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Distrust of Government Is at the Root of the U.S. Gun Control Issue

06/24/2015 12:29 EDT | Updated 06/24/2016 05:59 EDT
KAREN BLEIER via Getty Images
Merchandise for sale is displayed at the 2015 NRA Annual Convention in Nashville, Tennessee on April 10, 2015. The annual NRA meeting and exhibit, expected to draw over 70,000 people, runs till April 12. AFP PHOTO / KAREN BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

"Eight of his [Pastor Clementa Pinckney's] church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead."

- NRA board member Charles Cotton

Much of the commentary surrounding the Charleston massacre centers on the issue of race and rightly so. This was a horrible crime of hate based on deep-seated racism.

However, as with so many other mass shootings in America, gun control is, at best, a subsidiary issue. After some young man easily acquires assault weapons and takes the lives of many innocent people, the usual question from members of the community is "How could this happen here?"

To an outside observer, the answer is blindingly obvious. The lack of meaningful gun control legislation has much to do with the fact that America seems not only to be the land of the free and the home of the brave but also the home of the mass shooter.

The United States has, by far, the highest per capita rate of gun-related murders among developed countries. Their rate is ten to twenty times higher than most European nations.

The clear answer to this glaring disparity is the implementation of reasonable gun control legislation. However, thanks to the rightwing-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, there is now little chance that any such meaningful legislation can be passed.

Prior to the Court's 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, it was possible to implement certain restrictions on gun ownership. Previous Court decisions gave meaning to the prefatory clause of the Second Amendment and tied the right to gun ownership to "a well regulated militia." Heller changed all that when Justice Scalia's tortuous reasoning essentially jettisoned the prefatory clause and granted an almost unencumbered individual right to bear arms.

Heller was nothing more than the Court's acceptance of the National Rifle Association's hard-line, anti-gun control position which, over the years, has successfully changed public opinion from strongly favouring the banning of handguns to heavily opposing such a move. A Gallup poll found that 60 per cent of Americans favored banning handguns in 1959 while only 24 per cent agreed by 2012.

A more centrist (and more reasonable) Supreme Court would likely have considered the history of the Second Amendment and its passage soon after America's War of Independence where militias had recently played a role in defeating Great Britain. It seems highly unlikely that the Founding Fathers intended their wording to lead to an unrestricted right to bear any and all modern weaponry.

Yet the damage has now been done and it will take many years and much judicial and legislative work to undo it. In the meantime, the gun advocates have won and America seems doomed to an increase in unregulated and unrestricted gun sales, more and more open carry provisions and, sadly, an increasing number of needless gun deaths and mass murders.

The basic question that arises from all this is why do Americans tolerate such a dangerous and unreasonable situation when so many other developed countries have chosen otherwise? I think the answer can be found in one essential component of the American ethic: a distrust of government.

While the citizens of most developed nations may not always like their governments, they do accept them as legitimate and, for the most part, engaged in democratically implementing the will of the people. Although many Americans agree with that position, many do not.

I suspect that millions of Americans have a deep distrust of government in general and their own government in particular. While they go about their daily business like the citizens of most advanced nations, they always harbour a fear that "the government" (in one form or another) is going to take their property, suppress their rights or maybe even imprison them.

Some of those millions are also conspiracy theorists, those that believe in all manner of secret plots, many involving the government. Combine the two and it's no wonder that many Americans are adamant about owning and obtaining all manner of firearms. It's not just a theoretical debate for them; in their minds, it's a matter of life and death.

Given that odd mix of beliefs, it's no surprise that many Americans are content with a country awash in firearms, gun deaths and prison cells. Until someone can find a way to cure that disease, there seems little hope that the epidemic of violence will end any time soon.

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