The recent shooting of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, allegedly by a young man acting out of a racist motivation, was a terrible thing. I have relatives in that city (including African-American relatives) and I can only imagine the horror they must feel at this dreadful crime so close to home. But the horror that is felt by Charlestonians is not helped by the opportunistic comments by President Obama and others about gun control.
Obama said that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries". He is wrong. This type of mass violence has occurred even here in comparatively peaceful New Zealand (with numerous incidents from the killing of 14 in Aramoana in 1990 to the six killed in Raurimu in 1997), and in other countries such as the 77 killed in Norway in 2011 and 35 killed in Australia in 1996. America has had the most incidents of mass shootings of any Western nation in recent years but proportionately it is only 6th on the list in number of fatalities and it is only 111th out of 218 countries in terms of total firearm homicides (see this Wikipedia article).
Most non-Americans have trouble understanding the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms. I have written before about why the Second Amendment to the Constitution exists - to Americans it is an important part of their system of government and it is unlikely to be given up in the foreseeable future, if ever. In any event, further controls on the sale of firearms in the US are unlikely to reduce the homicide rate because the vast majority of killings are carried out by criminal gangs (e.g. this article says 80% of Chicago gun homicides and non-fatal shootings are gang-related), typically using illegally-obtained firearms. Homicides with firearms have dropped by 40 - 50% over the past two decades despite the number of registered firearms having increased significantly (ibid).
I have been in two minds about whether I believe people should have the right to bear arms for their own protection. In a civil society we give up certain things, such as personally carrying out retributive justice, in return for the protection of our individual rights by the state. But we do not give up the right to self-defence. A firearm is simply a much more effective form of self-defence, and a remarkable equaliser when it comes to facing down a more powerful adversary, than one's fists. Should law-abiding people not be allowed that most effective form of self-defence just because a few use such weapons indiscriminately?
Personally, I am not into guns and don't feel the need to own them, despite having grown up around firearms and been trained to use them, but I live in a place where physical violence is a remote threat. If I lived in a more dangerous environment, for example the less-salubrious inner suburbs of some American cities, I would feel differently. Even here in New Zealand there are areas, particularly certain rural areas, where people I know feel the need to have firearms in their houses for personal protection. These areas are usually characterised by the absence of, or remoteness from, any form of police presence. In such circumstances it is foolhardy not to make some provision for the protection of yourself and your family.
There is no right to life if one does not have the right to protect one's life. On balance, I think law-abiding individuals should have the right to bear arms for their own protection.