Is Gun Ownership America's Most Resilient Value?

June 14, 2011

Adam Gadahn, a US convert to Islam who has been indicted for treason in the United States, making a statement. (AFP/Getty Images)

Last week Al Qaeda issued its first major propaganda video since bin Laden’s death calling for further attacks on the American homeland and no one seems to have paid the blindest bit of attention.

The video was issued by Adam Gadahn, a Californian-born Al Qaeda fighter and propagandist who was frequently named as a potential successor to bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of the Abbottobad operation.

Born Adam Pearlman, Gadahn, who is also known as Azzam the American, converted to Islam in the late 1990s and moved to Pakistan where he joined Al Qaeda. Quite a switch for a kid who had once formed a one-man death metal band called Aphasia and wrote articles for the music fanzine Xenocide.

In 2006 Gadahn became the first American in 50 years to be formally indicted on treason charges and there is currently a $1m bounty on his head. Suffice it to say, this is an individual whose commitment to terrorism and taking American lives is taken very seriously by the US authorities.

In the new video Gadahn, talking in part over b-roll footage of customers inspecting weapons in a US gun shop, chides his audience:

“America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and, most likely, without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?”

The substance of Gadahn’s claim is beyond dispute – it is extraordinarily easy to obtain firearms in the United States and there is very little to prevent a motivated individual with a powerful grievance buying a gun and then using it on their fellow citizens – as the cases of Major Nidal Hasan, Jared Lee Loughner and Seung-Hui Cho make all too tragically clear.

This is a serious and very real threat. In November 2008 Pakistan-based Al Qaeda affiliate Lashkar-e-Taiba launched an assault on the Indian city of Mumbai in which 10 heavily armed gunmen attacked multiple targets with automatic weapons killing 164 people and wounding 308.

There are very few security controls in place in the United States that would help to frustrate a Mumbai-style attack. In 2005 former Clinton and Bush administration Counterterrorism tsar Richard Clarke published an article in The Atlantic entitled “Ten Years later” in which he envisaged an attack very similar to that that took place in Mumbai, striking malls in five US cities. This is clearly a scenario on counter-terrorism planners’ minds.

Yet amazingly, when approached by the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein for a comment, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney initially told him that he was “not aware” of Gadahn’s statement.

The White House’s ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ approach illustrates all too well the size of the blind spot we have in this country for the potential security threat unfettered gun ownership poses. The vested interests that protect the gun industry are so strong that not even the specter of terrorism can penetrate their defenses. Indeed, Congress has even rejected legislation that would require gun sellers to check potential buyers against terrorism watch lists.

This is not a post about gun control. I am much more interested in the resilience of the ‘right to bear arms’ as an indispensable civil liberty when even basic rights like habeas corpus, established centuries before the development of firearms, have come under threat.

In the ‘War on Terror’ we have been asked to sacrifice a great deal of personal liberty in the name of security: warrantless wiretaps, material support laws that silence freedom of speech and association, sneak and peak searches, full body scanners at airports, no-fly lists, the disclosure of library records – the list goes on. Even torture has become acceptable in some quarters. It seems that in the United States some civil liberties are rather more equal than others.

Only gun ownership seems to be beyond the reach of the security establishment. It is quite amazing that of all the values we hold dear the ‘right to bear arms’ seems by implication the most sacrosanct. But there is a lesson here: Surprisingly, it turns out that our political establishment is actually capable of identifying a value that it is not prepared to compromise even when it might empower others to do us harm. The choice is just a poor one.

Balancing liberty and security in face of a terrorist threat is an existential challenge. The liberties we take risks to protect say a great deal about who we are as a people. The values enshrined in the first, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth amendments are just as fundamental to our identity as Americans as those enshrined in second and they need champions just as fierce and implacable.