Understanding Guns - A Comparison Between France and the United States
By Kaitlyn LEVINE and Léa SAÏDI SADAOUI
The shifts in the gun debate, influenced by various current events, have involved a well-publicized dialogue between two extremes: pro-gun and anti-gun. More often than not, the media portrays very personal, subjective and therefore influenced point of views, thus depriving the spectator from forming any critical state of mind on the debated subject.
Therefore, this article presents an opportunity to reopen the debate from a new angle. Objectivity being the key word, the authors have chosen to expose the historical, geographical, legal and media differences between two countries that we all know well and who are on opposite ends of the spectrum: France and the United States.
The history of France has been hammered by Kings, their dynasties, as well as their quest for power. And the right to bear arms has been affected by this.
A central notion is la paix du Roi (the peace of the King). Vincent Martin, a French university professor, has stated in his book Le pouvoir royal face au phénomène des tournois that the control of arms allowed Louis VII to “take control of the peace of his kingdom”. In other words, in order to have peace within a nation, it is necessary to be able to limit to its maximum all types of criminality caused by arms. Thus, in an article for the French platform Slate, the author explained that “removing weapons from the public space aims to reassure citizens, to ward off fear to bring order and peace” (VF : “supprimer les armes de l’espace public vise donc à rassurer les citoyens, à conjurer la peur pour ramener l’ordre et la paix”). To speak anecdotally, thieves were called factores pacis meaning peace breakers.
Yet, and in order to establish peace, it is quintessential to insure stable institutions with a certain legitimacy. Thus, seizing the weapons of the
subjects served the King’s plan to establish a lasting power of the royal institutions, as well as limiting la faide.
The latter describes a private vengeance between families, clans and tribes. Essentially, it is the action of dispensing one’s own justice. Therefore, to counter this widespread tendency (which was deeply rooted in Germanic societies), the quarantaine-le-roi was installed. Ultimately, this meant to impose a 40 mandatory days to the adverse parties, leaving them time to calm down and regroup. However, if any one of them violated this time limit, it would constitute a crime of lèse-majesté (an attack to the king’s authority).
Gradually, the contours of a professionnalisation of the right to bear arms took shape by a decree of 1439. This social group was named gens d’armes (literally : people of arms) which then translated to today’s gendarmerie. In a matter of clarity, it should be noted that in France, a distinction is to be made between the police and the gendarmerie. The gendarmes are attached to the army and are therefore considered as military, whereas the police have the status of a civil servant.
This distinction between the rightful holders of arms and the unlawful ones led to the ordinance of November 25th 1487 which forbids everyone to carry weapons, with the exception of the King’s officers, the nobles and the army.
The dominant thought at the time, which still prevails today, was that being able to bear arms would demonstrate a lack of trust in the royal authorities to carry out their duty to ensure the security of the nation (territorial + citizens). For King Louis IX, the challenge was to prove to the subjects of the kingdom that they would be safer without their weapons, by trusting the representatives of the authority. Therefore, the turning point of the right to bear arms in France revolves around the relationship of trust the citizens have of their government.
However, the Revolution (1789) wreaked havoc on everything. At first, the French society was one of order (société d’ordre). It was organised according to three hierarchical levels (nobility, clergy and the third-state : (those who fight, those who pray, and those who labour). Thus, by abolishing this mode of organisation, the revolutionaries disrupted/upseted this balance (according to which only nobles could have a military career and therefore bear arms). Quite quickly, weapons became a citizen symbol to preserve the freedom of the State. Funny enough, this has reflected itself at the opening of the French anthem/hymn : “Aux armes citoyens” as well as the French Republic’s icon La Marianne.
La Marianne- Image via Google Images
The problem is the following : considering the importance of arms within the French Revolution (which birthed the most important and fundamental declaration of human rights in History), how does one explain that French people don’t bear arms (in the same sense Americans do)?
The opening of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens goes as follows : “The representatives of the French People, formed into a National Assembly, considering ignorance, forgetfulness or contempt of the rights of man to be the only causes of public misfortunes and the corruption of Governments, have resolved to set forth, in a solemn Declaration, the natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man”. When the National Assembly was reflecting on how to bring to life the Declaration, it was decided to create the “Comité des Cinq” (or the Committee of the Five) whose goal was to bring a summary of the different propositions. Comte Mirabeau was the one to publicly read said summary.
He proposed an article X (10) which stated in its original wording: "Every citizen has the right to have arms in his home, and to use them, either for the common defence, or for his own defence, against any illegal aggression that would endanger the life, members, or liberty of one or more citizens" (“Tout citoyen a le droit d’avoir chez lui des armes, et de s’en servir, soit pour la défense commune, soit pour sa propre défense, contre toute agression illégale qui mettrait en péril la vie, les membres, ou la liberté d’un ou plusieurs citoyens”). However, the members of the Committee considered unanimously that “the right declared in the article X (10) not retained was evident by its nature, and one of the main guarantors of the political and civil freedom that no other institution can substitute it” (“le droit déclaré dans l’article X non retenu était évident de sa nature, et l’un des principaux garants de la liberté politique et civile que nulle autre institution ne peut le suppléer”). This endeavour is highly interesting in its wording : the right to bear arms was considered to be so anchored that its disappearance was unimaginable. However, what a paradox that is: in its introduction, the Declaration clearly stated that “contempt of the right of man to be the only causes of public misfortunes”. And yet, the Fathers of the Declaration clearly showed disdain for the right to bear arms.
This has resulted in the right to bear arms to not be written within the Constitution. However, the safety of the nation (in its purest form which is the general sense of wanting to make society together) is essential to France’s democracy. Here are two examples :
Article L.4211-1-I : The citizens contribute to the defense of the nation - Les citoyens concourent à la défense de la nation.
Abraham Lincoln in Gettysburg : “democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people”.
Yet, in the early days of World War II, the right to bear arms got heavily restricted. As a matter of fact, in France, the situation in which the population is regarding the right to bear arms has remained the same since 1939.
As we know, these are the most heinous crimes humanity has ever known and committed. It is at that moment that the government has circumscribed this notion by a decree-law of 1939 in order to prevent an insurrection. The liberalisation of arms has never been known since then.
This historic background is fundamental. That war profoundly affected and traumatised Europe as a whole. In other words, and in correlation with factual circumstances, consecrating the right to bear arms would mean to “get back to” a warlike climate if not one of hypertension between social groups.
In other words, not arming citizens means maintaining some semblance of peaceful balance. Thus, the preservation of this stability reflects a crucial component of our societal order: trust (if not comfort) in the community.
After all, one goal was being pursued : restore fraternity. Mission accomplished! France’s official motto makes it its final period/full stop : “liberty, equality, fraternity”.
After all, and while the French pride themselves in thinking they are revolutionaries, the output on the right to bear arms truly is royalist in its essence.
Characterised by its vast forests and untouched land, the U.S. was seen as a front to be conquered. Gun culture, especially that of the South, originated in agrarian roots where hunting was necessary for survival. While in Europe, guns were more popular for hunting, a sport of leisure (specifically during medieval times, where hunting was reserved for nobility), Americans needed guns as a deterrent to wild animals, hunting for food, a profession for others. Survival in the American front depended on the ability to wield weapons in the light of Native American conflicts, competition against countries, thus the idea of a civilian militia grew popular. Before the American Revolution, the colonies lacked funds and government planning to raise an army, thus citizens relied on each to defend themselves. With the roots of frontier living, the unique ideals of gun ownership rights were further established by the founding fathers.
Federalist Paper No.46 , written by James Madison, suggested that the use of guns would allow for a civilian militia to rise against a tyrannical government:
"Those who are best acquainted with the last successful resistance of this country against the British arms, will be most inclined to deny the possibility of it. Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes. But were the people to possess the additional advantages of local governments chosen by themselves, who could collect the national will and direct the national force, and of officers appointed out of the militia, by these governments, and attached both to them and to the militia, it may be affirmed with the greatest assurance, that the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it."
(The Federalist Papers: No. 46, January 29, 1788, James Madison.).
Madison highlights the importance of guns owned by civilians, and further argues that were the people of the country to also have the advantages of a local government, who could overturn any tyrannical government. He further reiterates this in the second amendment, of which has become law:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
By doubling down on these beliefs, gun culture of the US was secured in both the constitution and popular political writings of the 18th century, thus ensuring this belief would follow generations to come.
While originally, the right to bear arms was nothing more than a social norm, backed by its need for hunting, its introduction in the Bill of Rights (Ten Amendments) guaranteed Americans the right. The modern implications of gun culture have thoroughly devolved from their intended goals, so why do Americans place so much meaning in guns? While many Americans do own guns for safety, the question of their true usage provokes questioning. With the introduction of advanced equipment (semi-automatic, assault, machine, etc.), do gun laws need revision?
Towards the end of the 19th century, pop culture shifted to include new stories of the Wild West and cowboys. Many of this media included imagery of guns, and painted them to be ‘cool.’ This introduction was well established with the ‘lone hero’ of cowboy cinema, in which the protagonist was portrayed as an individualistic soldier who won on his own. The portrayal of guns in pop culture as a tool used by cool characters helped shape the views on guns as it introduced a new generation through styled appearances. This was exacerbated during the Prohibition Era (the banning of transportation, sale, production, and importation of alcohol from 1920-1933) in which a rise of gangsters and organised crime was accompanied by media representation of ‘cool’ law defiers. The well defined connection of guns to media outlines the understanding of American perspective on guns in the modern century: despite few needing them, many want them because of their cultural influence. However, this culture surrounding guns strikes many as unsettling, especially when compared to foreign countries. Despite being a developed country, the US has gun violence comparable to that of underdeveloped nations. With firearm homicide rates being 13 times greater than France, the fascination with guns undermines the seriousness of the issue. At the very root, gun culture in America, specifically its popularity and accessibility partnered with historical context, enables gun violence unseen in other developed nations.
First and foremost, how does French law define the notion of “arms”? The question finds its solution in the article 132-75 of Penal Code:
“Any object designed to kill or injure is a weapon. Any other object likely to represent a danger to persons is considered a weapon if it is used to kill, injure or threaten or if it is intended by the bearer to kill, injure or threaten. A weapon is any object that [...] is used to threaten to kill or injure or is intended, by the bearer, to threaten to kill or injure. The use of an animal to kill, injure or threaten shall be deemed to be the use of a weapon”.
“Likely” evokes a probability, whereas, “if” evokes a condition. Therefore, the definition of arms is ultimately confined by the materialistic realisation of the condition for the probability to effectively take place.
French regulations, rather than being strict, are authoritarian. The State does not give its citizens any chance to abuse the right to own a weapon (whether firearm or not).
Of course, France is not fundamentally devoid of weapons, but its regulations provide a restrictive legal framework which allows significant traceability.
It is restrictive because it is organised in layers. French law provides 4 categories of weapons, i.e. 4 variations of the regulation according to the characteristic requirements of one of these categories. There is a real adaptation of the rule of law to the type of weapon held.
The categories are organised as follows:
A. Formal prohibition to acquire or possess a weapon. Category A is divided into two categories: A1 and A2.
Category A1=certain firearms
Category A2= war materials
B. Subject to authorization by the authorities. Concerns occupational risks and certain weapons for sport shooting
C. Subject to declaration. Concerns all other weapons for sport shooting not subject to Category B. Concerns weapons for hunting.
D. All other types of weapons (daggers, batons, collectors' weapons).
This formatting is quite effective. This 4-level organisation dates from 2010 (Proposition de loi n°2773) which aimed to clarify gun control. According to the authors : “la classification des armes à feu se révèle peu lisible en raison du nombre élevé des catégories qui le constituent”.
At first, guns were classified under 8 categories. One of the main criticisms was that this classification did not reveal the effective dangerosity of the weapons withheld. It was also pointed out that it wasn’t dissuasive enough. Finally, the position which the authors of the proposed law held is remarkable as they finished by stating : “L’acquisition et la détention d’une arme à feu ne constituent pas un droit mais un privilège qui emporte certaines responsabilités” (The acquisition and possession of a firearm is not a right but a privilege that carries certain responsibilities). Interestingly enough, this point of view draws back to the 1789 French Revolution with the abolition of privileges and the monopoly of military career from the noblesse class.
In fact, one of the direct consequences of its constraining effects is a much lower gun per capita. Moreover, the AIS ( Arms Information System) allows important traceability, if not necessary. According to Public Sénat, 5.4 million weapons are subject to declaration or authorization, for 5 million legal holders.
Finally, and according to the General Attorney of the Court of Justice of the European Union, a fundamental right to possess guns does not figure in EU law as such, nor does it form part of ‘the constitutional traditions common to the Member States’.
Often, the pro-gun discourse clearly demonstrates that guns are a proof of power. As a matter of fact, and according to different researches and documentaries easily found on the internet, it is argued that disarmed populations are easily oppressed. Such statements is corroborated by multiple examples of past colonisations, wars and sometimes, even genocides.
By linking the right to bear arms to the notion of power, the pro-gun party elevate the debate to a higher level and add the component of freedom. Freedom is an ideal every human civilisation aims to achieve: after all, aren’t big moments in history a proof of a desperate try for a better and freer world? Isn’t to be free the utmost privilege? If to detain an arm is to be powerful and unbendable, then to detain an arm is to be ultimately free.
While this argument is understandable, it also helps the American narrative to be “the best country in the world” and pushes colonialist logic to develop in all spheres of society.
Yet, with human history like ours, where we have fought and made peace with one another, the gun debate truly sets us back to reanalyze our common past. And not only do we talk about power dynamics between populations who bear arms freely, it also converges on how much you trust the government.
The authors found it interesting as well to provide the reader with the different terminology pro-gun folks uses when referencing to themselves. In the French media, the terms “honest citizens” are redundant. However, if there are honest citizens, then fundamentally, there are dishonest citizens. Therefore, it is a very moral question to state who is honest and who is dishonest which clearly shows the limits of the pro-gun argument: where some seek factual information, statistics, specificities, or in the other words, something ultimately tangible, others bind the right to bear arms to moral. Objectively speaking, no secure environment can come out of it. Moreover, the entire dialectic of pro-gun advocates focuses on the holders of the weapon, as in the indiviudals, while the legislation is based upon the mechanics, the characteristics of the guns.
On the contrary, pro-guns advocates in the United States qualify themselves as “patriots”.
Written by writers Kaitlyn LEVINE and Léa SAÏDI SADAOUI