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Wednesday 17 January 2001

The Second Amendment

The Constitution is the supreme law of the United States.  Written in 1790 to codify the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers of the USA, a number of Amendments were immediately tacked on to satisfy various issues that were raised in Congress while debating the document.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads 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.

That’s all it says.

The popular argument these days is that the Second Amendment is a relic, an antique from the days when there was serious concern that the Crown would attempt to regain control of the U.S., and that "militia" is synonymous with "army reserve".   This is what the official government position generally holds to.

Balderdash, on both counts.

A "militia" is just what you think of when you hear the word, if you’re an American — a bunch of guys in the woods muttering about the government and polishing their guns.

And remember that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written fourteen years after American independence — it’s got nothing to do with the Crown.

The reference is not to "the security of the United States", but to "the security of a free state".  The Second Amendment provides for the people’s ability to overthrow three government should it become tyrannical.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights reads, in part:

[…]government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation or community; of all the various modes and forms of government that is best, which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that, whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

While the Virginia Declaration of Rights has no legal force outside Virginia, it’s instructive to remember that the people who set up the U.S. government were, largely, Virginians.  George Mason, who, more than any other single person, wrote the U.S. Constitution, also wrote the D. of R.  This helps to show the frame of mind in which they were operating when they wrote the Second Amendment.

They did not see the government, or the state, of being necessarily worthy of preservation; rather, they valued the state of freedom that the government was set up to foster.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that we overthrow the government on a regular basis (for "light and transient causes" as it says in the Declaration of Independence)!   But if there had been 100,000 armed citizens standing on East Capitol Street in December 2000, the Supreme Court might have rendered a more reasoned decision, rather that appointing George W. Bush president.

A lot of people will accept the above argument, but still say that gun control is worthwhile, because:

  1. The armed forces of the United States are, collectively, the single greatest assemblage of brute power ever seen on the face of the Earth and so 100,000 rednecks with guns on the Capitol steps do not actually represent a threat; and
  2. Gun control is worthwhile anyway because a whole lot of people get killed in the U.S. because there are so many guns.

I would answer by pointing out that it’s very rare, outside of certain towns, to see a soldier on duty in public in the USA.  Soldiers (the Department of Defense’s new word for them is "warfighter", but whatever) do not perform police duties in the United States, and I’ve never, ever seen one in public with anything more than a sidearm.  I think that Americans would react very negatively to the sight of soldiers on the streets.  Never mind that those soldiers are citizens too, and have their own political opinions.  Governments that use the army to put down popular rebellion often find themselves on the wrong end of their own army’s guns.

And as for gun control saving lives or reducing crime, it just doesn’t wash.  Most of the highest-crime areas in the United States are also the areas with the strictest gun control laws.  It’s almost totally impossible to own or possess a gun in Washington, D.C., for instance, but Washington’s got one of the worst — if not the worst — crime rates in the country.

I’ll admit that that’s a weak argument, though, because it’s likely that the more crime-ridden a place is, the more people are likely to want tough gun control laws.

(For this to be effective, the would-be criminal has to respect the law banning guns.  Criminals, by definition, do not respect the law — which is why I don’t understand how gun control laws are supposed to accomplish anything.  Killing or injuring someone is illegal, whether you do it with a gun or with a pointed stick.)

But if we compare the United States as a whole to Canada as a whole, we find some interesting figures.

In 1999, there were 291,330 "violent crimes" in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.  The population of Canada in 2000 (I couldn’t find 1999) was 30,750,087.

In 1999, there were 2,530,000 "violent crimes" in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.  The population of the United States in 1999 was 272,700,000, according to the Bureau of the Census.

(I would have much preferred to use "gun-related crimes" here, but neither country categorizes crimes as such.  Suffice to say that these figures can be used as a barometer for the general level of violence in the two countries.)

The statistics here are skewed slightly in Canada’s favor (i.e. toward less violence) because the population likely increased between 1999 and 2000.  They are skewed in favor of the United States because I have not eliminated the very young, who are seldom victims of violent crime, from the numbers.  The USA, having more people, will have more very young people.

The only apparent difference between what’s considered "violent crime" in Canada and in the United States is that Canada explicitly considers attempted murder to be violent.  I imagine that the FBI sees things the same way, but nowhere do they spell this out.  It would only seem logical that if the police think that you were trying to kill someone, you were doing something violent.

All that said, in 1999 there were 94.7 violent crimes per thousand people in Canada.  In the same year, there were 92.7 violent crimes per thousand people in the U.S., despite the fact that we’ve got more guns down here.  That’s right: contrary to public belief, Canada is actually (slightly) more violent than the United States.  Feel free to check the statistics and do the calculations yourself.  I was surprised, myself.

(I provide links to the source of these statistics on another page.)

That difference is so small as to be meaningless, though; it’s likely that it’s smaller than the error introduced by my using Canada 2000 population data, or that it’s nothing more than the difference between the definition of "violent crime" between the two countries.

Which is my point. Statistically, there is no difference between the rates of violent crime in Canada and the United States. Despite the fact that Canada has much stricter gun control laws — to the point that you spouse or former spouse(s) have to sign your application for a gun license — than the USA (read a précis of Canadian gun laws here), the rates of violent crime are the same.

This is because the gun control laws do not affect the criminals.  When Snake or Bluto or whatever villain you think of sets out on a crime spree, he does not ask himself whether the gun he’s carrying is legal or not; he doesn’t care.  He’s not going to have his spouse(s) sign the damned form.  He’s not going to take the safety class.   The whole point of the gun, to him, is that it isn’t safe — for the person on the other end of the barrel.

Posted by tino at 15:00 17.01.01
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