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US gun control — a time of hope?

15 February 2013

The Newton killings have given impetus to the anti-gun lobby, says Bill Countryman

IN THE aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, we seem to have a new opportunity in the United States to restrict the availability of guns. The state of New York, prodded by its Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has taken a lead in passing stricter legislation, but broader progress depends on the President, and Congress. The President is showing new determination in the matter; Congressional agreement is still uncertain.

People in other countries are justifiably perplexed at how difficult it is for the US to curb so clear a public danger. Some of the reasons are historical; others are political. The nation originated, after all, in a revolution, expanded along a chaotic frontier, and remained strongly rural during its formative period. Guns are a part of our culture. My rural relatives have always had guns - and still have. They are not dogmatic on the subject; they simply need them to protect their farm animals from predators such as marauding coyotes.

The second amendment, added to the Constitution in 1789, specified 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."

With its plethora of commas, the text is not entirely clear. But its original context was a new nation with little in the way of a standing army or organised police force. The need for some sort of organised group to respond in public emergencies was met by militias, composed of men who provided their own weapons. The National Guard is a modern equivalent, but no one expects its members to supply their own arms. The problem is, thus, how to interpret a provision framed in terms of the 18th century in a modern context.

The political situation today makes this even more difficult. The National Rifle Association (NRA) interprets the amendment expansively. Not everyone who owns a gun would agree. But the NRA is heavily funded by gun manufacturers, and it serves their interests at least as much as those of gun-owners. It has a significant public presence, and spends heavily to influence elections and to lobby Congress.

Another political factor inhibiting effective gun control is the Christian Right - or, at least, its Evangelical component. This group is particularly strong in the South and Midwest, where it has been the close ally of the Republican Party since the time of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, its influence is the main reason why opposition to legal abortion and to marriage for gay and lesbian people has become an important element in the platform of a party that a few decades ago was more interested in fiscal conservatism.

Although it seems odd that Christians should actively favour gun-ownership, the Christian Right represents not only a theological position, but a particular, alienated segment of the population. Guns, for these people - who are mostly white, although Evangelicals of colour share some of their other concerns - are as much a part of their social consensus as opposition to abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and the increasing separation of religion from public life.

On the other side of the conflict stand the majority of Democrats, and, increasingly, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and mainstream Protestant leaders. There is more hope of progress than I can remember at any point in my lifetime. Nevertheless, past attempts to restrict ownership of guns - even of assault weapons - have not met with great success. The President, and other advocates of gun control, if they are to succeed, will have to seize the moment before the memory of Newtown fades.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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