Friday, 9 October 2015

No more excuses: the USA must end its crazy addiction to guns - my Catholic Universe column

Abraham Lincoln once said ‘We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.’

Until a week ago if you ever Googled for Roseburg, Oregon on a computer the most likely result you would have jumped to in your search would have taken you to an anonymous page about a nowhere little town.

The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry about that place could lead you to believe that Roseburg is far far more important than in reality it is. Roseburg’s entry starts out with the words ‘Roseburg is a city in the US state of Oregon.’

Of course though it isn’t. Roseburg isn’t a city, it is barely a town of significance. In the 2010 census Roseburg was smaller than Buxton or Workington or Market Harborough.

I’m sure that Roseburg is a perfectly nice place but until last week my guess is that we could all have gone happily through our lives without ever hearing of it.

And then just over a week ago Roseburg made its way into the public consciousness for entirely the wrong reasons.

A madman had run amok with a gun at the local Umpqua Community College and had killed 9 people and injured 9 others.

Of course we are shocked and saddened by such a tragedy, we are shocked and saddened because Roseburg has become the norm.

This year alone 9 people were killed in Charleston, South Carolina in an attack on a local church, another six were murdered in Isla Vista, California by gunman Elliot Rodger before he turned the weapon on himself, yet another two were shot dead in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Since 2010 there have been mass killings in Huntsville, Alabama; Manchester, Connecticut; Tucson, Arizona; Seal Beach, California; Oakland, California; Aurora Colorado; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Brookfield, Wisconsin; Santa Monica, California; Washington DC; Fort Hood, Texas and perhaps most tragically the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

The saddest thing though is that apart from the sheer horror of Sandy Hook, or before that Columbine, we will soon forget the name of Roseburg like we have of Seal Beach or Oak Creek.

So commonplace have these mass murders become that if in a few short weeks we ever hear the name Roseburg again we will follow up with the question ‘Didn’t something happen there, once?’

From five thousand miles away I watched the news unfolding about another tragedy and I shed a tear. I can’t begin to comprehend how families feel after such an event and I can’t begin to understand how a country as wonderful as the United States of America can allow such tragedies to happen time and time again.

It is simply astonishing to me that any developed western democracy would allow, as a constitutional right, anyone to have access to firearms and yet just such a right is conferred upon citizens in the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. It is fiercely defended by advocates including many gun owners and rights groups such as the powerful and well-funded National Rifle Association.

Although in the years that have followed courts have sought to make judgement clarifying the wording of the amendment, and laws have been made to limit its reign, that sentence introduced to the constitution in 1791 still holds force.  

‘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.’

Last Thursday evening yet again President Obama went into the briefing room of the White House to speak to the nation that he leads. It may well have been the rawest, most helpless speech of his presidency, it may well go down as his greatest.

In his words the President said ‘There is a gun for roughly every man, woman and child in America. So how can you, with a straight face, make the argument that more guns will make us safer? We know that states with the most gun laws tend to have the fewest gun deaths. So the notion that gun laws don’t work…is not borne out by the evidence.

‘We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that eliminate mass shootings. Friends of ours, allies of ours – Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours. So we know there are ways to prevent it.’

Advocates for the constitutional right to bear arm will be heard to say that ‘it’s not guns that kill people, people kill people’, they will speak of the wisdom of the founding fathers but there is no doubt that a measure passed more than two hundred years ago in the wake of a war for independence is not fit for purpose today.

In Britain we have never had a gun culture in the same way as our cousins over the Atlantic but those of us who are old enough can still clearly remember that day in 1996 when we first heard of the tragedy unfolding at Dunblane Primary School.

The response from government was swift and some might argue draconian but the simple fact is that we have, thank God, now nearly twenty years on never experienced another day like that.

You may have questioned by now that desperately sad though the events in America may be, what does it have to do with us?

The answer is simple.

The reason that effective gun laws have never been enacted in the United States is because proponents of gun freedom hold on steadfastly to rights conferred more than two hundred years ago.

But the world changes. What may have been appropriate during the days of Thomas Jefferson almost certainly isn’t now.

In a world that we now live in, barely recognisable to the founding fathers, it is incumbent on the people of the United States to call for change and for us to support them.

As Catholics we know that whilst our faith is steadfast the ways in which it is lived must change, the same goes for venerable constitutions.

Even across the pond we know that the American Constitution can change and can be wrong. We need look no further that the introduction and swift repeal of prohibition to highlight that simple fact. Let us be under no misapprehension that that second amendment can be repealed what prevents it happening are those men, as Lincoln said in a different context, ‘who pervert’ it.

When we see injustice, when we see lives tragically snuffed out, when we see a world leader helpless to act it does not matter that we are not American. It matters that we are human and we must cry out for these horrific, all too often, events to be stopped.

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