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How Suspicion of 'Big Government' Fosters US Gun Violence

01/22/2013 11:35 am ET | Updated Mar 24, 2013

Any other Western country with as much tragic gun violence as America would most likely have repealed the Second Amendment long ago if it had it in its constitution. However, for reasons related to American exceptionalism, the right to bear arms is considered sacrosanct by numerous Americans. Support for unbridled gun ownership notably reflects virulent suspicion of the federal government, particularly in conservative America. The right to bear arms is not merely envisioned as a way to defend one's self from criminals -- it is also envisioned as a way to defend one's self from the government. To the far-right, armed patriots might well be the last line of defense someday when the federal government finally goes one step too far in taking away the American people's "liberty." Of course, only a minority of the people who oppose gun control share this view, yet the romanticized notion of being able to rise up against the oppression of "big government" is a motivating factor for the most zealous partisans of the right to bear arms.

The rate of murders committed with firearms is very high in America even if one leaves aside extraordinary mass shootings like those of Newton, Aurora, Oak Creek, Tucson, Virginia Tech, and Columbine. Americans are about 10 times more likely to be killed by firearms than other Westerners, which is a key reason why the U.S. murder rate is the highest in the West. Simply put, other Western countries have far less gun violence than America largely because they have far stricter gun control. There are also wrongdoers and deranged persons elsewhere in the West but, unlike in America, it is often hard for them to lay their hands on a gun if they are bent on violence. Gun control is so lax in the U.S. that people with a criminal record or a history of mental illness are commonly authorized to buy guns. Even people on the terrorism watchlist can usually do so.

U.S. guns laws used to be significantly stricter and the erosion of control partly reflects the success of the gun lobby in contesting regulation and promoting the idea that owning firearms is a cornerstone of individual liberty. In 2011 and 2012, the NRA spent roughly ten times more on lobbying than all gun control groups combined. The leverage of the NRA and the gun industry illustrates the extraordinary influence of moneyed interests over the modern U.S. political system, another aspect of American exceptionalism.

The NRA is so determined to fight any rationale for gun control that it supports giving back gun rights to people with criminal records, as the New York Times reported. With the NRA's backing, various states have thus reinstated the right to bear arms to thousands of convicted felons after their release from prison. They include people with a history of violence, people who previously used guns to commit crimes, and even people convicted of murder in certain states. Some have predictably used their guns to commit more crimes.

The controversial Second 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." There is a debate among legal scholars as to whether it created an individual right of citizens to bear arms or a collective right of states to maintain armed militias. Since the 1970s, the NRA has pushed the individual right view, which has historically been the minority position. In a 1992 interview, former Chief Justice Warren Burger argued that the NRA's interpretation of the Second Amendment was "one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word 'fraud,' on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime." Yet, the Supreme Court ultimately embraced the NRA's stance. In 2008, it held in a 5-4 decision that the amendment grants an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected to service in an official, state-regulated militia. Insofar as the Second Amendment indeed confers such a private right, it is an anachronistic remnant of 18th century revolutionary times and makes little sense policy-wise in a modern age where weapons are increasingly lethal.

Passionate support for the right to bear arms represents a peculiar conception of liberty. The notion that people are not free unless they can possess guns is partly rooted in the illogical notion that gun regulation is a slippery slope to the end of all sorts of liberties, as exemplified by the words of Larry Pratt, the head of the Gun Owners of America: "We're in a war. The other side knows they are at war, because they started it. They are coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They are coming for everything because they are a bunch of socialists." This virulent suspicion of government is a defining trait of American exceptionalism, although it is especially concentrated among the influential far-right. More to the point, universal health care is widely accepted by both the left and right elsewhere in the West, yet myriad U.S. conservatives believe it amounts to "tyranny."

But opposition to gun control does not merely reflect deep-seated suspicion of regulation by "big government." Many among the staunchest supporters of gun rights believe that armed patriots might have to rise up against the federal government in the future -- not tomorrow, maybe not a decade, but someday. In their eyes, the Second Amendment will never be anachronistic because it embodies the enduring spirit of the American Revolution and the possibility of battling for freedom. Sharron Angle, the Nevada Republican who lost a close senatorial race against Harry Reid in 2010, illustratively identified "Second Amendment remedies," meaning armed rebellion, as a recourse against "a tyrannical government."

At the dawn of the 21st century weapons are deadlier than ever, yet scores of Americans think that ordinary citizens should have access to semi-automatic rifles akin to those used by military troops, not to mention handguns. To a degree, crime in the United States is what economists call a "negative externality," namely an indirect social cost of something else. Gun violence is largely an externality of lax control. Yet, to some Americans, that is manifestly a small price to pay for the right to bear arms and to remain free from the oppression of the federal government.