Fear is no way to defend the right to bear arms
The push for new laws to allow guns on campus is built on the same irrational panic that fuels the campaign for gun controls.
On 16 April 2007, 23-year-old student Seung-Hui Cho walked into the lecture rooms of Virginia Tech with a gun and opened fire. He shot 32 people dead and wounded 25 others. Ten months later, at Northern Illinois University, 27-year-old Steven Kazmierczak shot six students dead and wounded 18. In response, many Americans have suggested that had students or staff been armed, these lunatics could have been stopped.
Michael Flitcraft, a student at the University of Cincinnati, captured these sentiments well: ‘Would you rather just sit there and cower underneath a desk when someone executes you or would you rather have a chance to defend your life? That’s what it really boils down to.’ (1) Flitcraft is a local spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC), an organisation that claims 30,000 members and has staged ‘empty holster protests’ on campuses across the country to highlight the ‘impotence’ of students unable to defend themselves (2).
Nine states are currently considering legislation that would allow what is known as ‘concealed carry’ – allowing students to carry guns – on campuses. Most states now declare all educational institutions, hospitals and government buildings ‘gun-free zones’ and, in many states, it is a felony to carry a gun into these zones.
Republican state senator Karen S Johnson of Arizona is one of the proponents of legislative change. She initially wanted her bill to cover all public schools, from kindergarten upwards, but other lawmakers convinced her it stood a better chance of passing if it were limited to higher education. ‘I feel like our kindergartners are sitting there like sitting ducks’, Johnson said in April when the bill passed the committee by a four-to-three vote.
The drive for self-defence has gone all the way to the US Supreme Court, where, in a five-to-four ruling delivered on 26 June, it was decided that the Constitution grants individuals the right to own guns for self-defence. District of Columbia v Heller overturned a law in operation since 1976 that forced gun owners to keep their guns in their houses unloaded and either disassembled or with a trigger lock. The ruling has thrown state legislation into doubt, as lower courts grapple with the implications of the decision.
The Supreme Court decision is right, no doubt, as is the SCCC, to point out that laws specific to campuses infantilise US students. However, the impetus for self-defence is dangerous to the freedom to bear arms in the United States.
First, campaigns for ‘concealed carry’ are built on the same emotional (and irrational) responses to campus shootings as those employed by gun-control fanatics. The best defence of gun rights is to point to the facts as against emotional appeals. Are American students and schoolchildren under siege from an army of madmen? Not really. Less than one per cent of all homicides of children aged five to 19 occur in or around school grounds or on the way to school (3). According to the US Department of Education, the criminal homicide rate on campus was 0.07 per 100,000 students in 2004 compared to an overall rate of 5.7 per 100,000 persons and a rate of 14.1 per 100,000 persons in the 17 to 29 age group nationally (these latter rates are lower now) (4). Even the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Columbine must be measured against the 72million Americans currently attending an educational institution (5). The present danger of madmen shooting up schools and universities exists largely in the imagination.
Second, if we irrationally fear our fellow human beings so much that we feel we need to be armed to feel safe, the logical solution is clearly to remove all guns from society (except, of course, the authorities, who should be heavily armed in order to protect us from the army of madmen that threaten us). Gun control fanatics need only point to Europe, where few people own guns and few people feel threatened by guns. But, as the statistics show, only a tiny fraction of the gun-owners of the United States have ever used or are ever likely to use their weapons for self-defence. If we go down the ‘feel safe’ route, those that would eliminate all guns will surely win.
Third, it takes away from the real reason for resisting gun controls. Freedom, which has been stripped effortlessly from Britons over the past 10 years, is worth preserving in the United States. The real issue about the right to bear arms, as Thomas Jefferson reminds us, is not so much about guns as about protection of individual rights from the tyranny of the state. ‘Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: (1) Those who fear and distrust the people… (2) Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe… depository of the public interest.’
Thus, as people in the UK have glanced nervously at their fellow men and women, not only have guns been banned, but there is also a serious discussion about banning the sale of pointed kitchen knives (carrying a knife now can result in a five-year prison sentence in the UK). Do Americans really want to go down this route?
Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).
Kevin Yuill argued that gun control is a serious restriction on our freedom, and asked how Charlton Heston become a political whipping boy for the liberal intelligentsia. Brendan O’Neill shot down the myth of ‘gun culture’. Frank Furedi described the Virginia Tech shooting spree as a massacre without meaning. Or read more at spiked issue Guns and shooting.
(1) Students want chance to defend themselves, CNN, 15 April 2008
(2) See Students for Concealed Carry website here
(3) See Special Report: Federal Activities addressing Violence in Schools, Center for Disease Control and Prevention
(4) Cited in An Invitation to Health: Brief, Jennifer Hales, New York: Brooks Cole, 2005, p.346.
(5) School Enrollment in the United States, March 2001
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