To an outsider, it often appears as though there is no middle ground in the gun control debate in the United States: the left want weapons restricted or outright banned and the right wants even fewer restrictions than currently exist. The ferocity of the debate is both completely understandable and enormously perplexing. On one hand gun ownership is enshrined as a civil liberty. On the other, by global standards the United States is very developed economically and has rule of law, which makes fervent gun ownership advocacy seem extreme at worst and unnecessary at best.
John Locke is often credited with introduction the concept of rights, or civil liberties, to the world. He popularized a number of fundamental civil liberties that have become a bedrock for liberal democracy, including freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of association (all of these rights were for all citizens…except atheists). However, there was one right he introduced that didn’t fit in with all the rest: the so-called right to revolution. Most of Locke’s rights are rights to be free from government oppression but the so-called right of revolution is the freedom to do something violent about government oppression. It is an entirely different category.
The US came close to including the right to revolution in its Bill of Rights. The 2nd Amendment could almost be thought of as the “right for potential revolution.” The bill allows for citizens to be armed in perpetuity. It’s a small further step to actually using those arms. And though there are cultural explanations for gun violence in the US, the existence of the enshrined civil right to bear arms has to be seen as one of the key, defining differences between the US, with its gun violence, and all the other countries around the world with similar levels of economic development, with far less gun violence (and, correspondingly, far less people in jail).
In the United States, there is a feeling that their constitution and bill of rights are not the product of flawed, everyday human beings, but rather of divinely inspired supermen. Many Americans feel that the original institutions of their federal government were god-given; this view is literal in the eyes of many a god-fearing American, but more metaphorical in the eyes of others. I have heard an American citizen I know refer to the creation of the US constitution as a “miracle.”
Particularly in recent years, there has been a lot of scholarship on how the constitution is actually just the creation of a bunch of historical actors, who were out to protect their own interests, and were not actually public-minded saints. But though this idea has lots of carriage in academia, it has far less carriage with the general public, or even in some parts of the legal system where there is a strong desire to interpret the constitution and the bill of rights literally. This view easily leads to the idea that any part of these god-given or miraculous laws – such as the 2nd amendment – can never be changed.
Of course, there’s the obvious question: if the constitution was so perfect, why has it been amended 27 times?
The belief in the sacredness of the foundational legal documents of the United States is just that, a belief. And so it is with the right to bear arms; it’s a sacred belief, it is not a rational idea. So one of the fundamental reasons why there is no gun reform in the United States is because a chunk of the population views gun rights as just. This is all despite a seemlingly endless stream of mass shootings, some involving children, and a higher homicide rate than any other comparable country.
Yes, the gun lobby plays an incredibly important role in preventing gun policy reform, but that wouldn’t be possible without the belief that even debating the issue is a problem. There are many people in the US who believe that the 2nd amendment is not a problem, it’s bad people who are the problem: a better country, less gun violence. The people who believe that the 2nd amendment is god-given may have their beliefs exploited by the gun lobby, but without these widespread beliefs, there’s no powerful gun lobby. Even within Canada, where we have stronger gun legislation and arguably more areas of the country that use guns to subsist and survive, we don’t have a powerful gun lobby.
The 2nd Amendment is something that is sacrosanct to US gun owners and gun rights proponents. It has existed since well before they were born and it is, as far as it matters, god-given. (It should be no surprise that most gun rights proponents are Christian.) The belief that it should be a civil right, rather than, say, just a matter of policy, is one that is unique to America. There is nothing god-given about it; it’s a historical fluke. And yet it inspires such reverence. And it inspires this reverence because, in the eyes of gun owners, it help makes the world fair. Or, to put it another way, it’s what keeps the world from being even more unfair, more corrupt.
The belief in the sanctity of the 2nd amendment is another form of the Just World Fallacy, to which this site is dedicated. The Just World Fallacy is a belief that the world is a fair place, and that us humans receive rewards and punishments based on the underlying fairness of the rules of the universe. If I am rich, it’s for a reason. (“Self-made” millionaires are rich because of their own merit.) If I suffer, it’s for a reason. (Someone who dies because of a firearm accident died because of stupidity or not following basic gun safety, which everyone knows, or should know.) It is from this point of view that the 2nd amendment is inviolable. The right to bear arms is part of the just world, it is necessary to keep the world just. If there is no 2nd amendment, the threats to the fairness of our world (the government, The Other, liberals, the international socialist/globalist conspiracy, the Illuminati) will be able to make the world unfair (or more unfair than it currently is).
And that’s really hard for those of us who do not have this belief to accept because the world not only isn’t fair, but gun rights sure aren’t protecting anyone from much of anything – the size of the US government continues to increase, the police militarizes before our eyes, the surveillance state is a reality and it’s only getting more comprehensive. What exactly is an automatic weapon in one’s home going to do to stop these things?
It’s extremely hard for a group of people to compromise on beliefs and ideas they believe are sacred. A huge part of the intractability of the debate comes from the fact that gun rights advocates think that the right to bear arms is maintaining something about their world that is in danger. Until these folks acknowledge that this “right” is just a belief, rather than a necessary right to protect their liberty, or until the debate is reframed so that gun rights advocates do not feel like they are compromising their sacred rights, there will be no traction.