No Guns Allowed: Making the Choice Between 'Nonviolence' and 'Nonexistence'

On March 31, 1968 in Washington, D.C., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, "It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence." Four days later he was assassinated. Individuals have recently claimed that Dr. King was prophetic about gun control. It's not prophecy, but rather in 45 years our culture has not changed. Opponents of gun control legislation are fond of saying, "guns don't kill people; people kill people." Wayne LaPierre of the NRA has blamed the media for promoting gun violence. While it does, in most cases, take a person to hold, aim, and shoot a gun, let me offer this information:

"Dr. King died as a result of a single gunshot wound caused by a bullet that entered the right side of the face approximately an inch to the right and a half inch below the mouth. The bullet fractured Dr. King's jaw, exited the lower part of the face and reentered the body in the neck area. It then severed numerous vital arteries and fractured the spine in several places, causing severe damage to the spinal column and coming to rest on the left side of the back."

People don't do this. They don't fracture jaws, sever arteries, fracture spines, and stop hearts within a matter of seconds or minutes. Perhaps some people are capable of committing some of these crimes with their bare hands. But they can't do nearly as much damage in such a short amount of time without the power of a gun. This is a power that -- without being confined to "a well-regulated Militia," as the Second Amendment directs -- should be removed from the hands of the people entirely.

Last year I went to a shooting range for the first time and I'll admit, in that controlled environment, it was fun. I realized shortly after, however, that "fun," is not the point. If guns are available for recreational use, they're available for killing. Recreation shouldn't be pitted against someone's right to live. Neither should the conservative adage of less government interference in private affairs. Twenty six- and seven-year-olds were killed in a matter of minutes at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December. It's not "fun" anymore, and it hasn't been for a long time. Guns end lives. And they destroy the existence of those who are left alive.

The Framers of the Constitution could never have imagined the number of lives stolen due to gun violence. Of the three countries that include a right to bear arms in their constitutions -- the United States, Guatemala, and Mexico -- only the U.S. Constitution does not include any restrictions. This wasn't a major problem until the 1980s, when the country began to interpret the Second Amendment as a right to bear arms for self-defense (even though data from a study in the 1990s shows that for every instance in which a gun in the home was shot in self-defense, there were "seven criminal assaults or homicides, four accidental shootings, and 11 attempted or successful suicides"). In the past, the Second Amendment was largely unnecessary because states regulated the use of guns. In fact, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down D.C.'s handgun ban in 2008, it was the first time the court had ever restricted gun regulation (albeit by a 5-4 vote) on the grounds that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms.*

There's a reason we have constitutional amendments. Let's use the next one to save lives instead of crossing our fingers for extended background checks. As Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence explains, "We want a vote on the issues, we don't want them watered down so they're unrecognizable. If [legislators] can't vote for it, let the American people judge them on that."

How is expanding background checks -- which the NRA is fiercely lobbying against and the Senate has yet to agree upon -- and giving $10 million more a year to fund school safety a suitable solution when held against the life of even one child? Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) calls background checks the "sweet spot" for gun control legislation. I don't see how this legislation, if it makes it through the Senate let alone the House, is nearly enough, let alone the "sweet spot." Even the banning of assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, which were instrumental in the Sandy Hook shooting, won't make it into law and don't solve the problem of handguns that contribute to the death toll daily.

We are talking about a problem of fatalities -- one momentary action that can end someone's existence. The parents of Ana Grace Marquez-Greene, one of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, are left wondering for as long as they live what Ana Grace could have been had she lived. In a recent column they ask, "how many [of the thousands of children lost each year to gun violence] might have grown up to cure a disease, write a symphony, or be the next Dr. King?" In an effort to reach a compromise on some kind of gun control legislation, rather than no legislation at all, many Democratic members of Congress and other gun control advocates aren't reacting appropriately to the stakes. Is the issue of government interference, fear of the NRA, or the possibility of a tedious Republican filibuster really as important as a life?

Republicans have already threatened to make ample use of the filibuster. Marco Rubio (R-FL) Rand Paul (R-KY), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Ted Cruz (R-TX) are going to talk on the Senate floor until their tongues swell. John McCain (R-AZ) is against such a filibuster, despite his lack of support for gun control legislation. The dialogue needs to be had, he reasons, before asking, "What are we afraid of?" We need to speak for the 2,000+ victims of gun violence since Sandy Hook. We need to speak for those from Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and the many less-publicized victims of gun violence, for whom we will never be able to mourn.

The NRA argues that background checks are useless because criminals ignore them. I'm not inclined to believe this, given LaPierre's flair for fabrication, but it does bring up a relevant point. No matter how we amend gun legislation, we cannot keep guns solely in the hands of public safety officials. Expanded background checks won't change that. They won't change much at all. People are not recognizing how high the stakes are. To the Senate, I say,

"Welcome back from vacation. Every day you wait to deliberate and vote on gun control legislation is another day more people die. Every day you waste time debating expanded background checks is another day you ignore President Obama's push for a renewed ban on assault rifles and limits on high-capacity-ammunition magazines. And every day you don't consider the incredibly high stakes of your decisions, or lack thereof, is another day you ignore the life-saving option of eliminating guns as an option for recreation, self-defense, livelihood, or murder."

In his final sermon the day before he was shot in Tennessee, Dr. King revealed, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will." Let's not deprive one more child of the happiness, hardship, lessons, and chance to bring something new to the world that they deserve. I hope that by the time I have children, I no longer have to fear taking them to school one day and never seeing them again because their lives were stolen by a gun.

*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct and clarify the description of the Supreme Court's 2008 decision regarding the Washington, D.C. handgun ban.