Letters from America : Beginning the Conversation on Gun Control
Dear Students of Nouakchott,
America is the land of constant controversy. Our young culture has been forged in the flames of our differing opinions, and our freedom to have them. The conversation concerning gun control has continually polarized our society. A lot can be learned about our government, as well as our society, when considering gun control issues and legislation.
The root of the argument for and against gun control measures can be found in The Bill of Rights, which is the collection of the first ten amendments to The Constitution of the United States. Here, we reference The Second Amendment, which states that: 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. Colloquially, The Second Amendment is simply referred to as “the right to bear arms.”
As Americans, we feel entitled to our individual free will. The American Dream romanticizes this entitlement and this expression of individualism with the notion that each one of us can succeed if we work hard enough. But, what happens when we are each working hard toward conflicting goals? Therein lies the unique complexity, and befuddlement, concerning what it means to be an American in America.
But, what about gun control? Well, here is my experience with guns: none. I grew up on the East Coast of the United States in the state of New Jersey, approximately three-thousand miles away from Oregon, where I now attend PCC. Growing up, I only saw police officers carrying guns. I occasionally heard of classmates hunting deer, but that was a rarity. As an adult I lived in New York City for several years, and again, I only ever saw law enforcement carrying weapons. I should note, violent crime is an issue in New York and New Jersey, but I did not, thankfully, experience any first hand. And, that characterizes my understanding of guns/firearms. Largely, in my experience, guns are weapons used by criminals and law enforcement. I recently asked my husband about his childhood experience with guns, for comparison purposes. My husband grew up one state east of Oregon, in Idaho. As an adolescent, he learned how to handle and shoot a gun, as well as learning proper gun safety procedures. It was common for people in his town to personally own many guns. Whereas I never saw guns in anyone’s home growing up, my husband does not remember anyone not having guns in their homes when he was growing up. My American identity was shaped by the understanding that I had the privilege to live in a country where the common person did not have to interact with violent weapons on an everyday basis. My husband grew up in a community where, on average, people considered their right to own firearms a proud part of their American identity, as an expression of their freedom.
Our different experiences speak to the greater conflict concerning gun control in the US. One portion of the population views guns as purely dangerous, while another portion of the population views gun ownership as one of the cornerstones that comprises what it means to be an American. Sadly, this conversation is not purely theoretical. Gun caused fatalities have risen to over thirty thousand deaths per year, since 2010.
In recent history, our nation has sustained enormous tragedies due to gun violence. Some of these mass killings, by one or two gunmen, have happened in schools. While other attacks have taken place in public meeting places such as movie theaters and shopping malls. In all of the cases linked to here, none of the gunmen survived their attacks; often they took their own lives. These cases intersect with another societal issue in the US, mental health. These incidences raise many questions, and we’ve yet to adequately answer them. Should we set a national standard in gun licensing, because perhaps it is too easy to obtain a license, and therefore a gun, in some states? How is our healthcare system failing those with serious mental health issues? How do we protect ourselves and others, do we need better security measures? Should we banish civilian access to automatic assault weapons?
One of the arguments for gun ownership is self-defense. Again, the Second Amendment protects our right to bear arms, and therefore protects our right to defend ourselves against harm. Pro-gun advocates urge that these massacres could have been avoided if more people were carrying guns. Anti-gun advocates argue that less access and ownership of guns would prevent these occurrences. Our rights are protected and regulated by the laws we have put in place to protect the innocent. But again, on the state level, there are some differences in laws and certainly there are differences in how those laws are used. We even see differences in how those laws function within the same state, case in point: Florida.
In my opinion, Florida has been manipulating the interpretation of their laws to rule in favor of inequality. Florida has a law on their books referred to as a “stand your ground” law, which is a law that allows deadly force as a self-defense method. The controversy surrounding such laws lies in the fact that it is hard to dispute a self-defense claim when the other party is deceased. In July of 2013 a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, 29 years old, of second-degree murder due to a self-defense plea. Zimmerman pursued and killed 17 year old, African American, Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed, simply because Zimmerman thought the teenager looked suspicious. This ruling caused immediate outrage nation-wide.
Shortly before the Zimmerman ruling in Florida, another ruling occurred which draws into question, who is the state of Florida protecting with their self-defense laws? Marissa Alexander was given twenty years in prison for firing a warning shot to scare off her abusive husband. She claimed self-defense, but was not allowed to claim a defense using “stand your ground.” In turn, she was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was subjected to Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law sentencing of twenty years, regardless of the fact that she did not harm anyone. Ms. Alexander is a mother of three with no previous record of gun violence; she is also African American.
These cases in Florida illuminate another societal issue that intersects with gun control: racism, and the impact of institutional oppression. It is important to examine America’s immense and complicated history of inequality. The claim that we are “the land of the free” is a claim that not every American has been able experience historically and presently. At the same time, our culture and society also fiercely supports our First Amendment right to free speech. And, while there have been selective hindrances to this right as well, ultimately we are a nation of people who do speak up against injustices. American history is also rich with successful social justice movements that have brought forth important changes in our society, and the work continues.
Students of Nouakchott, I am curious about Mauritania’s gun control laws. I would also like to know about your history of social movements. I am excited to have these intercultural conversations! Thanks so much for engaging with us.