Last Sunday night, a man murdered 58 people and injured more than 500 more by opening fire from a hotel window overlooking an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas. The shooter killed himself before police arrived. (I decline to name the shooter in this piece as one small way to refuse fame and combat contagion in mass shootings. Instead, here are the names and pictures of some of the victims.)
The shooter had at least 47 weapons, all legally owned. Police found 23 firearms in his hotel room and another 24 at his home, along with several thousand rounds of ammunition.
He also changed the weapons in legal ways to make them even more deadly. It is illegal to own fully automatic weapons made after May 19, 1986. But the Las Vegas shooter modified 12 semi-assault rifles by replacing the piece that rests against the shoulder (the "stock") with a cheap device that "bumps" between the shoulder and the trigger finger, allowing the rifle to fire much more quickly (a "bump stock"). In other words, this shooter made 12 semi-automatic rifles into effectively automatic weapons—and he did it all without breaking any law.
Why is it important?
The horrific event was one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent decades, though not in all of American history. Several debates followed, all various angles on stopping gun violence:
Should we ban specific additions that make guns more deadly, like bump stocks and silencers? Should we institute background checks for all gun buyers, including in private sales? Should we create some kind of federal buyback program, like Australia did in the late 1990's? Should we focus instead on better access to suicide prevention programs, or protecting victims or domestic violence?
These are worthy topics, but each is only a piece of the larger debate. There are only three countries that currently have a constitutional right to bear arms: Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States (only nine countries have ever had this right, most in the 1800's.) Guatemala and Mexico both have explicit restrictions on that right within their constitutions. Based on the Supreme Court's most recent interpretations of the Second Amendment, the United States does not.
The Second Amendment reads: "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."
Let's debate the real question.
Should we repeal the Second Amendment?
We should not strip American citizens of a freedom enshrined in the Constitution just because it's hard to regulate it.
We're having the same debate James Madison wrote about in the Federalist Papers. In Europe, he wrote, "the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms." Instead, "let us not insult the free and gallant citizens of America with the suspicion, that they would be less able to defend the rights of which they would be in actual possession, than the debased subjects of arbitrary power would be to rescue theirs from the hands of their oppressors." This isn't just American exceptionalism; like every other amendment to the Constitution, it's a statement about the proper freedoms citizens in a democracy should have.
So let's make sure we can responsibly and safely exercise that freedom.
Gun ownership is not what you'd expect: There are approximately 310 million civilian-owned guns in the United States—around one gun per person. But they're held by a small number of people: 3% of the American population owns 50% of the guns.
The most fatal parts of the problem are not what TV news makes them seem: People killed in mass shootings (incidents in which more than four people died) account for less than 1% of people killed by guns in the United States. The vast majority of gun-related deaths in the country are suicides, followed by homicides.
We can help prevent these deaths without repealing this constitutional right. Even better, we can do it in ways that are supported by the American public already.
Most Americans support protecting the right to bear arms, but they also support various restrictions in the name of public safety. 89% of both Republicans and Democrats favor preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns. 77% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats want to strengthen background checks for private sales and at guns shows. 54% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats support banning semi-automatic weapons like those used in Las Vegas. Let's start there.
The Second Amendment has morphed into a monster. It is the root of three separate gun violence problems in the U.S.: suicides, homicides, and mass shootings. Gun ownership does not need to be outlawed, but there is no reason it should have a blanket protection in the Constitution.
Until 2008, we had what we thought was a reasonable restriction on the right to bear arms. The popular understanding of the Second Amendment was that it protected "the right to keep and bear arms" for "a well regulated militia" but not necessarily for an individual citizen. As a result, state and local governments could enforce laws restricting individuals' use of firearms in various ways, while not—they thought—violating the Constitution. Washington D.C., for example, restricted the use of hand guns and required licensed firearms to be kept disassembled or with specific locks.
In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v Heller that the Constitution entitled an individual to buy and maintain a gun, and struck down not only the DC restrictions on hand gun purchases but the rules for keeping it locked up as well. It was the first time the Supreme Court tore down gun regulations. It was also the moment we should have repealed the Second Amendment. Scholars argue the amendment was intended to give this right to a militia, not an individual. But regardless of intent, the belief that we could restrict an individual's right to bear arms was our stopgap. Now the problem is getting worse: gun deaths have risen at an increasing rate since 2008.
As Bret Stephens (a writer who is controversial for his deeply conservative views) put it, "the 46,445 murder victims killed by gunfire in the United States between 2012 and 2016 didn't need to perish so that gun enthusiasts can go on fantasizing that "Red Dawn" is the fate that soon awaits us. Donald Trump will likely get one more Supreme Court nomination, or two or three, before he leaves office, guaranteeing a pro-gun court for another generation. Expansive interpretations of the right to bear arms will be the law of the land—until the "right" itself ceases to be."
- Vox's video on the state of gun violence in the United States
- "America doesn't have a gun problem. It has three of them."
- FiveThirtyEight's piece on policies to prevent gun violence in other countries
- "Did Australia and Great Britain’s reforms prevent mass shootings?"
- Pew Research Center on American's support for various gun control measures
- "For the past several years, large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans have favored making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks. Today, this proposal draws support from 90% of registered voters who back Hillary Clinton and 75% of voters who back Donald Trump."
- A New York Times op-ed in support of rewriting the Second Amendment
- "In our historical study of constitutions, my colleagues and I identified only 15 constitutions (in nine countries) that had ever included an explicit right to bear arms. Almost all of these constitutions have been in Latin America, and most were from the 19th century. Only three countries — Guatemala, Mexico and the United States — have a constitutional right to arms.