As the nation smarts from its most recent mass shooting—this one at a community college in Oregon—I wonder: this time, can we skip the niceties and just repeal the Second Amendment?
In America’s perpetual cycle of gun violence, the predicable response by the left—but never by the right—is to advocate for stronger gun control laws, in the hope that these sorts of senseless large-scale massacres could be made a little less common in our culture.
While there is no doubt that background checks, assault weapons bans and the like would reduce the total amount of lethal firearms in circulation—and, presumably, lower the odds that some lunatic will toddle into a public place and wreak unholy havoc—it has become increasingly clear that such “common sense solutions” are not enough.
To truly, comprehensively address our country’s problem of crazy people committing mass violence with guns, we need to change the culture itself. And there is no more obvious place to start than to amend one-tenth of our beloved Bill of Rights.
We often ask why our country is so much more violent than other Western democracies, as measured by how many times we kill each other (and ourselves) with guns every year.
I think it’s rather simple: It’s because we have conflated weaponry with freedom.
Americans value personal autonomy as a sacred birthright, and somewhere along the line we decided that having your own private arsenal is a necessary component of the compact between individuals and the state. As far as we’re concerned, personal freedom and security are meaningless unless they include the ability to kill another human being with the greatest of ease.
And you can’t blame us for thinking that, because it’s written right there in the Constitution: “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.” Scholars have argued long and hard about the significance of the first half of that sentence, but the second half is inescapable. So long as the Second Amendment remains on the books, we will continue to accept that purchasing and carrying a gun is—under most circumstances—a natural part of American life, along with all the carnage that comes with it.
Which means that if we want to change the latter, we will need to change the former.
So let’s do it. Let’s strike the Second Amendment from the record and forget it was ever there in the first place.
This may seem like an extreme, radical measure. In practice, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.
After all, to abolish the Constitutional right to “keep and bear arms” would not make gun ownership illegal. As with any activity not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, it would merely delegate the regulation of firearm sales to individual cities and states—a scenario that more or less already exists. The difference, of course, is that those municipalities would be empowered to enact severe gun restrictions—if not outright prohibitions—they could not currently get away with. Or, conversely, to opt for no limits whatsoever.
The result would be exactly what Republicans have always claimed they want: A laboratory of democracy operating purely on the state and local level. Guns would be prevalent in areas of the country that want them and scarce in areas that don’t, and the results would speak for themselves.
The real impact of getting rid of the Second Amendment—the reason it might be worth the trouble—is that it would force us to treat deadly weapons with the gravity they deserve, and to stop acting as if they were as American as football and pumpkin pie. It would scale firearms down from a revered prop in the American tool belt to what they actually are: A million tragedies waiting to happen. They would be exotic commodities, instead of the red-white-and-blue freedom sticks that many of us take them for now.
This shift in attitude would be no small thing—not when you reflect on how much of a crutch the Second Amendment has always been for those who oppose any and all gun control legislation, and how much more challenging the pro-gun argument would be if the amendment didn’t exist.
Indeed, every time we experience some gun-related mass murder and our leaders muse about what might be done to rectify it, the National Rifle Association and its fellow travelers insist that the problem of sociopaths accessing weapons is ultimately unsolvable, then they proceed to hold up the text of the Second Amendment the way a zombie hunter holds up garlic.
The NRA apparently feels that the right to bear arms is absolute and—as Ben Carson recently argued—more important than ensuring that innocent children are not pumped full of holes, even when such horrors could very easily be prevented.
Well: so long as the Constitution says what it says, what’s to stop them from thinking that?
Now, I’m not a complete idiot. I realize that the prospect of repealing a Constitutional amendment—particularly this one—has roughly the same likelihood as electing Taylor Swift to be speaker of the House. Not counting the Bill of Rights, America’s founding document has been altered only 17 times in its 228 years of existence. What is more, only once has Congress replaced one amendment with another, and that was for the singular purpose of reintroducing alcohol into polite society (a noble cause if ever there was one).
Yes, of course attempting to knock down the Second Amendment would be an exercise in futility—political suicide, to say the least—and I don’t expect such an effort to take shape in my own lifetime, or anyone else’s.
In 2014, no less than former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens offered the following compromise: Rather than abolishing the Second Amendment outright, he wrote, let’s expand it by five words so that it reads, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed.”
That would certainly do wonders in clarifying what the founding fathers likely meant in composing the original clause, and it may well have the effect of tempering our country’s cavalier attitude toward crooked metal objects that kill people.
Maybe the image of Americans as armed and dangerous is just too strong for us to ever overcome. Maybe the United States really is exceptional in this regard, for better and for worse. Maybe our increasingly obstinate Congress has made concrete gun control laws impossible for the next many years, and maybe these insane school shootings will continue to occur at regular intervals for the rest of our natural lives. That’s to say nothing of all the afterschool shootings, suicides and freak accidents that can only be caused by lethal weapons and would be far less prevalent if those weapons were far more difficult to obtain.
In other words, maybe we’re doomed. Maybe a few dead children every now and again is the price we pay for freedom, and we’ll just need to get used to it.
And so we are left to ask ourselves whether a Constitutional right to bear arms is worth all of that. Call me un-American, but I’m not entirely sure that it is.