Given the frequent prevalence of horrifying gun incidents in the United States, I am often asked to explain American gun culture. Especially here in East Asia, the idea that people in an advanced country like the US would be willing to live with the daily risk of being shot is hard for many to understand. So let me try to explain.
The first thing to understand is the law. In the US, the constitution contains a specific provision called the Second Amendment that refers to the rights of citizens to own weapons. The exact wording of this provision is as follows: “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.”
The US is, in fact, one of only three countries in the world that specifically has a constitutional provision allowing citizens to own weapons. The other two are Mexico and Guatemala, countries that have historically tried to mimic elements in the US constitution.
Although the wording of the Second Amendment would appear to dictate that the right to bear arms is intended to occur within the context of the maintenance of a militia, the modern interpretation is that this provision extends to the right of any citizen, even if he or she is not associated with a militia.
To some, this interpretation is debatable since the Second Amendment was established within the context of the American Revolution, a time in which militias from different states fought to overthrow British rule. Nevertheless, the modern interpretation is one that has been established legally through precedents in court cases such as United States vs. Miller.
Money is the second thing to consider. The sale of guns and ammunition is a huge industry in the US, valued at around $50 billion. Over 11 million guns are manufactured for sale in the US every year, a business that employs about a quarter of a million full-time workers. From the perspective of the gun industry, any idea of banning their products would simply be catastrophic.
To make its voice heard, American gun companies have participated very actively in politics, particularly in recent years. One of the conduits used in this participation is the National Rifle Association, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for pro-gun policies. During the 2016 election cycle, $6.8 billion was spent on all election-related activities. Of this total, the NRA contributed a sizable $419 million.
Adding in direct contributions made by gun companies and other pro-gun associations, the pro-gun lobby accounts for more than 7 percent of all money spent in US politics.
When you consider this money is usually focused and specifically targeted to those races that elect the most influential pro-gun politicians, it becomes apparent how powerful this money can be in promoting and maintaining policies beneficial to gun companies. To put things into perspective, pro-environmental lobbies in the US contribute less than 0.5 percent of all campaign money.
A third consideration is personal safety. The sad truth is that there are many areas in the US that are not safe. These areas are often populated by minorities and poorly policed by law enforcement officers.
As was shown in graphic detail in a recent BBC feature by Louis Theroux, these neighborhoods can be afflicted by so much violence that even single mothers will carry guns, sometimes placing one in each room in case they are needed to protect the children. This is not fiction but the reality of people living in these communities.
The guns purchased by these people are, of course, sold by the aforementioned gun companies. There are many who believe the politicians elected with pro-gun money work to actively maintain the low security of poorer neighborhoods so the demand of guns will not be interrupted.
I have yet to see evidence of this claim, but it is at least true that the people from these communities tend to have much less faith in the government as an entity that can protect them, resulting in substantially lower voting rates. This lack of participation makes their voices less likely to be heard in the election process, fueling a cycle of social and political marginalization.
By Justin Fendos
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. -- Ed.