President Donald Trump, having issued his “warmest condolences” to the victims and identified the cause as “pure evil”, thinks there’s nothing more to say about the shooting of 586 people in Las Vegas by a retired country music fan and owner of 41 guns.  

As the headline which The Onion has now published five times after mass shootings goes, “‘No way to prevent this,’ says only nation where this regularly happens”. So we know that there’s a cognitive dissonance of unprecedented scale at play here.

The obvious solution — effective gun control — is a non-starter.  The NRA’s concession that “bump stocks”, which convert semi-automatics into machine guns, might be unnecessary for legitimate shooting purposes, should be seen for what it is: a temporary PR expedient.  I don’t doubt that Congress, after a respectful pause, will soon enough go back to debating theHearing Protection Act, a law to make it easier for gun owners to acquire silencers to protect their ears when they shoot.

The weirdness level is high, but it has to come from somewhere. This is my attempt to explain why Americans and guns are so obscenely in love.

The usual Bill of Rights argument

When discussing America and guns, attention focuses on the second amendment to the US constitution which forms part of the Bill of Rights. It says this:

“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.”

Aha, goes the usual analysis, obviously it was put in for one reason only: back in 1788, the very existence of the United States depended on its ability to quickly raise a militia from among the people to fend off external threats (such as that presented by the British when they re-invaded in 1812), and that was in a time when most men did own a musket or two. It’s all a historical anachronism now, and anyway there is no way the founding fathers were contemplating the future existence of AR-15s or RPGs, so it’s a nonsense to convert the second amendment into some fundamental human right of gun ownership.

I’ve always found that logic pretty attractive, but it is actually wrong for two big reasons. First, the US Supreme Court, after a long history of grappling with the second amendment, declared conclusively (by five-four majority) in the 2008 case of District of Columbia v Heller that it affirms the existence of a personal legal right to own and carry weapons, including guns; “arms” means all weapons, not just those in existence in 1788; and the right is not limited by the “prefatory” words referring to a well regulated militia. The majority said that those words do no more than illustrate one example of why the right exists, but do not constrain its exercise.

[What will happen with gun control under a Trump presidency?]

In the Heller case, a Washington DC law, which generally prohibited the possession of handguns, was held to be unconstitutional, because the second amendment protects the right of all Americans to own and use guns for lawful purposes such as self-defence in one’s home.

Importantly, the Supreme Court has never said that the second amendment provides an absolute guarantee of gun possession. It is comfortable with the notion that there are limits to the right to bear arms, which can be imposed by reasonably proportionate laws. So, for example, Nevada’s particularly lax gun laws are way less restrictive than the second amendment would allow them to be.

That’s the law in the US as it now stands, and it flatly denies the existence of a limited historical context to the right to bear arms. There’s a more fundamental problem, however, with the suggestion that the second amendment is an anachronism.

The Supreme Court majority, predictably Republican-conservative as it was, didn’t just make up the law to suit the National Rifle Association’s preference (although that was the result). It relied on a historical record, which regrettably supports the concept of gun ownership as a personal right and which explains why Americans are, in this respect, unique.

It is true that, when the second amendment was being negotiated, there was considerable concern about the pragmatic necessity of being able to quickly call out a functioning civilian militia to meet external threats, self-armed because the fledgling nation wasn’t in a position to provide sufficient weapons. Some states-to-be also feared that their right to maintain their own militias would be threatened by the creation of a national standing army.

So, there was a very specific historical context with no real relevance to modern conditions. However, something much deeper was also present in the consciousness of the people who were then in the process of creating America.

American exceptionalism is buried deep

Powerful clues to this can be found in various statements and writings of the men who actually wrote the constitution and Bill of Rights. One of the more compelling comes from James Madison, future fourth president of the USA, writing in The Federalist #46 in 1788.  

Madison was arguing that there was nothing to fear from any attempted overreach of power by the new federal government, as states-rights advocates were predicting was inevitable. His reasoning was that the American people themselves were the ultimate sovereign power, and that they would automatically rise up to defeat any tyranny regardless of its source or military capacity.

[Solving gun crime is bigger than amnesties and crackdowns: violence prevention expert]

How so? Madison explained that, even if the federal government was able to raise a standing army of maximum size, the best it could do would be to conscript one twenty-fifth of the men able to bear arms, producing an army of 30,000 men at most. “To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties.”

He went on: “Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate [state] governments, to which the people are attached … forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of.”

Madison reckoned that even a European people under tyrannical royal domination and denied personal arms, would, if pushed far enough, be able always to overthrow its rulers. “Let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors.”

These words express the roots of American exceptionalism: the unshakeable conviction that this new democratic people possessed characteristics quite different from anything that had previously existed in a national form. An intrinsic element of that was the revolutionary experience, the attaining of sovereign independence by civilians forming militias and bearing their own arms against a colonial oppressor.

It was taken, clearly, as a given by the constitution’s framers, that every man owning a gun was an essential and permanent precondition to the compact between the federal government, the states and the people, which was forming the USA. In essence, the guns provided a final guarantor of the individual liberties which were the purpose of the whole enterprise.

Stupid as this is to modern ears, I’m sure, in the 18th century, it made perfectly unassailable sense. The problem isn’t that Madison, Jefferson and co. were too myopically focused on a temporary military problem and inadvertently created a lazily worded right to bear arms, which an NRA-loyal Supreme Court later converted into the right to defend yourself with a machine gun collection.

The problem is that the foundation story of their country had convinced them that the ability of the populace to grab their guns and defend not just their country but their freedom, against every conceivable source of oppression including their own government, was necessary to America’s survival.

This belief is embedded in America’s subconscious. Don’t expect it to be discarded, nor its manifestation, the unnatural love which Americans have for their guns.