What Has Always Been: On the Right to Bear Arms

“Routine” was the word Barack Obama used to refer to the latest mass shooting in Oregon, fighting back tears.

Routine.

The shooting occurs, the families cry, the media swoops, the President makes an announcement, calls for restrictions, and the NRA and Republicans make their counter attack advertisements. Watching today’s press conference, it was impossible not to feel President Obama’s raw emotion; the frustration, anger, disappointment, but most of all, the sadness. This is, not for lack of trying, a failure of the Obama administration. I do not fault him for this. Gun control is perhaps the hardest issue in domestic US politics to tackle, and it has seen the failure of many a liberal President before him. Clinton tried and failed in the 1990s, and the next Clinton will likely fail as well.

Americans cling to their Second Amendment rights, which were designed for a different time. At its inception, the United States was a fledgling set of colonies strung across the eastern seaboard of northern America with enemies everywhere and allies far, far away. Displaced native American tribes would regularly raid the farms of the west, the loyalist Canadians were well established to the north, and the ever-present threat of British invasion loomed heavy on the minds of the American leadership. It is this context that produced the right to bear arms. The existential threats facing America were vast, and as such they found themselves in need of the ability to quickly recruit a large militia force to supplement the Regular Army in case of a major threat to their states’ survival. But the last time the US was at war with the British was 200 years ago. That was also the last time the US was invaded. The world is a very different place now, and the needs of yesteryear simply do not stack up in the modern context.

It must be a bitter pill for the Commander in Chief to swallow. It is likely that countless times during his Presidency he has authorized the deaths of terrorists far from the shores of the US, all in the name of security. Yet he could not protect those citizens within his own borders. During today’s press conference, he brought up the trillions of US dollars that have been spent fighting terrorism and other perceived threats overseas. He discussed the plethora of laws introduced to make it easier to fight these threats, and juxtaposed it with the difficult of passing gun legislation through the US Congress. Why, he asked, why is it so difficult to get common sense gun legislation through?

Importantly, Obama asked media outlets to produce their own records comparing terrorism-related deaths to gun violence deaths domestically over the period of his presidency. Media outlets responded rapidly and yielded a huge array of results. This is one of the best.

The link above also includes snippets from Obama’s statements to the press after several different mass shootings throughout his Presidency. As the shootings occur throughout the years, you can see his demeanor turn. From sad but steadfast in the opening, with a determination to change the culture of his nation, to defeated, frustrated, and seemingly disgusted with those who refuse to recognise the truths about gun violence.

This shooting reflects ideas about freedom in America. Evidently the freedom to kill is stronger than the freedom to go to university without fear of being gunned down, to go to a cinema without fear of being slaughtered, or to send your children to primary school without fearing that you may never see them alive again. What kind of freedom, Obama seems to ask, is that?

The NRA and vocal Republicans demand that the answer to gun violence is looser restrictions and more guns. To all but the most bigoted, senseless scoundrels, this is surely the same as the nuclear deterrence argument. The more weapons, the safer we are? Nobody was ever killed by words.

I hope that in the waning days of his Presidency, Obama can make meaningful change. I also hope that he does not let his failure hang over him. This is a case of historical and cultural factors mixing with a steadfast stubbornness to cling onto ‘what has always been’. I grieve for the families of the victims, and for the nation that has failed them.

Words by Brad Griffin