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In June last year, I wrote an opinion piece titled “LGBT people need fair treatment” after a 29-year-old American gunman shot 49 people dead at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, committing the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
In March this year, more than 1 million people from all over the United States strode to join the March for Our Lives rally for gun control after a shooter opened fire in a high school in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day, killing 17 and wounding 14 students and staff members.
These two mass shootings are just the tip of the iceberg of gun rampancy in the United States. Repeated shooting massacres have proved that the abuse of firearms has turned out to be a serious social problem in the country. It is roughly estimated that U.S. civilians own 270 million to 310 million guns, and that 35 to 42 percent of the households in the country have at least one gun.
U.S. citizens have a long history of owning guns. Actually, the country won independence from Britain with guns. “A free people ought not only be armed and disciplined. But they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government,” said George Washington, the first president of the United States.
From the legal perspective, the United States uses a case law system, so judicial interpretations are very important. In 1791, the U.S. adopted the Second Amendment to its Constitution, which grants the right to bear arms to citizens. The effect of this amendment on gun politics was the subject of landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years, which upheld the right of individuals to possess guns for self-defense.
In terms of a historical perspective, we know that the United States has a tradition of hunting. Such a tradition comes from the time when the country was an agrarian nation where hunting was a profession, an important source of food for some new settlers and immigrants, and also a deterrent to animal predators. In some U.S. cowboy movies, we can also easily find a connection between shooting skills and survivals among rural American men. In many cases, shooting is now regarded as a kind of sporting activity and a “rite” for entering manhood in the country.
Moreover, in terms of military augmentation, there was neither national budget nor government desire to maintain a full-time army prior to the American Revolution. Therefore, armed civilians carried the responsibility of protecting the country. Service in militia, including providing one’s own ammunition and weapons, was mandatory for all men at that time. Despite the fact that the U.S. now boasts the strongest army in the world, the unorganized militia still remains in the country, consisting of everyone from age 17 to 45.
Since the 1990s, debates regarding firearms availability and gun violence in the United States have been characterized by concerns about the individual’s right to bear arms. Those supporters often cite the Second Amendment, which clearly states that it is citizens’ rights to own weapons and law-abiding citizens’ duty to save lives using guns. They also argue that greater gun control does not necessarily lead to less violence. On the contrary, opposing groups advocating for tighter gun control say that indiscriminate or unrestricted gun rights inhibit the government from fulfilling its responsibility and causes a serious safety concern for the people.
Gun control is one of the most complicated political issues in the United States, and it cracks the brains of almost all presidents. To address gun violence in the aftermath of the massacre at the Florida high school this February, President Donald Trump has called for a comprehensive bill that will expand background checks on gun purchases, remove guns from the hands of the mentally ill, bolster security on school campuses and restrict young people from buying certain weapons. In a 2015 interview with the BBC, then-President Barack Obama also said “Gun control has been the one area where I feel that I have been most frustrated and most stymied. It is the fact that the U.S. is one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient common sense, gun-safety laws, even in the face of repeated mass killings. And you know, if you look at the number of Americans killed since 911 by terrorism, it is less than 100. If you look at the number that have been killed by gun violence, it is in the tens of thousands. And for us not to be able to solve that issue has been something that is distressing.”
Safeguarding individuals’ rights and keeping tradition are important. However, without proper gun control, it is very dangerous if the United States turns out to be a country totally controlled or hijacked by guns. It is not ever a good idea to solve a problem purely based on emotion. Nevertheless, to advance with the times and answer the call of the American people, it is time for the U.S. administration to retrospect and adjust its gun policy now.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)