordinary day to you and me, but for the people of Newtown (Connecticut) this day symbolizes a pitch black day in their towns history. It was on this day, one year ago in 2012, that Adam Peter Lanza shot and killed 26 people – of whom 20 children – at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Immediately after the shooting, there was talk again about how to prevent this kind of tragedy in the future, especially since it was hardly the first time this has happened in the US. From the beginning there was a great division in views. On the one hand, there were the people like President Obama, who said that getting a gun should be made a lot more difficult. And on the other hand, there were the people like the members of National Rifle Association (NRA), who proposed guns for everyone as protection. They argued that taking away the possibility to own guns would actually put the lives of children at risk because “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

In the year that has passed, several attempts have been made to make gun laws stricter in the US. President Obama suggested fingerprinting for gun permits as well ass background checks. These suggestions were shot down in Senate and stricter gun laws did not get the desired support in Congress. President Obama took the one year anniversary of the Newtown massacre as an opportunity to once again emphasize the need to do more to prevent dangerous people from getting a gun, and then added the need to heal troubled minds. In the year since Sandy Hook not much has been done. No federal gun laws have been changed and in several states gun laws have actually been loosened. And lawmakers in Kansas and Alaska have enacted laws nullifying federal gun regulations for guns manufactured and kept within state borders. In Colorado, where there was a shooting at a school exactly one year after the Newtown killings, a more strict gun law was recently reversed. This makes it even more clear that the present gun law system does not work, despite claims to the contrary.

The (mis)use of guns and other small arms is an often debated issue, not only in the US, but worldwide. During the United Nations First Committee debates, the need to combat the illicit transfer and use of small arms and light weapons (SALW) was stressed. Several delegations stated that “SALW are the real weapons of mass destruction of our time” and that action is needed to regulate their movements and eliminate illicit supplies. Agreements were made and resolutions were signed which will (hopefully) help in the struggle against the illicit transfer and use of guns in the future worldwide. But they will not be sufficient to prevent another ‘Newtown killing’.

What makes the gun violence in the US different than the (mis)use of guns in the rest of the world is the legality of owning the guns used. Whereas private gun ownership is largely regulated and even prohibited in the rest of the world, in the US everyone has a right to own a gun. This ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms’ came into effect with the signing of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the US on December 15, 1791. The American War of Independence had just ended (1783) and people were fearful of violence and wary of government. In this time, life in the US revolved around protecting yourself, your family and your land. Rule of law as we know it now, whereby the state is obligated to protect its citizens, did not exist as a principle guiding state conduct. Giving citizens the right to bear a gun to protect themselves made sense, at that time.

But over two centuries have passed and the US has grown into a world leader and is seen as one of the most prosperous and civilized countries in the world. The US takes the lead in several international security issues and positions itself as the protector of the free and safe world. It is difficult for me to understand that this ‘protector’ has a hard time enacting laws that keep ‘crazy’ or angry people from purchasing a gun. In our allegedly ‘free and safe world’, people are still dying every day (and needlessly) because of gun violence.

Since December 14 2012, over 32,000 people have been killed by gun violence in the US alone. Change is needed — getting hold of a gun should be made a lot more difficult, if not forbidden. To make the world a safer place for coming generations, the US should take up its leadership role and start leading the world by example. It was Mahatma Gandhi who said it so wisely: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Marianne Rijke – Disarmament Fellow GAPW

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