Here’s the bottom line: The Second Amendment is a Constitutional guarantee of the right of Americans to kill and injure each other. So maybe Colorado movie shooter James Holmes isn’t just a mass-murderer—maybe he’s the face of democracy, in roughly the same way that Larry Flynt is considered a hero of the First Amendment.
And if we don’t believe that, maybe it’s time to change the Constitution, or at least read it differently than we do now.
Extreme? Sure. But consider: The only purpose of a gun—the only purpose—is to kill or injure the person, animal, or object at which it is aimed. If there’s a secondary purpose to a gun, it’s to threaten death or injury in the direction it’s aimed. Ruinous violence is a gun’s sole reason for being, period.
It cannot then be the case that we grant Americans the nearly unmitigated right to own a gun, but expect and hope, essentially, that they will not use that gun. That’s like granting people a driver’s license and praying they stay off the roads. It’s illogical. So we cannot be surprised when people like Holmes walk into a movie theater and kill a dozen people, injuring scores more. It’s a completely natural outcome.
So maybe all the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution are not equally worthy. Maybe “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” should be infringed, at least a little more than it is now.
Why? Easy: Just look at all the bodies. We in Philadelphia are particularly well-acquainted with the plague of gun violence. It’s true that Constitutional rights can sometimes be exercised in unsavory ways, and that we often learn to live with it as the price of freedom—but no other provision in the Bill of Rights leaves as much literal blood on the floor as the Second Amendment.
What are the arguments in favor of expansive gun rights? As I understand it, they boil down to these:
• Self-defense: The “arm everybody” crowd came out of the woodwork after the Aurora shootings, making the case that these kinds of incidents could be prevented if only more civilians armed themselves and were capable of shooting back at an attacker.
Former Arizona lawmaker Russell Pearce summed up this line of thinking with a Saturday morning Facebook post. “Someone could have stopped this man. Lives were lost because of a bad man, not because he had a weapon, but because no one was prepared to stop it,” he wrote. “Had they been prepared to save their lives or lives of others, lives would have been saved.”
There’s some victim-blaming going on here, yes, but the underlying logic is circular: We must guarantee access to guns in order to defend ourselves against the lunatics who have access to guns. It’s very nearly a Monty Python parody.
• The right of revolution: Basically, a fair number of Second Amendment lovers believe that an armed citizenry keeps its government from overstepping its bounds. That’s a huge reason that so many Democrats jumped to the (incorrect) conclusion that Tea Partiers shot Gabby Giffords in Arizona last year—when a movement’s mainstream politicians spend their time trumping “Second Amendment remedies” to Big Gubmint, it’s fair to wonder if that movement is actually making good on that threat.
I’ve got nothing against the right of revolution. But we’ve not had anything approaching a real armed rebellion in this country since 1865. Is it worth the day-to-day cost of maintaining that option? As tech writer Anil Dash said over the weekend, “We’ve let a fringe desire to preserve the possibility of armed insurrection against the federal government enable cheap, frequent mass murders.” He’s right. And that’s wrong.
• God said so: Here’s Ron Paul’s campaign website, using a common phrase. “Congressman Paul believes it has never been more important that our President be 100% committed to defending our God-given right to keep and bear arms.”
Of course, Jesus told his followers that if they were slapped, to turn the other cheek. He chastised Peter for unsheathing his sword in an act of (ahem) self-defense. Maybe Paul and his NRA allies heard the voice of some angry Greek warrior god?
The truth is, I’m not interested in completely doing away with the Second Amendment. The cat’s too far out of the bag, in any case, and the vast majority of American gun owners are law-abiding citizens, servants to their community, people who take the whole idea of self-government pretty seriously. They deserve to be taken seriously, too, instead of dismissed as “gun nuts.”
But there was a time—before Colorado massacres were a regular feature of the American landscape—when the National Rifle Association preserved gun rights, in part, by advocating for sensible regulations. There’s no way the NRA would return to such a stance now, which means there’s no chance they’ll be joined in renewed moderation by Republican legislators and conservative judges.
Which means that the Second Amendment—as currently interpreted by its most zealous defenders, including the Supreme Court—will continue to guarantee mayhem, broken communities, dead children, and the wailing tears of mothers. It ensures we have to endure the likes of James Holmes. That’s just the price of freedom, right?