Anyone following the news in the U.S. will be aware of two recent horrific mass shootings, one racially motivated one in Buffalo and one slaughter of schoolchildren in Uvalde, Texas. Both were committed by disturbed teenage males. Since that time there have been two significant changes in gun laws. First, the U.S. Supreme Court declared New York’s restrictive gun law unconstitutional, effectively wiping it off the books. The other was a federal law adding new restrictions to gun purchases and giving aid to states who pass “red flag laws”.
America is something of a pariah in the developed world for its archaic gun laws, and understandably so. We suffer many times the per capita gun deaths of nearly every other developed country. But there is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about our gun laws. The question I hear asked the most often by talking heads on TV is “Why is America so out of step with the rest of the world on guns?” That has an easy answer and it’s the answer to almost every question critics put up: The Second Amendment.
It’s right there in the Constitution that Americans have the right to keep and bear arms. Legislatures can’t overrule the Constitution by passing laws. Laws that restrict that right keep getting struck down by the courts. The only real solution is to amend the Constitution and that’s politically impossible since it is very difficult to do even for very popular policies. Let’s examine for a moment why we have that right in our Constitution. America was born in revolution. It was oppressed by an English king and fought for its freedom by arming itself. Americans wanted to make sure that could never happen again, so they made sure they would always have the right to take up arms against their own government. It’s a stupid, short-sighted provision passed in the heat of passion out of hatred for England. Blame lies at least as much with King George (and for that matter all the European colonial powers) as it does with America’s founders, but there it is. Personally, I believe it was unwise to make the Constitution so difficult to modify, but I also believe it is wrong to expect courts to disregard its plain language because they disagree with it.
People on both sides of “the gun issue” are right and both are wrong. The pro-gun people are right that they have a constitutional right. They’re wrong when they say things like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or that restrictive gun laws wouldn’t prevent these mass shootings or gun deaths in general. Both are proved false by the death rates in other countries that have enacted such laws and restricted the number of guns. Those on the opposing side are wrong when they say it shouldn’t be legal to own guns, especially assault weapons. The whole point of the Second Amendment was to make sure Americans could take up weapons of war to fight an oppressive government, not for personal protection, hunting, or recreation. However, they are right that the court could interpret the Second Amendment differently. I haven’t yet mentioned its preliminary language: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, …” A progressive court could very well interpret that to mean that the keeping of arms is guaranteed only to the extent it is part of a militia dedicated to protecting a free state, not individuals. So those assault weapons should be part of a well-regulated militia of a state. The Supreme Court has not adopted that view, but it could, and many constitutional scholars do.
The only practical way America will ever be able to change this is to elect Presidents and Senators who will appoint and confirm multiple Supreme Court justices who have this view.