They were the kind of people you learn to avoid on the streets, two young men with long dirty hair, heavy-metal tattoos, sleeveless t-shirts and saggy denims. They had the jerky movements and staccato speech of barely contained rage or methamphetamine overload.
Think of them as context for Monday’s (June 28) 5-4 Supreme Court ruling in the case of McDonald v. Chicago – which strips American cities and states of the right to enact their own restrictive gun-control laws, even when they are strongly supported by local voters.
My brother Sam and I, trying to look inconspicuous, stood next to those two young men at 11pm in the sports department of a late-night discount chain store in Naples, Florida. We were there to acquire permits for a dawn fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico the following morning. They were there in response to an ad featuring .32 caliber revolvers on sale at 40 percent off list price.
The revolver transaction took ten minutes and involved almost no paperwork, as far as I could tell. A hour later, Sam and I were finally issued our fishing licenses, after filling out several pages of detailed forms and submitting two pieces of official identity each.
Our nonresident fishing license cost $30 and was good for seven days. That works out to roughly 100 times the weekly cost of a seven-year $117 permit to carry concealed weapons in Florida, which has some of the loosest gun laws in the world.
Thanks to the Supreme Court and its conservative majority, Florida’s laws – which treat the Second Amendment to the U.S. Consitution as a blanket endorsement of universal gun possession – are set to become the national standard.
It is a matter of faith among American conservatives that their country is in the vanguard of the world’s civilized nations. The McDonald decision challenges the U.S. claim to belong in that club at all, much less lead it.
In the United States, 90 out of every 100 residents already possess a gun. That’s 50 percent more than the next most heavily armed nation on the planet – Yemen, an all-but-lawless state on the Arabian Peninsula, in a region endlessly plagued by bloody clan wars.
American gun ownership is over three times the per capita figure for France, Canada and Germany, seven times for Italy and Spain, 17 times the proportion of gun-ownership in England, 45 times the figure for the Netherlands and 150 times that in Japan. By any reasonable estimate, these are our erstwhile peers in the civilized-nation club – prosperous middle-class societies with high levels of technological development and well-established legal systems.
The consequences of America’s leadership in the realm of personal firepower can be charted with horrifying ease. The annual murder rate in the United States is 4.3 victims per 100,000 people. In France it is 1.7, in England 1.4, in Italy 1.3, in the Netherlands 1.1 and in Japan 0.5.
Comparisons of murders specifically committed with firearms are just as damning. They amount to almost three per 100,000 people in the United States annually – the vast majority fallen to handguns expressly manufactured for human targets – against 0.1 in the United Kingdom, a difference of 30 to one.
Anyone who doesn’t see a pattern in the juxtapostion of these statistics is in profound denial.
WILD WEST 2010
The rest of the world was stunned by the McDonald decision, even though it confirms a widely held view that 21st century America remains “il Wild West,” as my Italian neighbors often call it, a land that has witnessed little change in its approach to conflict-resolution since the Earps gunned down the Clantons at the O.K. Corral.
What surprised observers abroad was to see O.K. Corral methods blithely endorsed by the nation’s highest magistrates. The U.S. court system has long been respected as a model of reasoned and detached jurisprudence, the antithesis of the Wild West vigilantism that universal pistol-packing encourages.
A website of Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy’s premier business publication, openly speculated on “the probable return, in the coming months, of thousands of armed persons to New York and Chicago, two cities that had prohibited them up to now.”
Chicago’s gun-control law, which the ruling overthrew, had been on the books for three decades.
“The bullet-proof gun lobby strikes again,” read the headline in Britain’s Guardian. Some 100,000 people in America are shot every year, its reporter observed, and more than 30,000 die. On average, 85 people in America perish each day from gunshots, nine of them teenagers or children.
A concealed weapon permit, which at least one of the young men at the Naples discount store had apparently been granted, is issued by Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to nearly anyone who can fill out a brief eligibility questionnaire. Applicants simply check “yes” or “no” in boxes alongside such queries as “Have you ever been involuntarily committed to a mental institution,” “Are you currently under arrest or charged with any felony?” and “Have you renounced US citizenship?”
The correct answers are hardly a mystery, and no supportive documents on these or most other questions are necessary.
Florida Agriculture and Consumer officials boast that their staff does everything possible to expedite the permit process. “The concealed weapon license application intake service at our Regional Offices is designed to allow applicants to complete the entire application process quickly and conveniently,” the department’s online brochure assures prospective gunslingers.
The well-documented truth is that firearms are overwhelmingly used in criminal acts against private propery, and not in its defense, as the National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby and its five friends on the Supreme Court contend. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that “gun owners are more than four times as likely to get shot in an assault as individuals without a gun.”
Put another way, the Court’s ruling can be read as precisely the sort of “soft on crime” measure that conservatives usually rail against.
“That one-word label carries enormous import,” according to legal scholar Lyle Denniston. It means that any new law aimed at limiting or controlling gun sales must now satisfy “strict scrutiny,” the most demanding test in U.S. judicial practice, which requires unequivocal proof that the limitation is a matter of necessity.
“Some laws can survive ‘strict scrutiny,’ but not a great many do,” Denniston says.
In his dissent on behalf of the Court’s liberal minority, Justice Stephen Breyer predicted chaos in the new standard’s implementation. “Does the right to possess weapons for self-defense extend outside the home?” he asked. “To the car? To work? What sort of guns are necessary for self-defense? Handguns? Rifles? Semi-automatic weapons? Does time-of-day matter? Does the presence of a child in the house matter? Do police need special rules permitting patdowns designed to find gun?”
Breyer’s questions about the ruling’s practical interpretation are not the only ones it raises.
The anything-goes Florida position, the Court would have us believe, is the bonafide American way, the one and only way. Its ruling in the McDonald case implies a major augmentation of Federal power, imposed from Washington DC, on the entire nation.
But what of the supposed conservative attachment to state and municipal rights, its vaunted aversion to central government interference in local affairs?
Countless American communities have enacted stiff controls on concealed weapons and other firearms in the past 30 years, with the full backing of their citizens. On June 28, 2010, their freedom to protect themselves from mindless carnage, as they see fit, was tossed into the garbage by the U.S. Supreme Court.