Gun ownership and civilian gun deaths are a uniquely American issue amongst developed countries. The US had over 32,000 gun deaths last year. Far more than any other developed country. Our rate of gun ownership -- 89 guns per 100 civilians -- is nearly 15 times higher than that of our closest ally, Great Britain. Despite these facts, the very mention of any form of gun control stokes the passion of the American right unlike any other issue. From the Internet trolls who threaten your family to the indoctrinated recitations of tired, machismo-filled phrases like "Molon Labe" and "out of my cold dead hands," the small minority of Americans who do have guns are very happy to abuse the First Amendment based on their misinterpretation of the Second.
Of all the pro-gun arguments used most often, the weakest is the constitutional one. I am not a constitutional law expert, but it's pretty reasonable to say that former Chief Justice Warren Burger, a conservative appointed by none other than Richard Nixon, is. When speaking of the misuse of the Second Amendment to support private gun ownership, Justice Burger said:
(the Second Amendment) "has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word 'fraud,' on the American public by special interest groups I have ever seen in my lifetime.
Former Justice John Paul Stevens, in his book Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution; added this:
For over 200 years following the adoption of that amendment federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by the text was limited in two ways: first, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms.
Scholarly works like The Second Amendment, A Biography by Michael Waldman trace the origin of the amendment and show conclusively that there was no intent for it to be abused as a way to enable 18-year-olds to cruise around toy stores armed with automatic weapons.
But let's say the Justices and scholars are all wrong. Let's say the Second Amendment is what the gun lobby wants it to be. Even then, the Constitution's greatness lies not in its infallibility, but in its anticipation of the dynamic nature of laws in society. Certainly no one can argue that a document permitting slavery and prohibiting women from voting was perfect as written. The Founding Fathers could never have foreseen a 2-year-old using the firearms of their time to accidentally kill his mother. Just as the Internet bred the need for new laws around spam and privacy, so does the advent of more powerful weapons breed the need for change to our laws.
The self-defense argument stops before its starts when you consider that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used for suicide or killing someone in the home than for self-defense. In fact, the US homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined homicide rate for the next 22 of our peer countries. Gun advocates often say that guns aren't the only way violent crimes are committed. True. But as the title of this piece suggests, there are no drive-by knifings. No stray rocks killing people. And virtually no chance that a deranged man kills two armed, trained NYPD police officers without a gun. Certainly James Eagan Holmes doesn't kill 12 people and injure 70 others in a theater without a gun either. I could go on and on, but the simple fact is that people living in other developed countries with far fewer guns are much safer than we are in America.
If the Constitutional argument is the weakest, the "defend ourselves against the government itself" argument is the most laughable. Forgetting for a moment that the very Constitution that contains the Second Amendment ensures a government by, for and of the people; the United States has the most powerful military in the history of the world. In addition to our vast stockpile of nuclear weapons, we continue to spend over $750 billion per year on military expenses. If our government, made up of us, decides to attack us, we're screwed, pure and simple. Since even millions of guns don't stand a chance against nuclear weapons, it must be that gun owners think their government will oppress them, but not use powerful weapons. In which case they trust the government just like I do.
Too often, articles like this one end by ridiculing the gun owners. However, it's far more productive to suggest ways that enable law-abiding gun owners to co-exist in a society not riddled with gun violence. Here are three such suggestions:
• End all open carry laws and outlaw all semi-automatic weapons.
• After a universal background check, allow adults over 21 to own 1 "manual" gun that is kept in their home.
• Have a hefty bullet tax. Surely those owning guns for self-defense don't need cases of ammo for the rare intruder. Use bullet tax revenues to treat victims of gun violence and educate the public about gun safety.
The last bastion of the pro-gun crowd, when presented with such common-sense proposals, is that "guns are already out there" and prohibition didn't work for alcohol. Let's preempt those by saying that cigarette taxes and strong restrictions have done wonders to reduce smoking in America, and that I simply refuse to believe that a country who went to two wars because of 3,500 dead on 9/11 doesn't have the resolve to prevent 32,000 dead each year. I am quite certain the parents of the Sandy Hook victims agree that no more kids need to die for our resolve to equal the challenge, and to quell gun violence once and for all.