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The right to bear arms, what it is and what it means for gun control in the United States

Only three countries in the world – Guatemala, Mexico and the United States – have a constitutional right to bear arms. And the idea of self-government for Americans is in the first three words of the Constitution: We the People.

After the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the American Constitution grants its citizens the right to bear arms with the Second Amendment. There have been many interpretations of the 27 words of the Amendment, which descends directly from 1689 English Bill of Rights. Guns have since then been at the heart of the United States’ foundation and identity, considered a symbol of their freedom.

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Grandfather Teaching Grandson to Shoot .22 Rifle © Ryan Houston / Getty Images

The right to bear arms and self-defence

Today Americans own 310,000,000 firearms, making it the first country for civilian gun ownership, the second being Yemen where the rate is half. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. While at the beginning of the 19th century the main reason for gun ownership was hunting, today the first reason people claim is self-defence (60 per cent). This feeling of vulnerability and the need for protection started in the late 1970s. Even though crime rates have dropped about half from their peak in 1991, polls indicate that mass shootings, terrorism and debate over gun control during Obama’s two terms have fueled a perception of high rates of violence in the country and thus fear for personal security. Gallup data (one of the most popular companies conducting polls in the US) shows that in any given year, about one in four Americans say they or someone in their household was victim to a crime, but only 6 per cent or less are victims of violent crimes. This suggests that news media reports probably have more of an effect on Americans’ perceptions of crime in the US than their personal experiences do.

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A Convention goer wears a gun related t-shirt at the143rd NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis © Karen Bleier / Getty Images)

The NRA: from sport association to gun lobby after the 70s

The National Rifle Association (NRA) changed from a hunting and sporting association to a political organisation lobbying for gun rights during what is known today as the “Cincinnati Revolt” of 1977, when the moderate wing and leadership of the association was completely replaced by strong advocates of the right to bear arms essentially for self-defense against criminals and not for hunting. This transformed the narrative around the issue, bringing it to the forefront. The organisation began advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun, rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for common defence.

The gun industry’s way to survive a period of decline in hunting was to sell more handguns that could be concealed and used for personal defence, also exploiting the black civil rights movements for this purpose. Today, one can carry a concealed weapon legally in all 50 states, with very few exceptions. And last week, on Sept, 26th, in Missouri, a Republican-governed state, the law changed allowing citizens to carry concealed guns even without a state gun permit, criminal background check or firearms training.

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A gun shop signage in Las Vegas © Daniel Hernandez / Getty Images

Better background checks and stopping the illegal gun trade

“The thing is that our constitution needs to be a living document, it must reflect the changing times: as it is, it doesn’t reflect the American feeling today on firearms,” according to Craig Nass, a proud American citizen living in New York who is a gun owner. “We need better background checks and to stop the illegal gun trade. It shouldn’t be possible to buy a gun, even handguns or rifles, at trade shows where no background checks are necessary. Today it’s way too easy for a felon or a mentally ill person to buy firearms”.

In New York it isn’t possible to buy shotguns, but with only 2 weeks, 15 dollars and a change of address, Nass was able to legally buy more than one. “I own it for hunting, and in this country, there are many places where you need it to catch your food. I also used it a lot for target shooting, a really popular sport in the US. We have a gun culture, nothing will change this. But I wonder how I would react if anyone entered my property, if I have to defend myself”.

86 per cent of Americans are in favour of a better background checks, using a centralised database across all 50 states, and passing stricter laws on gun control, according a Gallup poll from October 2015. Yet the majority (53 percent) isn’t convinced that such laws would be effective in reducing mass shootings.

Trump and Clinton on guns

The majority of Americans thinks the gun issue will affect their voting behaviour during the upcoming November elections (26 per cent would only vote candidates who share their views on guns, and 54 per cent considers it as one of many important factors). During the debate between Trump and Clinton on Sept, 26th at Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, the 3 main issues at stake were: achieving prosperity, America’s direction and securing America. Discussing on the last point, Trump and Clinton made clear their points on the issue: Clinton strongly believes in better-organized background checks, and in the importance of restoring trust between the communities and the police – she calls for a reform of criminal justice, taking into consideration the existing racist bias into police forces. “And we have to tackle the plague of gun violence, which is a big contributor to a lot of the problems that we’re seeing today”, she stated to close her intervention on the issue. Trump, on the other side, repeated more than once that America today needs law and order – and that there is not even going to be a country without law and order. More police, less illegal immigrants. And he stated he had the endorsement of NRA, of which he was very proud, because “they protect the Second Amendment right”.

Gun control was one of the main subjects of the debate between the candidates and this suggests that these elections will be won by the one who will better interpret and understand people’s biggest concern today: crime and violence. Also Nass is convinced that, besides economy, safety and fear will be very important factors while deciding the new President of the United States.

A complex mix of history, culture, economy and politics is what stands in the way of gun control in the United States and has prevented successful regulation, including President Obama’s recent efforts in this sense.

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