The horrific killing of 26 people, most of them small school children, in a peaceful Connecticut town has revived the debate over the widespread ownership of guns in America. In a scene tragically repeated in other U.S. communities – Aurora, Colorado, Tucson, Arizona and Blacksburg, Virginia, to name but three – a troubled young man with a powerful weapon went on a senseless rampage, leaving death and shattered lives in its wake.
Such incidents aren’t unknown elsewhere in the world. Shortly before the Newtown, Connecticut, killings, a knife-wielding man in central China injured 22 children and one adult at a primary school. In 2010, a gunman went from town to town in northwestern England killing 12 people and wounding 11 others. The apparent frequency of such events in the United States, however, has identified them as a distinctly American problem, one rooted in the seeming ease with which individuals, even those mentally ill, can obtain deadly weapons to act out their rage.
Americans have a long and complicated relationship with firearms. Millions own guns for sport such as target shooting, for hunting, for self-defense or as a hobby, collecting interesting or antique weapons like others collect postage stamps. Linking guns with violence and crime, millions more are threatened by the practice, one they say is outdated and dangerous in an increasingly urbanized nation.
This tension stems from the fact that in America, gun-ownership is a right that can be restricted, but not banned. Influenced by the English Bill of Rights and the experience of the American Revolution, our Founding Fathers codified the prerogative of Americans to defend themselves by keeping and bearing arms as the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
As the First Amendment, only the freedoms of assembly, speech, the press and separation of church and state were accorded greater precedence. Moreover, as federal and state governments over time moved in various ways to tighten restrictions on guns, the underlying right to possess them has been reaffirmed repeatedly by our nation’s highest court.
Understandably, the Newtown shootings have spurred calls for additional restrictions, if not the outright ban on firearms many seek. That Connecticut’s already tight gun laws failed to prevent the rampage only seems to have stirred the debate. Reformers want stricter controls on the kind of high-power rifle and large ammunition clip used in the shootings. Some gun-rights advocates, on the other hand, argue that controls should be loosened; that if Newtown school officials had been armed they could have better defended small children who couldn’t defend themselves.
Meanwhile, the nation grieves, and President Obama has promised to use whatever power his office holds to prevent more such tragedies.