The terms of the Second Amendment to the American Constitution seem clear enough. The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Case closed then, at least for Americans? Well actually no, or at least, not so fast. There is now a mass shooting in The United States every two months. Not everybody is happy. I shudder when I think of what could happen if a madman with a rifle were occupy one of the gothic towers which dominate the campus of the university from which I graduated. I am not alone in being fearful. There are now millions of responsible Americans, among them President Obama, who think that The Constitution has been misunderstood, or that it should be changed. There is consequently a passionate debate about guns in America.
Americans are at their best when they are arguing. When Americans are agreeing with one another, about Mom, about apple pie ( in truth usually too sweet and not a strong point of American cuisine!), and about baseball they can be very bland. But debates among Americans are always interesting. For us in Ireland the debate about gun control in The United States seems strange. Here the “decommissioning” of weapons was rightly seen as a move away from political tyranny. But in The United States there are serious voices who argue that the private ownership of firearms is crucial for the preservation of political freedom.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter the debate in American about “gun control” is culturally rich. It involves constitutional principles, legal interpretation, history, criminology, sociology, and psychology. Consequently it is a textbook example of how Americans go about reconciling the terms of their constitution with the practical realities. As such it is of importance to all those who wish to understand The United States; but it also holds lessons for us as we prepare for our own referendum about the clash between the right to life, and right to autonomy.