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Is the right to bear arms a right?

Photo illustration by Mathias MacPhee

IT’S A QUESTION that never seems to get answered: Who should have the right to bear arms? The question is hotly contested on a near-nightly basis by some of the big-name newsmakers in the United States, but many Canadians have weighed in on the topic as well. Here, two writers with very different opinions share their thoughts on the right to bear arms.

Education is key

First things first: correlation does not imply causation. Having the right to bear arms does not mean a country will have high firearm-related crime.

The second amendment to the United States Constitution 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.” This amendment was included to ensure that if the newly founded American colonies were attacked, the nation could call upon its citizens to take up arms and protect the land.

A nation relying on a militia made up of its citizens may seem like a romantic notion, but Switzerland has successfully implemented this idea for years. Instead of having a standing army, the Swiss army is made up of citizens forming a people’s militia. Around the age of 20, most Swiss males are expected to undergo basic military training and are then given an army-issued firearm, which they either keep in their home or in a local barrack. According to the Small Arms Survey 2007, Switzerland has the third-highest civilian gun ownership per capita, yet the Swiss have a relatively low crime rate and have remained a neutral country for as long as any of us can remember. So what makes their system work?

Many gun control critics suggest that banning and legislating against firearms is the answer, but I would suggest the opposite. Legislation does little good if the mentalities and culture around the issue cease to change. In the instance of gun control, it is far easier to arm a nation than to disarm one. The key, as the Swiss have demonstrated, is to engrain a sense of pride and responsibility. This is what the authors of the second amendment probably intended.

Where the United States has failed is in allowing the culture around guns to become a “me versus my neighbour” mentality. Legislating against that won’t change how all citizens think—it’ll only upset the law-abiding ones.

The U.S. needs to focus on educating their citizens about responsible gun ownership and fostering the idea that they have their guns as a patriotic service to their country. Federally regulated and standardized firearms education would be a good place to start. Perhaps, again as the Swiss do, offer yearly training opportunities. For example, a program run by U.S. Army veterans who could talk and teach from personal experience about the importance of firearms training and safety. Should you be successful in selling the nation on that idea, you could then attempt to introduce a licensing system which would ensure that the licensed individual be of fit mind and body—making them capable of responsible gun ownership.

In a country like the United States, where gun ownership is accepted as a right of citizens, the act of removing that right and in turn questioning the country’s constitution would fail miserably. Worst case, the act of attempting to control violence through the removal of a right would only incite additional violence.

The problem is not that the country is armed, but that they are uneducated. Educate the population: talk to them—not at them—about their responsibilities as American citizens, and then you will begin to see change. This is a problem that has to be dealt with from the bottom up. So let’s start the proper conversation.

—Kyle Hansford

Fewer guns, fewer deaths

The right to keep and bear arms as stated in the United States Bill of Rights’ Second Amendment just doesn’t make sense. The second amendment is a mere 27 words long: “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.” Regardless of the intention of that statement, all we can go on are the concrete results. And the results of Americans having the right to keep and bear arms have been tragic.

Given that the amendment is so short, its scope has been up for interpretation on many occasions throughout U.S. history. In 2008 and 2010, the court ruled that regardless of service in a militia, individuals have the right to possess a firearm. That is why you see signs outside of American restaurants or banks advertising free guns with your meal or when you open a savings account—everyone has the right to own one.

The statistics regarding gun violence in the States are shocking. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in the United States in 2008, of the approximate 16,000 murders committed, 67 per cent were committed with firearms.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 65 individuals under the age of 15 died from a firearm accident in 2007 in the United States.

And we’ve all heard of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings where 20 children and six adults lost their lives.

Will revoking the right of all citizens to own a firearm put an end to murder? No. Will restricting access to guns make it harder for individuals to commit crimes with multiple victims and tragic results? Yes. In the democracy in which we live, I truly do not understand why the average citizen needs to possess a weapon that can easily put an end to a life.

I am not in fear of the Canadian government using the lack of Canadians’ right to bear arms in order to establish a dictatorship or otherwise subvert the democratic system. As much as we joke about Harper taking over, I believe Canadians will unite to get rid of him if he even gets close.

What’s more, walking home alone at 2:30 a.m. after a late night at work makes me uneasy, but having a gun wouldn’t improve my sense of well-being—there are almost no conceivable situations in which I could ever shoot someone, even if I had the proper training—and when I sit down and think about it, I actually feel better knowing that there’s a good chance anyone I encounter on the street late at night doesn’t have a gun either.

To me, it’s common sense: people kill people—and far too often, they’re using guns.

—Ali Schwabe