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America and the Gun: Choosing Between Freedom and Security

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In a letter to John Cartright in 1824, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[t]he Constitution … assert[s] that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.”

These words were penned at a time when power and security in post-Revolutionary America were foremost on political agendas. Today, those concepts resonate piercingly and deeply permeate American society. From the tip of the pyramid down to ground level of the American public, avid believers in power and security, and avid defenders of the Second Amendment are everywhere to be found.

The history of America is rife with violence, the use of firearms, and yet a preference for freedom and liberty, over security. The most recent event of gun violence in a Lakeland, Florida school on Valentine’s Day marks yet another notch in the belt of a long list of gun violence in America; President Trump’s response: arming teachers in the classroom, as if they were soldiers or security guards. The President’s comments coincided with sharp retort by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the wake of new waves of anti-gun calls. NRA chief Wayne LaPierre backed Trump’s proposal referring to “anti-gun” advocates as haters of individual freedom and haters of the Second Amendment.

The Second Amendment has been a cornerstone of America and American identity for over 200 years, and occupies a marked place in America’s cultural DNA. Yet, the paradox of American mentality is that the steadfast defence of this particular facet of freedom runs headlong in the desire to be secure. Indeed, in choosing freedom, Americans have made security a mere footnote in story of the American project. A second-tiered contradiction lies in America’s ordering of national security over individual freedom that has led to immense federal power and power overreach. Even back when John Adams was in the White House, the Sedition Act of 1798 was signed into law, treading on the sacred First Amendment.

In spite of the friction and mixed messages resonating from various levels of American society, people have again come to question the indispensability of the Second Amendment. What Americans continue to neglect, even after so many mass shootings that have yielded a terrible toll in human life, the cost of freedom. In so doing, they have inadvertently cast security aside, favoring a strand of freedom that in actuality has committed Americans to being less free than they seemingly desire, and less free than hundreds of millions of peoples in other countries around the world.

In essence, Americans’ conviction in the Second Amendment, the right to defend themselves and their families, has come to represent one of the most notable threats to both freedom and security in America. The omnipresent obsession in a constitutional right has clouded over what we know and have proven time and time again that gun ownership shares a caustic relationship with public safety.

What Trump has characterized as part of the answer to gun violence accentuates the American constitutional obsession, a failure to look beyond philosophical reflections in favor of more practical accounts of freedom and security. Moreover, it ignores an overabundance of clear and unambiguous data that the availability guns, from semi-automatic pistols to automatic rifles, has resulted in some of the world’s deadliest public shootings – primary venues being schools, stores and restaurants, offices, places of worship, military bases, and night clubs. Targets and unintended victims alike have been peoples of all stripes, including men, women, and children, women with unborn children, travelers and vacationers, law enforcement officers, and military personnel.

The greatest threats to American society and the human security of Americans, including its traditions and values, exist in illusive form, and the problems extend from the supposed values that are being defended. While the gun ownership debate in America has become an intractable problem, the general debate can be recast by addressing the idea of freedom in America and what exactly constitutes freedom. For some, freedom means the right to bear arms; but another dimension of the freedom argument is the idea of being free from something.

Coupled with the misunderstanding that freedom cannot be exclusively measured in terms of what one has, the concept in both conceptual and practice terms can be measured by what one does not have. Freedom and security can be obtained through the resource of knowledge, education, and awareness. In the wake of Trump’s calls for arming teachers in classrooms, awareness has begun that the best possible defense against an armed assault is an armed defense. As if bullets flying across the classroom and down the halls were not bad enough, students and those living the terrifying reality of public shootings elsewhere could be caught in even deadlier crossfires. Shoot back – this is the message being delivered by the leader of a free, secure, and democratic America.

Firearms will always have an important place in societies and the defense of the complex societal fabrics of nations; however, the hands of civilians are not one of them. Modification to the Second Amendment so that it fits with what Americans seek would not be injurious to American democracy, nor would it infringe on what Americans value inherently. Rather, it would have the opposite effect. Indeed, the strengthening of American democracy can emerge by asking difficult questions, and revisiting what it is that offers Americans both the freedom and security that they value so much. This entails a closer look at the philosophical vs. practical characteristics of American society, possibly departing from the former in favor of the latter. As American politician Bob Barr remarked, “[i]t’s not a gun control problem; it’s a cultural control problem.”


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Scott N. Romaniuk

Scott N. Romaniuk

Scott N. Romaniuk is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of International Studies, University of Trento, Italy. His research bridges International Relations, Critical Security, and Peace and Conflict Studies. He is the Editor of Democracy and Civil Society in a Global Era (2016), Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War (2015), The Future of US Warfare (2017), and The Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Policy (2017).

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