This article is part of a reoccuring column on politics and pedagogy at Princeton. For hyperlinks, please see the online article.
Dec. 14, 2012: Sandy Hook Elementary School suffered 26 dead, 20 children and six educators.
I am confident that there is no gun control proposal that will pass through a Republican Congress or through Republican . For years, we have seen incredibly modest attempts at gun control legislation foiled, even gun control legislation that seems like common sense to almost anyone. Take, for example, a proposal following the Orlando Florida Pulse nightclub shooting to keep people on terrorist watch lists from buying guns. (rejected by the Republican Congress and President Trump) to prevent the mentally ill who are on Social Security support to buy weapons. How about a measure to keep people with previous convictions on the national background check system in order to prevent them from purchasing guns? Not even the idea of self-preservation is enough for Congress — in the past decade, there have been two shootings of congressmen and women: Gabrielle Giffords in and Republican congressman Steve Scalise in . Nothing happened. I bring up these failures because I want to make a point clear: there is no such thing as the possibility of “modest” gun control.
So, I won’t waste your time or mine trying to come up with some subtle way to regulate guns that might slip by Republicans and the National Rifle Association (NRA). There is no modest middle ground to occupy. There is no centrist approach, no practical compromise. In fact, even now, . Since automatic weapons bans are totally off the table, why bother with the small fish? There’s no point in going for anything less than the absolute best outcome. Here’s my “modest” proposal: repeal the Second Amendment and ban firearms.
Let me flesh out the proposal a little bit. When I say “ban firearms,” I mean that firearms should be heavily, but reasonably, restricted, to the point where private individual ownership of firearms should be impossible. I am not unreasonable; I see that there are needs for firearms for armed forces and for environmental control (culling deer for sport and perhaps even recreation). None of these needs, however, is inconsistent with severe restrictions and controls. Shooting ranges, for example, might be required to keep all owners’ guns on premises at all times, with paper trails, inspections, and lists ensuring that they stay there. After intense background checks, professionals may be allowed to have access to firearms to deal with agricultural problems; these weapons would also be highly monitored. But in essence, no individual would just own a gun. And this is why we need to repeal the Second Amendment for this to happen: if the Second Amendment protects individual rights to firearms, it would prevent such restrictions from taking place, and such restrictions are crucial to prevent firearm-related deaths.
The rationale behind banning firearms is simple: The first guns were hand cannons used in warfare. We then refined them into the arquebus and eventually the musket. After that, we had rifles and then the machine gun. Someone made the machine gun smaller and handheld, resulting in the submachine gun. Combining the submachine gun and the rifle got us to the assault rifle.
The assault rifle is a source of particular controversy. Our armed forces use assault rifles. The M16 was and now the M4 Carbine is the weapon of choice of the Army and the Marines. M16 is the military designation for the . The AR-15 is a favorite of Americans and a favorite of . The AR-15 has of 550 meters, and a maximum range six times that. It has a of 960 meters per second. To put that into perspective, one could theoretically stand on the northern shore of Lake Carnegie, and a shooter could hit you from the southern shore less than five seconds after pulling the trigger. Once the bullet has entered your body, it would be designed to impart as , and . The AR-15 is both readily available (people have bought them in about ) and the weapon of choice in mass shootings. So certainly, we ought not to let people have these assault rifle-type weapons.
A lot of people then argue that a good way to limit gun deaths would be by banning automatic weapons. There is often a distinction between automatic and semi-automatic weapons. An automatic weapon means you just hold down the trigger, a semi-automatic requires you to pull the trigger each time. Thus, automatic weapons have a greater rate of fire since the weapon can physically fire itself much faster than you can pull the trigger.
But consider that a mere automatic weapons ban, as a prominent has argued, would be insufficient. Semi-automatic weapons are still very dangerous, even with a lower rate of fire. Consider that you can pull triggers very fast, and automatic fire isn’t as effective as semi-automatic fire ; hence, restricting automatic weapons in favor of semi-automatics would not necessarily accomplish much more than doing nothing. Moreover, I assure you, a semi-automatic AR-15 will kill you just as easily as an automatic AR-15 will. I
Okay, then maybe we can just ban semi-automatic weapons as well. But even this wouldn’t be enough. Even restricting access to pump-action shotguns, handguns, or bolt-action rifles would provide plenty of opportunities to use guns to kill: even bolt-action rifles can still surprisingly in skilled hands. , as well as more “mundane” shootings seen in homicides. When you put all this together, you see that yes, some types of guns are obviously more dangerous than others, but all types of guns are still incredibly dangerous, and hence, a partial ban on some types of firearms while ignoring others would not achieve satisfactory public benefit.
All told, , more people died domestically from firearms than in every war fought by the United States: 1.4 million firearm deaths to 1.2 million war deaths. Imagine I told you that a disease endemic to the United States had killed 1.4 million people in less than 50 years, and moreover, nothing had been done to combat the disease. In most circumstances, it is almost impossible to imagine any other public health or national security threat of this magnitude that would go without substantial reform.
The magnitude of the problem and the paucity of response is part of the reason why I and others consider the to be of . Some may be confused by my description of the NRA as a civil rights organization, but after all, that’s what it is. are rights given to us by the government. We often think of civil rights as things such as voting, but we have other civil rights as well. Our most famous enumeration of civil rights comes from our Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment is interpreted (though it was interpreted this way) to provide individuals with the civil right to bear arms. In essence, gun ownership is protected by the Constitution, and the NRA protects that interpretation of the constitution.
The Second Amendment was designed for a time when the country was won by patriots using the guns in their closets for hunting. I’ll grant that there was a time when having firearms was a useful tool to prevent tyranny from the government, or that the nation’s defense did rely on well-regulated militia. But those days are long gone. Our military is designed to fight against other great powers: an armed citizenry would lose against a tyrannical government with the full might of our armed forces behind it.
There is no other possible rationale for gun ownership that would legitimize the Second Amendment other than a civic necessity to prevent tyranny. Things like hunting, sport, or hobby are insufficient to ground a civic right in the Constitution, despite any pleasure someone would derive from them. Also, my proposal, as elaborated above, is not totally inconsistent with hunting, sport, or hobby that is properly regulated. The point is, these are totally insufficient reasons to ground a civic right for firearms. Gun ownership is not as important as the right to a jury, nor the right to freedom of religion, nor the right to vote.
Arguments using gun-ownership as a means for self-defense are self-defeating. If everyone disarms, what would you use a gun to protect yourself from? Thieves? I don’t think someone who steals your TV deserves to be shot. A TV is not worth a life. What about a criminal who threatens your life with a weapon, perhaps even a contraband gun? First, consider that most people in a high stress situation like an active shooter situation or in a condition of self-defense. Second, consider the psychological and moral implications of taking someone else’s life, even if in self-defense. What if you make a mistake? What if you hit someone who isn’t the assailant? Finally, note the implausibility of the “more guns makes people more safe approach,” which is often advocated to keep schools safer. Yes, if you arm a school’s teachers, it won’t be as much of a soft target. But how do you protect students when they are entering/exiting the buses? How do you protect students when they are at home? Do you keep guns at church? How many other soft targets are there, targets that aren’t armed and vulnerable to armed shooters. Must we give everyone a gun? And if everyone has a gun, how can we possibly trust that no one will make a mistake, or that no one will snap (imagine an armed teacher losing it), or that anyone else won’t use their gun on me? Much safer, and better, to just remove guns entirely. Eventually, if the police and other authorities did their job right, even criminals would have fewer guns.
My proposal doesn’t suggest that I don’t support gun control that comes short of repealing the Second Amendment and banning the individual use of firearms. I naturally think that any gun control we could manage would be better than what we have now. I’m all for a ban on bump stocks, automatic weapons, better criminal background checks. And if those things in combination managed to stop shootings and reduce gun deaths to something close to zero, I’d be happy. But I don’t think we’ll ever stop gun violence without getting rid of guns.
There should not be any civic right to bear arms. We ought to remove that notion from the Constitution. Guns kill. Can we reconcile this civic right to firearms with the human right to life? Consider how the Founders who wrote the Second Amendment also wrote the following: that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that , that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are ”.
But in the end, these are contradictory notions: they cannot both exist at the same time. There cannot be a right to guns and a right to life. Gun rights are rights against life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Guns kill, maim, destroy. Gun rights alienate rights that cannot be alienated. In this light, guns may be the least American thing of all. Stop shootings; revoke the Second Amendment.