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Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany

The Constitutional Right to Carry Guns


By Andrian Kreye

Translated By Ron Argentati

18 December 2012

Edited by Gillian Palmer


Germany - Süddeutsche Zeitung - Original Article (German)

Seen from the “Old World,” the United States of America is hard to understand: Speeding and smoking have been de facto done away with, and prostitution nearly so. But carrying a gun is considered a fundamental right, despite more than 10,000 shooting deaths annually. But this time, children were among the victims — the highest price a society can pay.

The United States is a strange country. It is the place where the head of the organization “Gun Owners of America” — shortly after the grade school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut — publicly said that now was the time to abolish the ban on guns in schools. If the teachers and other school personnel had been armed, he said, they could have stopped the shooter. It is also the country in which conservative politician Mike Huckabee said in a television appearance that the massacre happened because people had driven God out of public schools.

From the European point of view, it is perfectly clear: Why is America discussing stronger gun control laws at all? The discussion should be about a total ban on gun ownership. That may sound presumptuous, but it is not all that far-fetched.

Since the start of the 20th century, the United States has undertaken five major prohibition actions; two of them worked quite well. If one looks at each individual case, one can understand why America finds it so difficult to simply ban guns.

The attempts to regulate drinking and sex did not work so well. Prohibition of alcohol was passed by the U.S. Senate on January 16, 1919 in the form of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. It now ranks as one of the most momentous political miscalculations ever made in the history of Western civilization. Those 13 dry years laid the groundwork for a shadow economy in which the routes of American alcohol smugglers created an organized crime infrastructure that now spans all five continents.

Nothing Is Better for Illegal Business Than a General Prohibition

There is a reason why the TV series “Boardwalk Empire” — a series about the relationship between politics and organized crime during the 1920s — begins with a lavish champagne party thrown by Atlantic City Mafiosi to celebrate the start of prohibition. There is nothing better for an illegal business than a general prohibition.

The lawmakers were not especially keen on going after commercial or just plain sinful sex. The moral offensive began in 1873, when prudish Postmaster General Anthony Comstock made it illegal to send “obscene, lustful and lascivious” materials through the mail. These days, it is mainly prostitution that is attacked in all states except for Nevada — which in turn has created an underground economy that has been a lot more profitable at the expense of the prostitutes and their johns than it has in countries like Germany or Holland, for example, which have discovered a bureaucratic approach to the sex trade.

The prohibitions against speeding and smoking worked well. The law lowering the national speed limit to 55 miles per hour, introduced during the 1973 oil crisis, was intended to improve gas mileage and thereby loosen the stranglehold OPEC nations had on American drivers. But that proved to be a miscalculation: The effective savings amounted to less than one percent, but the number of annual traffic deaths sank by 10,000, an improvement of some 18 percent. Those figures changed America's views. “Coasting” and “cruising” seem to be the American way of driving now, while “speeding” is pretty much restricted to the German autobahn.

The gentle prohibition of smoking, however, worked best. It was a gradual process that began with education about smoking's health effects. Then a series of damage suits in the courts cost the tobacco industry billions of dollars, but above all hurt tobacco's image.

The prohibition soon followed. First, smoking in public buildings was banned, then in pubs, bars, in rental property, on beaches, in pedestrian zones and in the vicinity of schools. At the same time, the tobacco tax was increased to the point where a package of cigarettes in New York costs nearly $12 today.

All these elements resulted in a new social consensus. Smoking may not be against the law, but it is considered a social vice. The once cool practice is now seen as vulgar. The term “cigarette breath” is used to describe an unpleasant person in the U.S. media. And since a healthy lifestyle has become a hallmark of the educated class, the cigarette today is seen as the double yellow center line on loser's highway.

Purely Ideological Crusades Hardly Ever Succeed in Western Society

The war on drugs, declared by President Nixon in 1971, has to be ignored at this point because it paints such different and complex issues as marijuana and crystal meth with the same brush.

What is shown by the failed attempts to prohibit drinking and sex, compared to the successful reductions in speeding and smoking, is that they are part of a chain that ends not with a law but with a societal change in consensus that disapproves of them.

Purely ideological crusades hardly ever succeed in Western society, but instead result in political polarization. Anthony Comstock's “New York Society for the Suppression of Vice” was considered a collection of prudes and fanatical loonies, even back in 19th century America's Victorian era. Abstinence lobbies like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League disappeared along with Prohibition in 1933.

The anti-speeding and anti-smoking initiatives, on the other hand, were the result of social deliberations with concrete conclusions: The cost of speeding and smoking were both far higher than any benefit they produced. Most of the traffic deaths were among young people. The cost of smoking was precisely calculated by the Center for Disease Control a couple of years ago to be $167 billion to the economy, made up of $75 billion in medical treatment costs and $62 billion in productivity losses.

More Than 10,000 Americans Die by Gunfire Every Year

One might then conclude that the data supporting better gun laws would also be significant — over 10,000 fatalities annually compared to commonly less than 100 in European countries. And the bizarre phenomenon of mass murder is directly related to gun control laws. In Australia, the government initiated stricter gun laws after a mass shooting in 1996. In the 18 years prior to the enactment of those laws, there had been 13 mass shootings; in the ensuing years, not a single one.

But the proposed bills in the U.S. Congress went nowhere because the gun lobby was always successful in diverting the debate to a moral level, the basis of which was always the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which gave the people the right to have a militia and bear arms.

To be sure, the clause dates from the year 1791, when there was a real danger that King George III might try to wrest the breakaway colonies back into the British Empire. Thus one can easily come to the conclusion that whoever is against the right to keep and bear arms is also against the idea of American freedom and liberty. These are the most precious of all blessings they enjoy. Entire generations have been willing to lay down their lives over the past 200 years for them.

The Newtown massacre, however, has introduced a new component into the mixture. It was little children who died this time; the death of a child is the highest price any society can pay. Barack Obama now has a narrow window in which to make his own calculations. They will not concern the monetary cost to American society or the U.S. economy. But perhaps the emotional costs involved in Newtown are too great to let the gun debate be reduced to moral ideals.



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