“By its Second Amendment, Americans have ensured that they will never be short of the means to defend their freedom from tyrants, foreign invaders, terrorists or criminals.Fanciful, you think, no threat to democracy could possibly arise on our quiet, law-abiding shores. Quite possibly so — and let us hope it is. Then again, a Jewish shopkeeper in 1930 Berlin probably shared the same opinion.”
Much of last week was dominated by charge and counter-charge concerning deals allegedly struck to legalise a seven-shot shotgun, the weapon’s opponents seeing it as a tool of mayhem and terror. Be that as it may, a gun serves the purpose of the person who holds it, good or bad.
Many surprises await the traveller in the US of A. However, no matter how much one expects to be dazzled amazed or stunned, no catalyst for instant culture shock can compete with the variety of guns and ammo offered for sale. Openly, even in some supermarkets. I still have a supermarket flyer, kept as a souvenir, which advertises a selection of rifles and pistols with the appropriate ammo for all.
It took me almost a week to stop looking for concealed guns everywhere, wondering who might be packing an equalizer. My fearful imagination battled thoughts that I might at any moment be caught up in the homicidal rampage of a mad gunman. Eventually I started to relax. And think. And talk to the armed citizens our foreign correspondents unvaryingly depict in their dispatches as symptoms of US society’s collective insanity. Casting aside preconceptions was a good start because, gradually, I came to understand that Americans view their right to bear arms in a somewhat different context than we Australians think they do. However, there are also some intriguing similarities, which, to me, signify a certain degree of an emotional affinity and conceptual confluence on the subject of gun control.
But first, just for some context, let me recall a bus trip I took with my wife in 1981 from Melbourne to Uluru (then still known as Ayers Rock). Ah, memories of a nose caked with red dust and those jarring, corrugated roads come flooding back! Likewise the spectacle of my fellow, full-to-burst passengers jiggling like a mob of St.Vitus Dance patients as they waited in line at the coyly named “comfort stops” along the way. One overnight stop was Coober Pedy, an unruly opal town where life has gone underground to escape the withering heat. We went to a supermarket, mostly because it was the only air-conditioned sanctuary that wasn’t a pub or a church. It was in that supermarket where an astonishing spectacle stopped me in my tracks.
Neatly stacked on easy-to-reach shelves, row upon row of red gelignite sticks and spools of fuse by the metre. It was a revelation — high explosives for sale just down the aisle from the lettuce and cheese. More than that, explosives in an Australian supermarket were treated as a fact of life. Nobody was shocked, surprised or outraged. Me neither, when I thought about it.
Now, let’s get back to Americans’ alleged “fascination” with guns, which isn’t the right word at all. Like Coober Pedy miners and their off-the-shelf high explosives, the Americans with whom I spoke accepted guns as a fact of life. Underpinning this was the conviction that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms isn’t something bizarre, outlandish or provocative. Rather — and this is what Australians find hard to grasp — many felt it was a civic responsibility. When I heard that, I asked what kind of responsibility? To kill anyone you do not like? The response was hearty, indulgent laughter. Gently, I was advised to read the Second Amendment, which I did. Pasted it below, please do read it.
I had always sided with those who advocated a complete ban on weapons. I also accepted as an axiom that the gun ownership means crime, injury and the deaths of innocents. Every time a mass shooting occurred, whether here or abroad, I was distressed, thinking I or someone I love could have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. The closest I have come to being a victim was at the time of the Hoddle Street massacre. I was on my way to work, close to the stretch of busy Melbourne inner-city road that Julian Knight had selected as his killing ground. I heard the news and was shocked. But amidst my thoughts and concern for Knight’s victims, in the back of my mind were the words of the Second Amendment.
I thought, ‘Hang on, the Second Amendment says nothing of the right to shoot innocents or to rob banks — nothing of the sort.’ All it says is that Mr. and Mrs. American Citizen have the right to form militias and bear arms to protect both their democracy and freedom. The Second Amendment also implies that the maintenance of collective and individual freedom is the right and responsibility of the citizenry, and it likewise countenances the possibility that recourse to arms might be required to achieve as much. Those who misuse the right enshrined in the Second Amendment are criminals and the law takes care of them — or rather, should take care of them. This simple chain of reasoning changed the way I thought and felt about guns in private citizens’ hands. Who knows, had their victims had guns and thus were able to defend themselves, Julian Knight and Martin Bryant might not have slaughtered so many. Who knows how many victims of law-breakers and killers might still be alive.