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American attitudes to gun control are about how they see the state

By Jonathan Kent
December 17 2012




There are some reactions to the Connecticut primary school killings, such as those expressed by President Obama, that will be almost universal: “This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter and we’ll tell them that we love them, and we’ll remind each other how deeply we love one another.”

But the different reactions here and in America tell us a great deal about our concepts of freedom and our relationship with the state. However crazy it may seem to allow the casual sale of weapons in a country that suffers around 30,000 gun deaths a year, the issue goes to the heart of American traditions of liberty.

In England our national myth is the myth of the good king: King Arthur sleeping until England needs him; Robin Hood siding with good king Richard against bad Prince John; Richard II – ‘your leader is dead, I shall be your leader.’ When English kings behaved badly they were rarely blamed directly, people preferred to believe that ‘if we can just prise the king away from his wicked advisers he will listen to sense and all will be well.’

Just as the most common dream in Britain is apparently about the Queen dropping in for tea, we also cherish the notion that the King or Queen will always protect the best interests of the people. Perhaps as a result most Britons have a benign view of the state. But it’s also a remote state – not an embodiment of the public will, but ‘The Crown’, and it still has a tendency to act like ‘The Crown’.

In America the national myth begins from the fear of a bad King; bad King James from whom the Pilgrim Fathers fled; bad King George against whom good General George rallied the colonies and their militias and drove from the continent.

Americans’ right to bear arms, guaranteed under the Second Amendment to the constitution, stems from the right of citizens to protect themselves and their homes from bad rulers; whether it be invading armies, their own government, or the bad folks from over the valley.

Ultimately we have to decide how to best balance different and often competing kinds of freedoms; ‘freedoms to’ and ‘freedoms from’, as in: Your freedom to own a gun impinges on my freedom not to live in fear of being shot.

What Americans have grasped is that ‘freedoms to’ are the mark of a truly free society. What they haven’t grasped is that ‘freedoms to’ also favour the powerful and the rich.

What Europeans have grasped is that ‘freedoms from’ are the touchstone of a peaceful and more equitable society. What many haven’t, especially on the left, is that authoritarian regimes always use ‘freedom from’ to justify their repressive behaviour. If we’re to err on one side it’s surely that we should be generous with ‘freedoms to’ and rigorous, even parsimonious, with ‘freedoms from’ – we should always be satisfied that we really are talking about freedom.

Getting the balance right might be the devil’s own job but in the wake of Sandy Hook hopefully even US Republicans will concede that the devil has been far too busy and it’s time that citizens step up to the plate and stop outsourcing the task.

Originally published by Liberal Conspiracy 

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