While watching a news story about the tragic shooting at a Sikh temple in the US the other day, my friend turned to me and asked “Why doesn’t Obama just make guns illegal?” It’s an understandable question. But knowing what I do about US politics (which isn’t a great deal, but it’s enough for me to get by), I simply replied “Well, the second amendment and all that, you know?” The blank look on her face told me that she didn’t, in fact, know. And so began my idea for this blog’s topic.
Let’s start from the top:
“What is the American Constitution?”
The American Constitution is the supreme law in the US, written in one (verrry long) document.
“And it’s been around since when?”
It first came into effect in 1789, although amendments have been made since then.
“Can it be changed? Like, by the President?”
Not easily. For an amendment to be made, it requires the okay from the Supreme Court (judges who guard the Constitution nearly as carefully as Frodo guarded the ring). A series of majorities is needed for a proposal to change the Constitution from Congress and States alike. It is do-able, of course – there have been a total of 27 amendments to date – but it’s not the simplest of processes. A normal statute law passed by the administration (the president, that is), is not enough to change the constitution.
“Okayyy, so going back to the original point, what is the second amendment? Why is that the reason for Obama not being able to illegalise guns?”
The second amendment is the right to bear arms. It says “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 other words, every American can have a gun if they jolly well want to. Nothing about that is illegal, until they actually shoot someone.
“Given the recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, is there a chance that proposals are gonna be made to change the second amendment?”
Probably not, to be honest. Although there will be some people in the US calling for that (as they hope it’ll reduce gun crime), there will also be a lot of people who won’t be. Many Americans hold on tightly to what they call their rights and liberties (“land of the free”, remember?), and so would see any change to the second amendment as an attack on those. It is really rather unlikely that a proposal will be made any time soon; as you’d be hard-pressed to get the majorities needed in the current mood of the US. Also, as presidential campaigns are taking place at present, politicians won’t want to push anything controversial that could result in them losing votes.
“So how come guns are illegal in the UK?”
Because we don’t have a Constitution that illega-
“WAIT, what?! We don’t have a Constitution?”
We don’t have a written Constitution. We have an unwritten one, which is far less binding and more flexible than a written one. It’s made up from some long-standing British conventions, as well as statute and common law, and documents like the Magna Carta.
“Oh, and nothing in our unwritten Constitution says we have a right to bear arms without infringement from the Government?”
Correct. And after the Dunblane school massacre in 1996, the public and the media drove petitions calling for a ban on private ownership of handguns. There was an official enquiry, and by 1997, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act 1997 were enacted, effectively outlawing guns for the average Brit. Since then, we’ve never looked back. The acts were of course, statute law, meaning that Parliament simply passed them through, and should times and public mood change, parliament can reverse them. In my opinion, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon though. I don’t think the UK public has a strong desire for the legalisation of guns again, as our reasonable lack of gun crime reinforces our belief that it is what’s best for our nation. Maybe one day in the (far?) future the US will follow suit, but for the time being our opinions on the issue are different, and I guess that’s all that can be said. Each to their own, maybe?
*End of imaginary interview. I hope that it’s made some sense to you, and you understand a little more about the implications of written or unwritten Constitutions in the US and UK. Apologies if what I’ve written about US politics isn’t 100% accurate, but I’ve tried to explain everything to the best of my knowledge as an English teenager who just enjoys watching The West Wing from time to time*
Small addition I’d like to make: I found this article http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/08/09/cnn-poll-gun-control-opinions-in-wake-of-shootings/ after writing this blog entry, and it’s an interesting insight to exactly what the opinion polls in America are saying about the topic of gun control, especially after the shootings. Read it if you wish to explore further into this issue.