hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 8 January 2016

The Right to Bear Arms

Alphen, Netherlands. 8 January. The Second Amendment of the US Constitution states; “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” (NB: one comma). Last night I watched President Obama make the case on CNN for what are by European standards very modest extensions of background checks in an attempt to reduce the 30,000 or so gun killings each year in the US. As I watched the President make his case to a carefully selected audience I could almost hear Europeans scoffing. Indeed, to most European minds and after several mass killings by gunmen of innocents in America what passes for gun control in the US seems lax in the extreme. However, do Europeans really have the right to scoff so?

The irony with the Second Amendment is that it is in fact an extension of English common law. The 1689 English Bill of Rights came into law shortly after catholic James II was replaced during the Glorious Revolution by the invited (please note that Dutch friends and relatives - invited) protestant William of Orange, who became King William III.  The Bill of Rights suffuses the Second Amendment and in so doing justifies the link between a ‘well-regulated Militia’, and the right of the individual citizen to bear arms. Indeed, the Bill was seen as a safeguard against what the English of 1689 regarded as the danger posed by distant, executive tyranny (???). For that reason the English deliberately established the principle that the right to bear arms was a “natural right to self-defence”, “resistance to oppression”, and a “civic duty to act in concert in the defence of the state”.

In America the right to bear arms was enshrined with the ratification of the US Constitution by eleven states at the Continental Congress of 13 September, 1788. The reason that it was so central to the Constitution was that the young United States had a profound distrust of standing armies. Indeed, so shortly after the defeat of the British and their Hessian allies during the American Revolutionary Wars such armies were seen as tools of tyranny and inimical to the idea of a legitimate force of the citizenry.

Furthermore, for much of its history the United States saw itself as a pioneer country, a frontier state, expansion of which was partly legitimised by the idea that such expansion was the act of legitimate citizens who needed to bear arms to survive. For those who support minimal gun control in the US, led by that most notable of ‘Militias’ the National Rifle Association, this romantic idea of America’s past together with its concept of the responsible citizen goes to the very heart of their idea of being American. Even if, that is, opinion polls suggest a strong swathe of support for Obama’s planned amendment to the Second Amendment.

So, what has all the above got to do with Europe? The American culture of gun ownership is deeply rooted in the mistrust of distant power and big government. As Europeans are subject ever more to distant power and big government an innate mistrust is developing between the governing and the governed. Moreover, as the ‘state’, in whatever form it takes in Europe these days, is seen to fail to provide for the security of the citizen there is a growing perception that Europeans might need to self-organise to protect themselves and their families.

The need to self-organise would be a dangerous shift towards some form of vigilantism. However, it is something I have already heard mentioned in my own Dutch village. The appalling assaults on women by mainly Syrian migrants (yes, Syrian migrants) in Cologne, Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany on New Year’s Eve, compounded by the attempts of the German authorities to first cover up the attacks is compounding a growing sense amongst many non-extreme Europeans that ‘government’ in Europe has lost control and can no longer be trusted to act in their interests.

Another European conceit is that America is awash with guns and Europe not. In fact, small arms flooded into Western Europe in the wake of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkans Wars of the 1990s. Indeed, I could travel a few hours from my Dutch home to the area around Brussels Midi railway station and after a little digging could probably buy a gun.

If Europe is not to go down the same road as the United States and see the emergence of unregulated militias more gun control in and of itself will be insufficient. By failing to regulate the massive influx of mainly young male migrants from societies which through their attitude to women reflect very different cultural assumptions Western Europe in particular will progressively become a frontier ‘state’.

Therefore, it is vital Western European leaders are seen to get a grip of the migrant flows and quickly and modify their collective narrative that somehow all these new arrivals are good for Europe. If they fail to do this and quickly vigilantism will spread quickly. Sadly, history suggests that right-wing thuggery will follow quickly in the vigilantes’ footsteps. That would be disaster for all.

There is one rejoinder to all of the above. Some time ago I was lecturing in the US. At one point a student, who was clearly not the shiniest silver bullet in the magazine, told me in all seriousness that Britain would not have been invaded by the Nazis in 1940 if the British people had had the right to bear arms. Endeavouring to suppress a smile I pointed out that Britain had not been invaded in 1940 precisely because Britain had at the time a very well-regulated and powerful ‘Militia’ – the Royal Air Force!

Julian Lindley-French                 

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