Tuesday, July 1, 2008

If guns don’t kill people, who does?

Free to die in gun violence

From The Statesman
ND Batra
On several issues the US Supreme Court is as divided as the country itself. On the bench there are some justices who might be called constitutional fundamentalists or literalists, who believe that the Constitution means what it says, and they know it.

On Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 majority that Americans have a constitutional right to own handguns for self-defence, giving its interpretation of the Second Amendment (the Bill of Rights) which was ratified in 1791. The amendment reads: “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.”

The question before the court was whether the right to own a gun was limited to service for the state military force or for personal use. Justice Antonin Scalia, a constitutional fundamentalist, writing for the majority, said the Constitution does not permit “the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home”.

Justice Stephen Breyer, known as a liberal pragmatist constitutionalist, wrote a dissent in which he said, “In my view, there simply is no untouchable constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to keep loaded handguns in the house in crime-ridden urban areas.” All the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights exist in dynamic balance and don’t confer any absolute right on Americans.For the last 32 years, Washington DC has had the strictest gun laws in the country.

Of course, that did not make the city free from crime. In fact the city, the seat of the greatest power on earth, earned the notoriety of being the murder capital of the country. The gun ban not only did not reduce violent crime but it also challenged some people who regard the Second Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights as a sacred trust. Of course, they had the support of the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobbies in the country.

Both Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain, Democratic and Republican presumptive presidential nominees respectively, were quick to endorse the US Supreme Court decision. No politician can challenge the gun lobby and survive in the US. The case arose in 2003, when Mr Dick Anthony Heller, an armed security guard, supported by constitutional fundamentalists, filed a suit against Washington DC, when the city turned down his application to keep a handgun at his home for self-protection under the provisions of the Firearms Control Regulations Act, 1975. Apart from banning handguns, the law required that all firearms be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock”.

The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled for Mr Heller, striking down Washington DC’s handgun ban on the ground that Americans have a constitutional right to own guns and, therefore, a total ban on handguns infringes the right. The Supreme Court majority did not absolutely rule out gun regulation. As Justice Scalia said, the ruling did not “cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings”.

The justices in the ruling majority, Justice Scalia said, “are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country” for which Washington DC has “a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns”.

Every year, 30,000 Americans including children are killed in gun violence at home, in the streets, in schools, colleges, workplaces as well as by accidental shooting and suicide, in spite of a plethora of state and city laws ranging from licensing, registration and background checks to outright bans.

The culture of gun violence is reflected and reinforced by the media. Movies, television programmes and popular music do not always spur viewers to spontaneous action; but their delayed, cumulative effects are immense. Television commercials, for instance, impact viewers, which keeps the market economy thriving. If commercials make people buy, repeated violent programmes too can incite some viewers, especially children or those who are mentally disturbed, to kill people, especially when guns are available freely.

A few years ago, for example, Queen Latifa, the rap star, featured in Set It Off, an R-rated movie about four desperate women who go on a binge, shooting and robbing banks. The movie was linked with several copycat fatal shootings, including that of an 8-year-old girl, Tynisha Gathers of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who watched a bootlegged copy of the movie along with three other girls. Later while replaying a scene from the movie, Tynisha was shot in the head, as it was shown on the tape, with a .380 calibre semiautomatic handgun lying in the house. Imitation and role-playing, no doubt, excite all children. Tynisha’s 10-year old sister was held in custody and charged with manslaughter.

Gun-dealers and movie-makers hide behind their constitutional rights to bear arms and exercise unfettered free expression, of course, only to make money in the free marketplace. Unlike constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, Americans have no fundamental obligations, except to pay taxes.The courts have been very reluctant to award damages in cases of personal injuries caused by the media, unless there is a definitive showing of “clear and present danger”, amounting to direct incitement of violence. Punishing the media for mere negligence, the courts have said in several media-related personal injury cases, would chill free expression and lead to self-censorship, thus negating the purpose of the First Amendment.

And they tell us again and again, I mean gun industry lobbyists, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But this has not been a comforting thought to parents of children brought up in an environment of toy-guns (which look indistinguishable from the real ones) and senseless media violence. Every year hundreds of children either become victims of gun violence through media imitation or cause injuries to others. The US Supreme Court does not have any answer to such social dilemmas.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

No comments:

Post a Comment