On a wing and a prayer

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 June, 2008, 12:00am

America's and Americans' fascination with guns never ceases to amaze, particularly the belief that, if everyone carried one, the whole nation would be safer. Don't these people understand that guns are weapons of death and the fewer people who have them the better, the safer society will be, and the fewer deaths there will be?

Apparently not: the US Supreme Court is about to deliver a verdict that, pundits predict, will declare that Washington's ban on the possession of handguns is unconstitutional, backing a federal appeals court judgment that the ban violates the Second Amendment.

Apparently not: a popular programme on CNN recently did an expose, claiming that only 1 per cent of almost 30,000 flights a day landing or taking off from the US had armed federal air marshals on board and pleading for more armed guards for the safety of passengers.

The gun lobby told the Supreme Court that the Second Amendment gives individuals the unassailable right to own guns. The amendment is so clumsily written that any junior editor would immediately demand that it be rewritten to make its meaning clear. It declares:

'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.' In the versions passed by the American states, the word 'people' also got a capital 'P' and 'militia' and 'arms' were relegated to a small 'm' and 'a', respectively.

The question that has bothered lawmakers and judges is what has primacy in this proposition: the militia and the security of the free state, or the individual's right to bear arms - or, as the National Rifle Association and other supporters have put it, to own guns?

An ordinary person might think that bearing arms conveys the suggestion of a duty linked to service in the militia - pick up your musket to defend the common cause. If the amendment merely meant to permit gun ownership, why mention the militia at all, or even the security of the state? That person might also notice that the US of 220 years ago, when the amendment was first discussed, was a vastly different place from today.

It was a frontier society with animal and human predators at many doors, not to mention the unspeakable British, who had only just gone away to lick their wounds and would be back in 1812 to burn down the White House. The fledgling United States had just begun its westward expansion, in which the power of the gun was instrumental in winning over the new territory.

In addition, the early state depended on the citizen soldier, and a standing army was regarded as a drain on the budget, as well as a potential threat to the civilian populace.

But the US Constitution is such holy writ - and the Second Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, and comes immediately after the First Amendment, which enshrines the right to free speech - that no one would dare to say that times have changed and that the right to possess guns should be examined from the perspective of society in 2008, not in 1790.

In their questions, most judges harked back to the original intention of the amendment, though Justice Stephen Breyer did point out that most places now have a police force to keep law and order, and that 80,000 to 100,000 Americans die or are wounded each year in gun-related murders, crimes, accidents or suicides. Indeed, there are some telling statistics: each day, eight US children die in gun incidents; in the last 45 years, more Americans have died from gunshot wounds at home than the total American dead in all the wars of the 20th century; each year, nine times as many people die because of guns than were killed in the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, prompting the black thought that Osama bin Laden's terrorist tactics are mistaken: if he wants to be most effective, he should really be giving guns to Americans to let them kill themselves.

That's not how the National Rifle Association sees it; and some gun fanatics accuse it of betraying the cause because it supported background checks on potential gun owners and controls on gun types.

If the gun lobby is right, then America should be a safer place than, say, Europe or Japan, which have strict controls to stop gun proliferation. But, gun-related deaths in the US are eight times that of Europe and more than 280 times those in Japan, per 100,000 people.

Of course, if Americans want to turn their cities into killing fields, that is their business. But, in the case of air travel, the US government has insisted on inflicting its passion for guns on anyone who travels to the US or on American aircraft in the form of flying armed air marshals.

When this mad measure was first planned, it was assumed that, to be effective, the armed marshals would have to be the third arm of the crew, after the pilots and cabin crew, and subject to the same regime of work and rest as the flight crew.

Evidently, it would have been too expensive to equip all flights with marshals and guns. The US authorities deny that as few as 1 per cent of fights are armed with air marshals, calling the claim 'a myth' and hinting that maybe 5 per cent have marshals, but stressing that the 'high-risk' flights are covered.

If the US authorities can identify any flight as 'high risk', they should make sure that no one gets on it with a gun, not even an air marshal.

The chief of one of the world's most successful airlines described guns on board as 'madness'. He said: 'Our aim should be to keep the bad guys off the flights, not to give them an opportunity to seize guns brought on board. Guns kill and, at 33,000 feet, they are highly dangerous.' He raised the obvious question of who guards the air marshals: 'You only need one headbanger or nutcase, or a man who's had an argument with his wife, and passengers may be in more danger from the air marshal.'

Sure enough, there have been hundreds of reports of misconduct, including one who pulled his gun on a man for stealing his parking slot.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator