The Limits of Freedom

In the overall reactions to the Arizona shooting in the United States, only one thread remains constant: In the aftermath of the tragedy nobody seems to be willing to let it pass without divining some sort of meaningful lesson. As usual after such a high profile shooting, anti-gun activists call for stricter gun laws, while resistance remains as strong as ever. During my own military service I frequently used handguns and what I learned already back then is that weapons serve really only one purpose: destruction.

That it can be very dangerous if you shoot without being fully aware of the consequences was demonstrated several days ago in a more figurative way. During a press briefing at the White House on Jan. 13, 2011, Andrei Sitov, a reporter of the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS put forth an interesting question. He suggested that the Arizona shooting “does not seem all that incomprehensible, at least from the outside” since as he later added “many people outside would also say — and the … ‘freedom’ of a deranged mind to react in a violent way is also American.”

In an interview with Russia Today, posted on its website on Jan. 15, 2011, he claimed this comment was not well received and has even been compared to Cold War rhetoric in press blogs and articles.

Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, on the other hand admitted in an interview on Jan. 24, 2011, that he can see where Sitov’s question came from. “The rest of the world looks at us as just plain mad for putting up with this type of violence.” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs countered the comment rather by emphasizing that “there is nothing in the values of our country, there’s nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with.”

In the end, Gibbs and Horwitz are both right: It’s not part of the American values, but was indeed far too easy for Loughner to get a gun. But instead of pointing out that it might be a mere lack in legislation Sitov made the mistake of ascribing the problem to American values.

As part of the Washington Post investigation “The Hidden Life of Guns,” a series that began featuring different articles on the topic in October 2010, Cheryl W. Thompson’s article “Guns used to kill police officers: Where they come from and how they get in the hands of criminals” shows, legal purchase of handguns was the preeminent source. This should cause doubt even among advocates of studies like the 1998 book by conservative academic John Lott with the catchy title More Guns, Less Crime. Especially after the death of two Miami police officers on Jan. 20, 2011, followed by five unconnected shootings in different states that left nine policemen wounded and two dead.

Now, since Horwitz pointed out on the Huffington Post website on Nov. 28, 2010, right wing activists often tend to label calls for gun regulations a “Nazi agenda,” maybe history can offer some true advice here: first of all, the anti-gun activist argues that after the Nazis overtook the Weimar Republic, gun laws were actually relaxed, not tightened.

I want to add that when drafting a new constitution, after the war, German law makers decided that this time they would not grant unlimited freedom to the enemies of freedom. Among the results was one of the world’s strongest democracies and, secondly, since 1972, also one of the strictest gun laws on the globe. As Horwitz told me, it might be time for the United States “to start thinking about people’s personal lives other than their gun rights.”

There is something more important than the right to bear arms and that is to protect “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Russian reporter Sitov may have aimed at something else with his words, but he probably hit the right spot.

Felix Fuchs