Seventeen people were killed on February 14th in a Florida school—the latest in a series of mass shootings we’ve endured in public settings over the past few years. The automatic responses have already been issued: the Left is calling for gun control and the Right indicated that this is not the time to discuss it. It is likely that time will pass and focus will shift from this terrible incident to something else and nothing will change. The question is why?
We are different in the United States when it comes to guns. By some estimates, we have more guns than people. One article I read, however, places the number a little lower at 89 firearms for every 100 people. That same study places Yemen in second place with 55 guns per 100 people. The U.S. has less than 5% of the world’s population, but close to 40% of the world’s guns. Often we have a lot in common with our European cousins, but in this case we are so different. The European school of thinking prohibits or strictly limits firearms for most citizens. So if Europe, to a very great extent, represents the roots of our culture, why are we so different?
Many would say that gun ownership in the U.S. reflects the spirit of the American Revolution. One of our founding fathers, George Mason of Virginia, was quoted as saying, “Disarming the people is the best way to enslave them.” Mason opposed the constitution at first because of the lack of specific language granting the right to bear arms. I’m sure he was pleased when the Second Amendment to the Constitution offered this language:
“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.”
This amendment, which was part of the Bill of Rights, used the word militia in the sense of a state-level military force, which could be called upon if the standing national army needed to be opposed—the very thing we’d just finished doing in the late 1700s when state militias opposed British forces. Mason wasn’t going to let the country become disarmed only to suffer through a more homegrown kind of tyranny. He later clarified his view of militia stating that it consisted of, “the whole people, except for a few public officials.” Remember, this was the era of the musket. If the national government started to trample on the states, everyone needed to be able to pick up their musket and join the militia. It was a simpler time.
So this was our starting point and the courts interpreted the Second Amendment for many years as pertaining more to the rights of state militias and less about the rights of individuals. The original language, however, was unclear and open to interpretation. In the 1970s, a movement began to more closely interpret the Second Amendment as relating to an individual’s right to bear arms. Progress with this movement was steady and in 2008, the Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation in its District of Columbia vs. Heller ruling. Antonin Scalia factored in the development of modern weapons when he wrote the majority opinion and identified handguns as the one type of weapon that could not be prohibited.
Now the anti-gun control proponents not only had the spirit of the revolution on their side, but a fresh new interpretation of the Second Amendment from the Supreme Court. The next development, however, is one that has begun to resonate with a growing group after each terrible public shooting. As a result, the number of automatic responses described in my first paragraph has grown. It now goes something like this: 1. Incident happens. 2. The Left calls for gun control. 3. The Right indicates this isn’t the time for to discuss it. 4. Another pro-gun group offers, “If the teachers and staff in the school all had guns, fewer people would have died.”
This is where we are today. My unfortunate conclusion is that the pro-gun logic, which was weakest when only based on the vague language of the Second Amendment, was buttressed by a 2008 Supreme Court ruling, and now is being further supported by an argument that supports a “more guns equals greater safety” logic. According to the numbers, we already have as many guns as people. At what point, does the safety part kick in?