By Shivaji Sengupta
And Tubal Cain was fill’d with pain
For the evil he had done…
— Charles Mackay (1880)
The reference is to a Scottish poet who visited America in 1859, a year before the Civil War. In a letter to a friend he had written sorrowfully about it, comparing the two sides to brothers fighting each other. Tubal Cain is Mackay’s poetic creation, but the Bible, in the fourth book of Genesis, tells the story of Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, in which Cain kills Abel, thus committing the first murder of mankind.
Western culture has always had this stigma of violence, its people wresting by force and weapons what they cannot have otherwise. Americans are particularly prone to this.
Last month, two mass murders killed eighteen people. Eight Asians seemed to have been specifically targeted by Robert Long. The ten killed were white, indiscriminately shot to death in a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, by Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, a twenty-one year old Syrian immigrant who has been in this country since he was three.
Predictably, these murders once again brought forth bitter criticism of our gun laws. Democrats prefer stricter ones than Republicans. Consequently, gun control becomes more stringent during Democrat presidents, more lax during Republicans. At the state level the same pattern: fourteen blue states currently have stricter gun laws than the 13 red. Not surprisingly, President Biden, after the current mass murders, immediately called for tightening up the laws. Republicans are pushing back saying, as they usually do, stricter gun laws will eventually lead to total ban on guns, stating sarcastically that “guns don’t kill.”
They don’t, but people with guns do. In the last five years there have been more than 30 mass shootings in the U.S. In 2017 assassins using guns killed nearly 40,000 people. To those who say guns don’t kill, they should be reminded that although Americans make up about 4.4 per cent of the world population, they own 42 per cent of the world’s guns. Between 1966 and 2012, 31 per cent of the mass shootings in the world were committed by Americans. According to New York Times, in nineteen shootings from 2009 to 2018, guns were legally bought by their users. The U.S. population is approximately 330 million. There are over 390 million guns in this country, averaging more than one gun per person. This is unparalleled anywhere in the world.
What has created this culture of guns in America? Together with the automobile, guns seem to be an American obsession. If Marshal McLuhan’s epithet about cars being the “mechanical bride,” is appropriate, handguns may be called “the handy bodyguard.”
But bodyguards against whom? We live in a society where the police are ubiquitous. To be sure that was not always the case. After all, possession of guns was not sanctioned by the Constitution. It came about via the second amendment which became law in 1791, three years after the Constitution was approved in 1788.
In the years following, the British (or for that matter, other Europeans like the French) did not go quietly. Sporadic battles erupted, mostly because British red-coats invaded American communities they considered vulnerable. Because of the vastness of the country it was not always possible for a centralized military to come to the rescue of these innocent communities. Hence, the amendment that permits local people to have guns for self defense and create “a militia.” Even after the British were permanently defeated, lawlessness persisted in the South, Midwest and the West. Washington was thousands of miles away and the railroad was a not-yet. Hence, the rise of vigilante cowboys, the Lone Rangers we used to worship even in India in English medium junior schools!
Technological advancement, and the absence of a foreign enemy threatening to take our land away, have not changed Americans’ nature as long as clinging to guns is concerned. What is our reason now? What would happen if Donald Trump’s a-historical warning that the Democrats will “take away your guns,” became a reality?
Apparently, gun-ownership these days has nothing to do with personal security, although the gun lobbyists keep pushing the safety-argument. If we can all carry guns in public, the reasoning goes, terrorists with intention to mass-murder can be killed in response to their shooting. However, by and large, the real issue behind owning guns is loss of freedom.
But do we really understand what we mean by freedom? Way back in 1864, President Abraham Lincoln had observed in his second inaugural address that most people did not know what the word ‘liberty’ meant. I suspect it is still true today.
Liberty and freedom are not the same. Freedom is environmental in the sense it pervades the nation. Everyone in a given community enjoys it. Liberty, however, is personal. It has to do with the limits of what we are allowed. According to Frederich Hayek, a major American philosopher who has written on liberty and freedom, the most dangerous enemy of liberty is coercion. When I try to deprive you of one of your rights using superior logic, I am coercing you to do my will. Substituting “gun” here for “rights” we will understand why many Americans will not give it up. They won’t be coerced out of what the Second Amendment has given to them.
So where does all this leave us. I don’t think Americans will do away with the Second Amendment any time soon. We equate personal liberty with the possession of fire arms. Responsible gun owners will respect human life. But every now and again someone, deranged and determined, will go on a killing rampage because there is really no way to stop gun violence permanently. And when it happens, we will again lament the existence of the Second Amendment, politicians will posture, people will shed tears, flowers will be placed in the memory of the dead. In a few days time though, we will go back to the old normal.
We will live with guns and roses – forever.
By Shivaji Sengupta