Last week’s mass shooting in Southern California reminds us that we rarely go more than a few months without a gun tragedy in America. Though purely criminal gun violence is far too commonplace to receive extensive coverage, schools, places of worship, concerts and pretty much anywhere else that should be devoid of bloodshed are periodically assaulted by firearm-wielding domestic terrorists or psychologically unhinged chauvinists. In response to this crisis, we often hear reignited calls for incrementally stricter gun regulations.
But, this time, we should instead start with a thorough reevaluation of the Second Amendment. As its mere existence contributes greatly to the current epidemic of gun violence, and as it fails to contribute to the greater security of the American public, it is time to do away with it completely.
Against the backdrop of today’s gun problem, it’s hard to remember 50 years ago America’s gun violence reached a fever pitch. In a killing spree that spanned less than five years, assassins had brought to the grave the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy; his brother and presidential hopeful Sen. Robert F. Kennedy; and civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. What kind of nation, ailed by slaughter of this degree, could honestly pride itself in effective governance?
In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson attempted to tighten restrictions on firearm purchases, issuing a call for a national gun registry and a license requirement for all would-be gun owners.
These suggestions marked the first major gun control legislation opposed by the National Rifle Association, whose evolution from genteel promoter of marksmanship to ideological lobbying machine was sparked, in part, by the domestic turbulence of the 1960s and the credibility this lent to more aggressive gun control efforts. Though these provisions were successfully stripped from what would later become the Gun Control Act of 1968, the act was nevertheless deemed by former NRA President David Keene as the “most restrictive piece of Second Amendment legislation ever passed,” foreshadowing the emergence of a full-throated and well-endowed gun rights movement.
But for how vehemently the amendment is attacked and defended in current political discourse, its purpose remains widely misunderstood. Politicians’ campaign ads and lukewarm commentary would have you believe the Second Amendment exists to serve the needs of camouflaged sportsmen and over-prepared homeowners, when in reality it was written solely to protect the concept of the militia. Up until modern times, this traditional reading of the Second Amendment was reflected in a deep American distrust of the standing army, a necessary evil the Constitution entrusted to the federal government instead of the states or people.
By preserving well-armed militias, the authors of the Constitution hoped to preempt the tyrannical impulses of an overarching federal government and any outsize standing army it may raise. Until recently, however, this insurance policy was not interpreted to protect the individual’s right to bear arms. As Richard Primus, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, puts it, “The idea that the (Second) Amendment is about an individual right to own firearms, rather than the allocation of defense responsibilities between the states and the federal government, is a modern re-reading of the amendment.”
Perhaps there was once a time where the provision of militias protected the American public from tyranny. The emergence of a full-time, professional military fighting force over the course of this country’s existence, however, discounts the continued justification for any traditional reading of the Second Amendment.
For sake of argument, however, let’s assume the NRA is right to instead characterize the Second Amendment as an “individual freedom.” The revulsion with which gun rights activists treat one of the most prominent gun control proposals, the assault weapon ban, henceforth becomes all too understandable. In this reading, the individual’s right to revolt enshrined in the Second Amendment does not only protect the duck hunter’s double-barrel shotgun or the concerned father’s handgun, but it must also protect the mass shooter’s AR-15 assault rifle (with all of its military features) and the like. For just as the vastly powerful AR-15 parallels the battlefield service rifles wielded by the troops of our very own, outsize federal army today, the archaic muskets protected in the early years of the Second Amendment guarded their owners from the federal armories of comparable firepower.
To those concerned, mere rifles could not sufficiently serve as tools of revolt against a modern U.S. military comprising tanks, drones and nuclear bombs. Consider that overwhelming control and subjugation hinges not on annihilation, but on occupation of the populace. Insurgents fielding little more than assault rifles against our own military have indeed driven this point home over the past 50 years.
Even so, the underlying rationale of a right to revolt is flawed. If the Second Amendment were the only provision preventing our functioning democracy from plunging into a state of tyrannical frenzy, wouldn’t the healthy democracies of Europe, with their acute lack of similar liberties, have descended into authoritarian rule by now? It is not unreasonable to conclude American democracy has instead been preserved by institutions such as separation of powers, checks and balances, free and fair elections and civilian rule—institutions that, unlike a right to bear arms, define democratic rule.
Additionally, there are costs associated with the Second Amendment, and an informed public has the right to consider them. No right exists in a vacuum, and those enshrined in constitutional amendments are no different. Indeed, as a plethora of research has shown, any benefit derived from a right to unfettered civilian armament fails to outweigh the costly damage this armament inflicts on American society. From our country’s insatiable saturation with guns, to the uniquely American ease with which these devices find their way into the hands of dangerous, untrained and suicidal individuals, it is no wonder we live in a steady state of firearm-fueled chaos. Children in a first-world country should not have to train for gunmen to interrupt their elementary school math class.
This violent American reality, unparalleled in other developed nations, necessitates sensible restrictions to be placed on which Americans, under what circumstances, can obtain lethal weapons. While repealing the Second Amendment would not preclude state and local governments from upholding the legality of guns for home defense and hunting, it would invalidate the NRA’s stated raison d’être and thereby allow these sensible restrictions to be seriously debated, considered and passed by our legislative bodies.
The prominent political assassinations of 1968 parallel our own gun crisis today, as the relatively limited scope of those tragedies did nothing to limit the horror and subsequent outrage they delivered. The powerful influences that stymied effective change then are also at work now, and ensure the continued survival of a gun crisis in America. As was the case in 1968, the role of the government is to restore public safety in the most effective way possible without putting individual liberties at risk. Doing away with the Second Amendment is the ideal and obvious solution to this dilemma. What is there left to consider?
Ethan Kessler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org