The history of firearms in America begins in early October, 1492. The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus and its subsequent European colonization led to genocide on a continental scale. The firearm played a crucial role in supporting the European conquest of Native American lands. Less than three hundred years later, the newly formed United States of America stood triumphant over both its former master, Great Britain, and the Native Americans who once inhabited the thirteen colonies. The landowners of this new nation-state collaborated to create a document to enshrine their rights under law. The second amendment of this Constitution specified that “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.” Contemporary arguments in favor of the second amendment often appeal to tradition, failing to realize the centuries of bloodshed and hypocrisy this tradition is steeped in. If we are to truly advance as a society, and if we are to truly be American, then we must understand our troubled American heritage to see how it affects us to this very day.
A common argument for the second amendment, both historically and currently , is that the right to bear arms is necessary if the United States’ democratic system is to be preserved. Fears that the United States will become tyrannical are more or less unfounded, along with any hopes that the citizens would be able to defeat the world’s most powerful military nation. In any case, the notion that gun control is a precursor to tyranny is historically unsupported. To the contrary, there is a much higher positive correlation between democratic institutions and high levels of socioeconomic freedoms, rule of law, and systems for protecting human rights (Hessbruegge). If avoiding tyranny is the concern, it may be as simple as avoiding to elect tyrannical leaders.
Historically, it has mainly been minority groups who have suffered from such tyranny. “As early as 1840, antebellum historian Richard Hildreth observed that violence was frequently employed in the South both to subordinate slaves and to intimidate abolitionists” (Newton). This violence was mostly performed by white citizens, who unlike the slaves were legally able to own guns. After the Civil War, many Southern states passed ‘black codes’ which barred African Americans from owning weapons. During the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party was known for openly carrying firearms as a symbol of black empowerment. “In response, the California legislature passed a ban on open carry, and Governor Ronald Reagan signed it into law “ (Graham). Today, we see the same trend. African-Americans, while technically allowed to open carry, are subject to intense police discrimination or even death for doing so. Despite all of this, and despite the rising threat of hate crimes, “African Americans overall tend to favor stricter gun laws, rather than backing the idea of arming themselves” (Graham). Indeed, many other non-lethal forms of self-defence are available. The ones who clamor for second amendment rights are often the ones who need such a form of self-defence the least.
One may object that, while its expression in the United States hasn’t always been perfect, the right to bear arms is a fundamental right, no different than freedom of speech and religion. Perhaps at a basic level this is true, but it is important to remember that the idea of ‘fundamental rights’ was accompanied by the systematic destruction of the human rights of countless African-Americans. More to the point, the difference between first and second amendment rights is vast. Daily, few lives are lost due to the first amendment, while about eighty-five are killed per day in the United States via gun violence (Dyer). In 2015, this totaled to 33,636 deaths from “injury by firearms,” whereas the United Kingdom suffered only fifty. (Dyer). This makes a U.S. male between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four nearly seventy times as likely to be killed with a gun than his counterpart in every other G-8 country. The one pertinent difference between the United States and these other countries is the absence of effective national gun regulations. The question then arises as to whether this supposed ‘right’ is worth the 33,636 annual firearm related deaths, especially when the ‘right to self-defence’ can be actualized in non-lethal devices such as pepper spray.
Clearly, there is little sense in supporting the kind of gun rights espoused by many modern day conservatives. Indeed, any appeal to tradition falls dangerously close to supporting racism, while arguments for the right to self-defence are self-defeating and hypocritical in nature. Being American does not mean clinging blindly to our traditions, even when it hurts us. Being American asks us to look forward, to help our fellow Americans in the pursuit of happiness. Recognizing and dismantling barriers to this pursuit is as American as apple pie. As to the specifics of what gun regulation should look like in America, baby steps are crucial. Change will not come overnight to a nation whose history is so entwined with firearms.