Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Have gun will live

Americans who can afford to buy a handgun to defend them can now sleep tightly after the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed the right of every American citizen to own a handgun for self-defence under the Second Amendment. The high court’s decision is a big blow to gun control advocates, but hardly sends a feeble message to criminals that their days are numbered.

Without a doubt, banning handguns makes the right to self-defence a practical nullity. It makes sense, for how can you protect yourself from an armed criminal who is about to hurt you or rob your home if you don’t have a gun to defend yourself? Having a gun at home also makes you feel more secure, another luxury that buying a gun provides.

The only trouble with this argument is that it is a great myth perpetuated by the gun industry. Gun ownership to deter crime is stranger than fiction. There are many unintended consequences that can happen when people buy guns for self-defence.

Studies by public health professionals have repeatedly shown that having guns around for any reason increases the likelihood that a family member, as opposed to the criminal, will be injured or killed by a gun. According to a 1997 study published by the American Journal of Public Health, family members who have a history of buying a handgun were twice as likely to die in a suicide or homicide as were persons who had no such family history of buying guns.

The New England Journal found that having a gun in the home made it nearly three times more likely that someone in the family will be killed. This risk is particularly high for women, who are more likely to be killed by a spouse, an intimate acquaintance or a close relative. According to the Archives of Internal Medicine, with one or more guns in the home, the risk of suicide among women increased nearly five times and the risk of homicide increased more than three times.

It reminded me of a TV special I watched a few nights ago about “The Model and the Millionaire,” a documentary on the killing of Rose Keller by her soon-to-be ex-husband, Fred Keller, and seriously injuring her brother Wolfgang. Fred was a multimillionaire real estate businessman from Florida; Rose, his young wife, was a former model from Germany. After seven years into their marriage, Rose decided to divorce Fred and demanded half of his wealth estimated to be more than $50 million. Fred was adamant not to give even a cent to his wife and boasted that he would never lose in the divorce suit. A day after the divorce judgment was handed down in favour of Rose, they met in his office, along with Rose’s brother Wolfgang to discuss the turnover of half of Fred’s business to Rose. Wolfgang’s cell phone rang and as he was pulling it out from his pocket, Fred thought he saw a gun and immediately drew his pistol from the drawer of his table and started shooting. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, Fred was finally convicted of murder in the second trial.

A frequently asked question is, how about people using guns successfully to protect themselves from criminal acts? Most studies have found that guns play a relatively minor role in preventing crime but a major role in facilitating it. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that on the average, between 1987 and 1992, only one per cent of actual or attempted victims of violent crimes, or about 60 people, attempted to defend them with a firearm. On the other hand, criminals armed with handguns committed a record 93,000 violent crimes in 1992.

FBI data on crime in the United States also reveal that in 1998, every time a civilian used a handgun to kill in self-defence, 50 people lost their lives in handgun homicides alone.

Perhaps, the five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who affirmed the right to possess a handgun for self-defence need a serious reality check. A legal right, enshrined in the Second Amendment, is useless if the weight of social evidence says it does not result in preventing crimes or it is not an effective tool for protection against a criminal act. What this right merely accomplishes is that it gives the gun industry a big boost to continue production of weapons of destruction. It also delivers the wrong message that in order for a person to live, one must be able to defend oneself against a criminal act, and buying a handgun is the best way to achieve it. And when does the right to live hang on to the ability to buy a handgun?

The right to have a handgun for self-defence is also inherently discriminatory against the poor who have no means to buy a gun, let alone the ability to feed a family or save enough for their monthly rent. A semi-automatic revolving pistol, the handgun of choice or even a derringer or a Taser gun for women, is beyond the means of a poor person. So, what is left to a poor man to defend him but perhaps, sticks or knives or spears or axes? If these are the only tools available to him, does he have the right to possess them for the purpose of self-defence? Is this right equally protected by the Second Amendment?

One of the most basic responsibilities of the state is to ensure the safety of its citizens. To let civilians shoulder even a part of this responsibility will lead to a proliferation of guns; by all means, a recipe for lawlessness. There is validity in the argument that when a state has failed to restrict self-defence through gun control or restrictions, the state violates the human right to life to the extent that it allows the defensive use of a firearm, unless the action was necessary to save a life or lives. Firearms can be used defensively only in the most extreme circumstances, such as when the right to life is already threatened or unjustifiably infringed. Even law enforcement officers should be judged upon this standard when using force in line of duty.

In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed a report prepared by its Special Rapporteur Barbara Frey, a professor of law of the University of Minnesota, which would require national governments under international human rights law to implement various gun restrictions and, in essence, provides the minimum gun control standards that governments must meet. It will unlikely be ratified by the United States’ Senate, especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken in favour of unrestricted possession of handguns. A scholarly and valuable paper prepared for the benefit of mankind will most likely rot away in the unread stacks of the United Nations library.

Every gun owner in America should be thankful not to the Second Amendment nor to the five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court but to Samuel Colt, the man behind the world’s first mass-produced revolving handgun, for he alone with his bullet-firing machine, “made all men equal.”

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