The Supreme Court will hear a major gun-rights case, possibly in the fall. At issue is the scope of the Second Amendment, more precisely whether Americans have a right to carry a loaded handgun in public. I will not prejudge how the Court will rule, although at the moment there is a sense that the right to carry guns outside the home will be broadened.
With only 4.3 percent of the world’s population, the United States has nearly 40 percent of the world’s non-military guns, well over one per person. According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, only Brazil suffers a larger number of people killed by guns each year than the United States, the comparable 2017 figures being 48,493 and 40,229. Each day in the U.S., on average, over 100 people die from guns. The figures reflect nothing less than a public health crisis that we have come to live with.
Nearly every week brings new accounts of mass murder, whether in churches, schools, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, bars, or workplaces. They occur throughout the country, from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut to the Emanuel AME Church slaughter in Charleston, SC; from El Paso, TX, to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. Among the most horrifying roll calls of the dead: Orlando nightclub shooting – 50 dead, 53 gunshot injuries; Las Vegas country music festival – 61 dead, 411 gunshot injuries.
After each slaughter we watch the news accounts, hear onlookers saying “Do something,” observe frightened, crying survivors and bereaved family member of the victims, watch as investigators survey the murder scene. Always the ritualistic response: “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.” That’s not enough. Terrifying as they are, mass shootings account for only a minute portion of the country’s gun deaths. On the matter of gun violence, the U.S. is a floundering state.
What to do? It should be clear that doing away with the Second Amendment, which protects the right of the people to keep and bear arms, is not at issue. I do not know, and I have not met, many who propose such a radical move. The Second Amendment, in whatever form, is here to stay.
And that’s the issue: In what form? Laurence Tribe, distinguished Harvard law professor and co-founder of the American Constitution Society, argues that “there is nothing about the Second Amendment, even in its current interpretation, that prevents Congress from enacting laws to more strictly regulate the possession and trade of guns.” If they wish to act, Congress and states already are permitted to outlaw dangerous weapons “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.” Influential conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority in “District of Columbia v. Heller” (2008), emphasized: “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
The door to regulating guns, therefore, remains open. Nicholas Kristof, American journalist and winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, has suggested we treat guns as we do automobiles. Gun enthusiasts say: “Cars kill about as many people as guns, and we don’t ban them.” Yes, but we do make cars safer and pass all manner of regulations to reduce the death toll. Similarly, we could get serious about universal background checks. Federal law requires registered dealers to make them, though reporting is inadequate. Moreover, background checks are not required in private sales, a massive loophole. Other ideas would include a ban on public sales of assault-style weapons, such as AR-15 rifles, a favorite among mass shooters.
It’s helpful to reflect that treasured First Amendment rights (of speech, religion, assembly, etc.) have limitations, also. The best known is that no one has a right of “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” U.S courts have found that religious freedom does not permit firms to accept claims that the Bible forbids interracial marriage among its workers; nor to permit religious practices that may harm people. For example, female genital mutilation on girls under the age of 18 is forbidden by law. Freedom of assembly is guaranteed, even for purposes of protest, but public gatherings can be prohibited or limited in the name of the public good.
I don’t know the best answer(s) to the spate of gun killings in our country. They’ve become so common that the carnage seems part of our identity. Lawmakers are so beholden to Big Money from the gun lobby and firearms manufacturers that they have rejected serious regulatory responsibility. The road to essential gun regulation will open only when the majority of Americans insist on moving it to a front burner issue.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at email@example.com.