News of the Dec. 14 shooting that took the lives of 26 students and teachers at a Connecticut elementary school has shocked people all around the world, and it has sparked renewed debate over gun control in the US.
Statistics suggest that there are about 270 million guns owned by people in the US, not including those belonging to the armed forces and police. Considering that the US population is something over 310 million, that means that there is nearly one firearm for every person in the country — the highest rate of gun ownership among 179 countries for which such figures have been compiled.
Americans’ liking for owning guns has a long history and a complex social and cultural background, and in modern times it is as crucial an economic and political issue as ever.
For early European settlers, gun ownership had to do with their distrust of the government, and particularly the British colonial government of the time, which was one of the main reasons and motives for American independence.
Following independence, settlers gradually spread westward from the East Coast, occupying indigenous peoples’ lands as they went. The settlers generally had no effective protection from the government, so they needed to have their own firearms to protect themselves.
This historical background explains how the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms, came to be adopted in 1791. The inclusion of this right in the Constitution has made it very hard to pass any law that seeks to restrict the right to own guns.
Nowadays, the greatest obstacle to gun control comes from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the main organization that supports gun ownership in the US. According to a recent report in the New York Times, the NRA has millions of members around the country and a budget of US$300 million, helping it to get its way in Congress and obstruct gun control legislation. For example, the association has spent several tens of millions of US dollars on political advertisements this year alone.
The most common argument presented by advocates of gun ownership is that, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” Although this slogan appears to make some sense, it really only serves to blur the focus, because even though guns cannot kill people on their own, they enable people to kill people more effectively. The massacre in Connecticut clearly proves the point.
The US today is a country of mass gun ownership, and this in turn makes even more people think that they need guns to protect themselves, forming a vicious circle.
While the recent shooting has prompted renewed calls for legislation restricting gun ownership, its immediate effect has been to generate a sudden surge in business for gun shops. This effect is a fine illustration of how this vicious circle works.
It is clear that gun control legislation will continue to run up against many difficulties, and Americans will go on being torn between the desire to own a firearm on the one hand and fear of getting shot on the other.
Chi Chun-chieh is a professor in the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University.
Translated by Julian Clegg