After every incident of mass murder in America, a frightened, frustrated, heartsick nation looks for a simple cause in hopes that it will offer a simple solution. Invariably that simple cause is guns, a frequent tool used in mass murders. And, while that tool facilitates the ability of one person to quickly inflict massive mayhem, it is not the cause of the mayhem, nor will it afford the solution. Banning guns will neither eliminate guns or homicidal rampages. The solution is not that simple because the problem is not.
Nevertheless, within hours of last month’s murders of college students by a lunatic in Isla Vista, there came a litany of simplistic blame ranging from the usual, easy access to guns, to the peculiar, pandemic misogyny of which all males are allegedly guilty.
Meanwhile, the heated debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment rose several degrees. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment allows an armed citizenry. The opposing argument is that the Founding Fathers intended that only a well-regulated militia have firearms — like the well-regulated National Guard.
On May 4, 1970, a unit of the Ohio National Guard marching with fixed bayonets fired their guns on unarmed students at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes had dispatched the troops to Kent State to put down student protests against the expanded Vietnam War. Rhodes called the protesters “un-American revolutionaries.” No doubt King George III expressed similar sentiments about unruly American colonials when his redcoats gunned down unarmed citizens in Boston.
Debating the intention and meaning of the Second Amendment remains a standoff between those looking for simple solutions to ending gun violence and those who believe liberal gun rights ensure liberty. Those who argue that gun rights were intended only for police and military and not for civilians, discount or ignore the essential reason why the Framers of the Constitution wanted an armed citizenry — their fear of an armed tyrannical government, what we today call a police state. Any student of history understands this to be a valid fear.
Since 2010, police in Albuquerque, N.M., have shot more than 35 citizens, killing 23 of them. While that is an extraordinarily high rate of lethal force, such police power abuse is not uncommon throughout the United States. The insane War on Drugs and the overreaction to the 9/11 terrorists attacks have greatly increased government’s police power, and consequently, the abuse of that power.
Too many Americans are willing to throw the Constitution out the window whenever they believe that their physical security is threatened. But freedom is not for sissies, and power can be a volatile intoxicant. As the nation succumbs to the gradual dilution of constitutional rights, and government’s power steadily increases, tyranny lurks like a shingles virus.
Many folks passionately blame incidents of mass murder on liberal gun rights as promoted by the National Rifle Association and venal politicians. But, when these massacres are committed using explosives, knives or automobiles, what is blamed? There are no simple causes.
If most Americans believe the simple solution to gun violence is to disarm the citizenry, there is a mechanism for attempting that — a constitutional amendment repealing citizens’ rights to bear arms. That would certainly eliminate ambiguities about the meaning of the Second Amendment, but it would be no more effective in eliminating gun violence than banning insanity would eliminate lunatics. When has anything vanished because it was made illegal?
That, however, does not preclude reasonable restrictions on gun rights. With any right there are responsibilities and liabilities. Guns, like cars, are powerful tools that can be misused, especially by the untrained and the unqualified. Gun ownership should and does require certain rational qualifiers, like no violent felonies and no mental disorders. There should be a reliable national system for verifying and enforcing qualifications.
Gun owners must be responsible for their weapons and for securing them, therefore, firearms should be registered — even though that will not prevent all gun violence or misuse of guns. The guns used in the Isla Vista rampage were all legally registered to the killer. There are no simple solutions.
The objection to registering firearms is that it would facilitate their confiscation by authorities, but given the estimated 283 million firearms held by American civilians, any attempt by government to disarm the nation would be futile and likely provoke armed resistance, the Charlton Heston reaction — “from my cold, dead, hands.”
It is remarkable that with nearly 300 million firearms in private hands, there are less than 11,000 gun homicides each year. And, most of those are incurred in gang feuds directly related to the asinine insistence on drug prohibitions. Mass murders account for a tiny percentage of total gun homicides, but elicit the most emotion and the least rationality.
Unless all guns can magically disappear, including those held by the authorities, gun violence will persist. If, however, we would abandon emotional, irrational and simplistic positions on this issue and focus on practical, reasonable gun regulations, we might mitigate the violence.