In 2014, after a shooting in California, onion ran a narrative captioned “‘No way to prevent this,’ says the only nation where it regularly happens.”
I think of that headline after every mass shooting, including today’s one at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Every country has mad murderers, but only ours has so many mass shootings. Why?
Of course, because of our crazy gun culturesupported by an absurd and erroneous reading of the Second Amendment, funded largely by arms manufacturersand now, like so many others, another identity marker of the populist right.
It’s not that all Americans are crazy. In reality, 87% of us want to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns. 81% want to expand background checks. 63% want to ban assault weapons. (Find out about Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose father was murdered by gunmen in Beirut in 1984, fight back tears as he spoke about the shooting, and the background check bill in particular.)
Yet Republicans in Congress have rejected all of these proposals (or, when in power, even prevented votes on them), because to win a Republican primary, you have to meet the needs of the rabid right, almost entirely white. -wing populist base. Any common sense gun safety measure is considered heresy. All Republicans can do is send thoughts and prayers.
The lie at the heart of all this madness is the ridiculous perversion by the Second Amendment right.
Why? Because of the obvious language of the amendment, which reads in full: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
For nearly two hundred years, there was broad consensus that the Second Amendment meant what it said: that the right “of the people” meant the right to bear arms. in well-regulated militiaswhich was the nation’s way of protecting itself before the standing armed forces and police, and that the slavers maintained to guard against possible revolts. (Yes, the Second Amendment is primarily about slavery; in fact, it was added to gain support for the new constitution among the slave states, who feared that the new federal government would disband their slave-hunting militias.)
White person. As jurist Reva Siegel and others demonstrated, Conservative (white) opposition to gun regulation began in the wake of the civil rights movement and the rise in the 1970s of the “New Right”, made up of former segregationists, cultural conservatives ( the “moral majority”) and white politicians. demanding “law and order”. While the 1972 Republican Party platform actually had gun control supported, the Reagan Revolution transforms the party. (Ronald Reagan wrote an article praising individual gun ownership at Weapons and ammunition magazine in 1975.) Now being pro-gun, like being anti-abortion, became a mainstay of New Right ideology.
After all, it ticked all the boxes, tapping into white fears of “crime” and “urban centers”, populist resentment of “big government”, and male fears of losing power in the era of liberation from women. The new right-wing gun craze was projected white male frailty onto gun ownership.
And what had once been a fringe view rejected by the Supreme Court — that the Second Amendment gave individuals the right to own guns — gradually became the gospel of the Republican Party as the fringe took control of the party. Former Chief Justice Warren Burger (a conservative appointed by Richard Nixon) described it as “a fraud on the American public”.
Eventually, this point of view prevailed, not by persuasion but by simple policy. In 2008, there were five conservative justices on the Supreme Court, and Justice Scalia wrote an opinion in DC vs. Heller saying that the second amendment conferred an individual right to possess weapons.
There are many problems with Scalia’s opinion. Here are four.
First, he asserts that the militia clause is only a preface, unrelated to the meaning of the law. “The first does not limit the second grammatically, but rather announces a purpose,” he writes. First of all, no other constitutional provision is read in this way, that is to say stripped of all meaning. But wait a minute – if maintaining militias is the purpose of the amendment, then why doesn’t “the people” mean militias but individuals? Why is a goal not a goal? Justice Scalia simply dismisses the first half of the amendment as purely decorative, without any function.
Second, Scalia simply dismisses as “dubious” the drafting history of the amendment, in which James Madison deliberately did not use the language of individual rights that was present in contemporary documents. Thomas Jefferson, for example, once proposed, “No free man shall ever be forbidden to use arms.” This proposal was rejected.
Third, Scalia reverses the meaning of the Second Amendment itself, saying that Congress can actually ban military-grade weapons (i.e. the types a militia would use) but not handguns, which are used for self-defense (which the amendment never mentions).
Finally, all this judicial innovation took place under the sign of “originalismwhich is supposed to be what the Founding Fathers meant in 1789. Even though most of the sources quoted in DC vs. Heller come after this time.
Of course, what’s really going on here is a social, cultural phenomenon, using the constitution as an excuse. As Siegel describes in detail in his articleJudge Scalia’s arguments for gun ownership (self-defense, public order, etc.) belong to the 1990s, not the 1790s. He simply incorporated them into a canonical text that had its own entirely different agenda (although it is also intimately tied to white supremacy).
Since then, the Second Amendment has become gospel – literally. In a recently filed case amicus brief, Texas Governor Greg Abbott argued that “Texans have long cherished the right that was affirmed by the Second Amendment, but bestowed by God.” (In fact, Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.” [Matthew 26:52] But whatever.)
In fact, any day now, the Supreme Court should (probably) repeal a New York policy which issues “concealed carry” permits only to people who show they need a firearm for self-defense.
The tragic irony, as onion noted eight years ago, did we know how to prevent this from happening. While we don’t yet know what could have prevented this particular attack, advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety lists 37 solutions on its website, ranging from background checks to waiting periods, banning “open carry.” to the repeal of the “stand your ground” laws, banning high capacity magazines and assault weapons to hold the gun industry accountable.
It’s not rocket science, and while there remains significant disagreement over some of these policies, there is huge, widespread support for many of them. But God help any Republican who has the courage to stand up to the NRA, the arms manufacturers and the rage of the populist right. (Indeed, there are hardly any such Republicans anymore.) For deep, deep, even spiritual reasons, many white Americans are doing exactly what President Obama said sadly in 2008: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or dislike of people who don’t look like them… to explain their frustrations.
Our collective refusal to do anything about these horrific mass shootings is not the fault of the Second Amendment. It’s white supremacy’s fault. It’s the Republicans’ fault. It’s as simple as that.