A visit to the United States last month reminded me that, no matter how many things I like about the country (and I could make a long list of those), I rarely feel at ease there. In Los Angeles for the first time, thanks to a developing if still-rudimentary public transport system combined with airbnb and Uber having rendered it affordable, we found ourselves repeatedly sharing smallish spaces with certifiably insane people. It was as if a quota of crazies had been evenly distributed across the city’s bus and metro system.

The typical mad fellow traveller was male, black, middle aged, had matted hair and big beard, wore layers of smelly clothes, and seemed not to have washed for weeks. But there were wide departures from the norm, like one young Korean dressed in a perfectly ironed button-down shirt and trousers, whom I would have taken for a management graduate on his way to office had it not been for the primal screams he emitted at short intervals.

Although I can’t say I enjoy sitting in close proximity to people speaking gibberish to themselves or, worse, to me, I am worldly enough to take these situations in my stride, for the most part. The difference between such encounters in the US, and, say, Bombay, Cairo, or Prague, is not only the question of why the richest nation in the history of the world cannot take better care of mentally ill citizens, but an awareness that the man with mad eyes staring intently at me across the width of a train’s aisle could be carrying a gun, and I could be seconds away from death.

Regular tragedies

Every week’s news feeds that discomfort, with accounts of killings carried out by mentally disturbed Americans, some of them mass murderers like Micah Johnson, the crazy guy in Dallas who hated white policemen, or Omar Mateen, the crazy guy in Orlando who hated gays. After each tragedy, liberals call for gun control while conservatives reiterate their commitment to the second amendment of the US Constitution.

The text of the Second Amendment reads thus: “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." The law grew out of 17th century legislation that assured British citizens of their right to own weapons. Brits discarded that right around the time the word "militia" became archaic, but Americans, with their treasured constitution, are stuck with it.

Many cling to the romantic notion that individual citizens armed with guns could deter the emergence of a tyrannical government, an idea that had some practical merit when the gun and horse you could buy were identical to the guns and horses the government possessed. It makes no sense whatsoever when the best you can marshal is a couple of rifles and an SUV against the government’s tanks, supersonic jet fighters, drones and ballistic missiles.

A paradox

When the Bill of Rights was composed, Americans who promoted gun rights most vocally were suspicious of a professional standing army controlled by the federal government. Today, a very strange situation prevails, in line with the topsy-turviness I have outlined in recent columns about globalisation and the uniform civil code. The firmest contemporary advocates of gun rights are also the loudest voices in favour of the nation’s soldiers. They complain about intrusive government while supporting a heavily weaponised police force and a bigger, more powerful federal military.

If one side of the gun rights argument is absurd and self-contradictory, the other is completely ineffectual. The gun control measures outlined by President Obama and other progressives will do very little to stop further blood from being spilled. However sensible a ban on armour-piercing bullets and assault rifles might sound, such weapons play little role in either the most gruesome massacres or crimes with a smaller body count. The real culprit is the history of the Second Amendment itself, which has cemented the right of American citizens to buy and own deadly weapons. Chipping away at the edges of what is currently permitted is just political drama.

The only thing that will have any real impact is to do what conservatives falsely accuse Obama of wanting to do, what nations like Britain and Australia have successfully accomplished, which is to take away citizens’ guns and gun rights.

The originalists

Any change to the Second Amendment, however, is a political non-starter, unmentionable even on the far left of mainstream discourse. This has been especially true since the rise of what one might term the Wahhabis of American jurisprudence. They call themselves "originalists", believe the constitution’s meaning was fixed for eternity at the time of its composition, and want to return to a pure interpretation of the text or of the intent of its composers. Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last year, was the foremost originalist of his generation.

As an aside, when a substantial proportion of a nation’s population, relatively well educated and affluent, uses quasi-religious terminology to describe a text composed by a few 18th century intellectuals, who, remarkable though they may have been, were palpably fallible and susceptible to the biases of their time, is it any surprise that in the world at large works of scripture that are considered the word of God are taken literally and applied to the contemporary world?

In the latter case, as with the Second Amendment to the US constitution, the Wahhabis may be the most egregious offenders, but the problem lies much deeper, in traditions of interpretation that go back centuries and are impossible to overthrow.