Today, services were held in Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. Local christians gathered to worship and pray, and commune together and with their God.
This would not usually warrant any comment, certainly not on a blog written five thousand miles away in England. But this is not a usual Sunday, because Emanuel AME was the scene of the recent massacre of nine church members by Dylann Roof, and today marks the re-opening of the church.
The reaction of the families of those killed has been admirable and not a little surprising. Forgiveness of such an act does not come naturally, but has been given in the midst of intense grief. These acts should not affect the way this crime is prosecuted, nor affect subsequent punishment.
The tragedy has spawned many comments across the internet. Most of these are from the usual sources – the extreme Liberal Left in the form of those lobbyists who would see all guns melted down, and the extreme Republican right in the form of the National Rifle Association, who – it seems – will only be satisfied when American babies emerge from the womb with a .357 magnum in their chubby little fingers.
Of course, neither are right. Certainly not the NRA, for whom one spokesperson tried to say that the reason nine people were killed is because the congregation were not carrying guns themselves for defence, inside their church. Clearly he’s the type of person we should be wary of in civilised society.
But the anti-gun lobby is also seeing things a little to black and white. If owning a gun is banned, criminals will still get hold of guns – after all, it’s not like they are that worried about breaking one more law, is it? So banning guns altogether won’t totally prevent acts like the one we saw last week in Charleston.
The issue, for me, stems from the oft-cited clause in the American Constitution. The Second Amendment, adopted into law on 15 December 1791, states
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”.
It’s worth looking at what was going on in 1791, which made this amendment such a necessary change. The government of the United States was a mere three years old, after the War of Independence, the acknowledgement of independence by the British Government, and the formation and adoption of the first US Constitution. Much of the vast nation was still pretty much unexplored, with attack from the indigenous population an ever-present threat. Add to this the dependence of white Americans on the slave trade and black slave labour in constructing their new nation, and you can understand why a law enabling the ‘civilised’ population to protect themselves makes sense.
I’m certain that the authors of that document would not have imagined that their words would still be law 224 years later, and sure that they never envisaged them being so divisive. And yet Americans uphold this as an almost sacred right. If that’s true, and if being American means agreeing with the law that allows people like Dylann Roof the opportunity to slaughter so many innocent people, then – on that level at least – I’m very glad that I come from different shores.
What’s the answer? I don’t know – other than knowing it’s not simple. Banning guns is not going to happen, but a start would be banning them from being sold in Walmart. anyone can get one, and there appears to be little checks to see whether that person is suitable or responsible enough to hold such a deadly instrument.
The change needs to be a legal one, in that the Second Amendment needs redrafting. Not to remove the right of responsible people from defending themselves, but in ensuring that if an American citizen wants to own a gun, they have to show that they understand the gravity of such an undertaking. That they understand that if they are refused, it’s not a breach of their rights, instead it’s the nation upholding the rights of every other person in the country. That people understand that the most important factor in owning such a weapon is the hope that they never need to fire it.
When owning a gun stops being a right and instead becomes a privilege, maybe then events like Emanuel AME will start to become a part of history that America as a nation leaves behind.