Of all the places to march in support of tighter gun control in the US, why a small town on the north-east coast of Fife? Our humble home sits in stark contrast to the sprawling American cities, thousands of miles away, where the March for Our Lives protests played out on 24 March. Not only this, but the gun legislation introduced in the UK after the Dunblane Massacre and the following Snowdrop Campaign ended the UK debate on strict gun legislation over twenty years ago.
Understandably, for many students in St Andrews this renders the debate over gun legislation a non-issue. For others, however, the topic is as contentious as ever.
The Americans studying here make up 15 per cent of the student population. That’s well over one thousand bright young minds for whom the debate surrounding gun control is still very much alive and relevant. For so many to travel so far and have their opinions be shelved would not only be unjust, but undemocratic.
To acknowledge and debate the issue, as well as to march, is to offer political participation both through traditional and direct means that are cornerstones of Western democracies.
Some would argue that this doesn’t apply to the other 85 per cent of students. Although their promoting of debate is healthy for the participation of Americans, it does not allow them to participate in a democracy which is not theirs. In such a politically globalised world, however, it is impossible to isolate issues such as US gun control, especially considering the power that the US has to set an example for so many other countries.
Domestic issues of such high profile, especially ones framed as a matter of life and death, are conventionally open to international debate, participation and potentially intervention. The prominence of internationally recognised human rights often trumps the respect that would be given to a state’s sovereignty over smaller matters.
Indeed, this began in the wake of WWII when the atrocities committed by the Nazis came to light. Legislation passed by the party in the 1930s and 1940s made their acts, within their sovereign state, technically legal. Of course, these acts could not go unprosecuted, but they could not be punished under German law. Human rights were used at the Nuremberg trials to explain the illegality of what had happened.
Since then, human rights have remained an important concept both for justifying international debate and for encouraging it. The atrocities of the Kim regime in North Korea are another example of domestically legal but internationally condemned actions.
Duterte was elected president of the Philippines on a mandate to deal with the country’s drug problem, but his brutal methods have also face international backlash.
The debate remains to be had whether the massive loss of life to shootings in the US is an infringement on fundamental rights, but this is a primary reason why students in St Andrews seemingly so detached from the issue of US gun legislation should care. The matter is definitely not isolated or restricted to American students.
Another key reason for students in St Andrews to care about the issue of US gun control is the precedent that the issue could set. As stated earlier, the US has great power in setting examples for the politics of other countries. The operation of a foundational constitution that enshrines fundamental liberties, as well as how and if it can be changed, is one such case.
Many argue that changing such laws would be detrimental to the rudimentary rights upon which a country is established. Many more see such a system of laws as outdated and unnecessary with no reason why it could not be changed. The issue of gun legislation and the second amendment has the ability to set a strong convention.
In the United Kingdom the British constitution has undergone great change in the past. Historically, the relationship between Parliament and the monarch has transformed greatly, much to the betterment of the governing of the country. More recently the constitution has undergone more explicit changes. The Human Rights Act of 1998 established fundamental rights in one coherent piece of legislation for the first time, enshrining their place in the constitution. More impactful still, the aptly named Constitutional Reform Act of 2005 abolished the role of Lord Chancellor and established the Supreme Court among other things.
Although these examples show constitutional change to be possible, the UK is unable to set the same precedent as the US. Not just because of prominence in international politics, but because the UK has an uncodified constitution that consists of many pieces of legislation, conventions and common law that has been built up over hundreds of years. The US, in contrast, has a single codified constitution that overrides all other legislation.
Hence, the matter of gun legislation and the second amendment in the US will be internationally impactful regarding the functioning of codified constitutions. Not only is it a debate on firearms, but on basic political principles. This is why the students of St Andrews should care.
To conclude, the debate over US gun control legislation is not one that any student in St Andrews can afford to ignore. Not only is it necessary to aid American students in their political participation while so far from home, but in the globalised world of today such matters cannot be ignored. Infringement on a right to life, as some may see the repeated shootings, is an international issue on which all are entitled to an opinion. The debate encompasses the functioning of the US Constitution. To ignore it is to ignore the importance of international standards and an even greater debate surrounding constitutional politics. That is why the students of St Andrews should care.