One nation under the gun
Just as no man is an island, no island is an island in this increasingly interconnected world. Consequently, Sunday night’s gunfire in faraway Las Vegas reverberated here with a chilling immediacy.
The indiscriminate slaughter on the streets of that Nevada city diminished us all, not just because of our shared humanity but also because Bermuda residents have long had a particular fondness for this cross between an oasis and a mirage made of neon, mirrored glass and the insatiable appetite for escapism.
Thousands of us make the trek to Las Vegas every year for relaxation, rest and the opportunity to plunge into a world of fantasy for a few days.
So it was unavoidable any number of local residents were there at the weekend when reality intruded on this mecca of make-believe in the form of a lunatic who smuggled an arsenal of high-powered firearms into the hotel room he transformed into a sniper’s nest.
Killing at least 59 people — the death toll will almost certainly rise — and maiming more than 500 others who were attending an outdoor country music festival, the gunman added the name of Las Vegas to that grim roster of American cities that have been scenes of mass shootings in recent years: Orlando, Charleston and Newtown among them.
Indeed, the killer established an unhappy new benchmark, with the Las Vegas massacre becoming the deadliest such attack in modern US history.
Before Las Vegas, that unenviable distinction had belonged to Orlando, site of the carnage at the Pulse nightclub, which claimed 49 lives only 16 months ago.
And with the large number of combat-type weapons now legally sold in the United States, it is likely only a matter of time — probably a relatively short time — before another gunman in another city claims an even more horrific tally of victims.
For what was once considered abnormal is now becoming the new norm in America.
No country can, of course, pass legislation to ban the homicidal impulses of its citizens.
But most societies do put sensible measures in place to deter people from easily acting on those impulses by limiting the types of firearms and ammunition that civilians may own.
In the United States, of course, the 1791 Second Amendment to the country’s Constitution — “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” — has been perverted beyond all recognition by gun manufacturers and their lobbyists in recent decades to suggest Americans have unfettered individual ownership rights to firearms.
In 1990 former US Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative and avowed constitutional literalist appointed by Richard Nixon, described such an open-ended interpretation of the Second Amendment as “a fraud on the American public”.
He was expressing what was then the long-established consensus view among jurists, constitutional scholars, legislators from across America’s political spectrum and even many gun enthusiasts.
Such a view today seems as anachronistic as the single-shot flintlock pistols and muskets in use when the amendment was ratified so state militias — precursors to today’s National Guard in which every free man between the ages of 16 and 60 was compelled to serve — could bolster what was then a weak national standing army.
Indeed, on four occasions between 1876 and 1939, the US Supreme Court actually refused to rule that the Second Amendment protected individual gun ownership outside the context of a militia.
All but the most ardent gun cultists, whose view that the Constitution did indeed guarantee individuals the right to turn their homes into arsenals bristling with enough weaponry to equip a private army, accepted this interpretation. But they only existed on the margins of US life and culture, and were widely derided as extremists and cranks, America’s proverbial “gun nuts”.
But when conservative activists took control of the US National Rifle Association in the late 1970s, transforming what had long been a sleepy organisation of sportsmen and hunters into a political juggernaut and lobbying powerhouse, what had long been deemed to be fringe beliefs grew increasingly mainstream.
The old consensus on restricted and highly regulated gun ownership was gradually eroded away by the incessant courting, and financing, of American politicians along with the NRA’s equally tireless wooing of public opinion, which mostly took the form of shameless fearmongering.
It is not so much fear of gun-toting criminals that the NRA has used to drive gun sales, but manufactured fear of the Federal Government brought into being by the same US Constitution, which enshrines its members’ right to keep and to bear arms.
For many years, the NRA has systematically encouraged and provoked paranoid fantasies about Washington engaging in mass gun confiscation to argue that even the most commonsensical limits on firearms ownership would constitute the beginnings of a slippery slope to tyranny and the loss of other freedoms.
That it actually turns the original intent of the Second Amendment on its head by doing so is not the kind of logical contradiction to worry the NRA.
The “militia” referred to in the Constitution is clearly not, as NRA leaders now like to argue, an “armed citizenry” that would be prepared to rise up spontaneously and retake Washington in the event a despot ever took power
It is, in fact, just the opposite. As defined by the Constitution, the militia is a “well-regulated” armed force maintained by a state to be called into action — by Congress, under command of the President — to repel precisely the kind of insurrection NRA leaders talk about whenever the possibility of sane and sensible gun-control legislation is raised.
For instance, one-time NRA president Marion Hammer has long maintained that American liberty grows out of the barrel of a gun, not from election outcomes.
“Second Amendment rights are the means with which the people retain sovereignty,” she said. “Give up your power to remain free and you are no longer free.
“Just because a government was ‘democratically’ elected does not mean it is a righteous government or that the electorate got the government they thought they were electing.”
Shortly after becoming the NRA’s first female president in 1996, she suggested that instead of imposing any further regulations on firearms ownership, it might be more expedient to “get rid of all liberals”.
But the reality is that regulations do, of course, work.
States with stricter gun-control laws consistently report fewer deaths from gun-related violence than those with looser — or next to non-existent — regulations.
As recently as June, a Quinnipiac University Poll showed 94 per cent of Americans support the idea of all gun purchases being subject to background checks, including 92 per cent of people who live in a home with a gun.
A Pew poll conducted earlier in the summer showed that 89 per cent of American gun owners, along with 89 per cent of non-gun owners, support preventing the mentally ill from buying guns.
But the NRA and its five million members remain not only resolutely tone-deaf to the concerns of America’s other 318 million people but also wilfully blind to the continuing carnage being caused by Americans given ready access to increasingly high-powered, massacre-ready firearms.
Frankly, the NRA headquarters just outside Washington now may have a better claim to be America’s mecca of make-believe than Las Vegas.
Given the organisation failed to change its intractable position on gun control even after 20 primary-school children were slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, it is difficult to imagine the appalling Las Vegas body count will alter either its outlook or its habit of cowing American politicians from taking even the most necessary measures to prevent future outrages.
The gun lobby is simply far too preoccupied with its lurid fantasies about private militias launching violent armed insurrection against the US Government to pay much attention to the tragic reality of increasing amounts of innocent blood being shed on the streets of America’s cities by misfits who often find it easier to license a semiautomatic weapon than a dog.
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