Americans own as many as 300 million guns, and about 30,000 of us die from gunshots every year. Even though more than half of such deaths are suicides, the number of murders is shocking. National attention has recently turned to the case of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, shot Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch volunteer who claimed he used his gun against the unarmed teenager in self-defense. Meanwhile, the disturbing phenomenon of mass shootings continues, most recently in April, at a Christian college in Oakland, CA.Undeniably -- we have a serious gun violence problem.
Can we really “live with guns?” Yes we can, but only if we can find a way to talk reasonably with each other about them rather than shouting slogans, which is what we have been doing in the culture wars we have been waging with each other over the Second Amendment to the Constitution.
“Living With Guns” argues that the Second Amendment recognizes and protects an individual’s right to own and use guns. Americans have had that right since colonial days, but we tend to forget that it has always been connected with a civic duty. Back then it was to come to the common defense when called by the local or state militia. After the Revolution, the founders recognized the right to keep and bear arms as an important guarantee that the powerful federal government they established with the Constitution could not use a standing federal army to impose tyranny over the states and their militias, or on individual Americans. Like all other rights, the right to own guns was not unqualified and was subject to reasonable regulation, as it had been since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.
But times changed. Social and racial turbulence in the 1960s was followed by a wave of drug use and violent crime. Under the banner of being “tough on crime,” Conservatives urged and passed “stand your ground” laws in many states, giving people greater license to look to their own guns for self-defense. Meanwhile more liberal areas like Washington, D.C. and Chicago, afflicted with high murder rates in those troubled times, in effect banned gun ownership in an effort to bring them down. But the bans did not work. And gun bans are not constitutional, according to the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, in opinions in 2008 on Washington’s law and in 2010 on Chicago’s (and for that matter, others nationwide). In Living With Guns I make the case that history shows that the justices were right on that point, though wrong in their more sweeping assertion that the primary purpose of the right was self-defense.
They also ruled that reasonable gun control laws were constitutional. But strict gun control by itself cannot solve our gun violence problem. Keeping guns out of the hands of as many law-abiding Americans as possible does not keep them out of the hands of criminals who do not bother to register guns at all. Draconian gun laws and regulations do not work as well as social and economic policies that work with, rather than against, violence-prone young people in troubled neighborhoods -- for example, those programs that endeavor to convince them that using guns is not a solution to frustration.
Reasonable gun regulations are on the books, but they are full of loopholes. Everybody agrees that people convicted of crimes, the mentally unstable, those addicted to drugs, people subject to restraining orders against a spouse, and the like should not have guns, and Federal law forbids licensed dealers from selling to them. But the Federal background check database of names is full of holes. Other loopholes in the law allow private individuals to sell guns with no background checks at all on buyers.
Conservatives and the NRA fight all efforts to tighten the regulations, as if the crime wave of 20 and 30 years ago had not significantly ebbed, along with the crack-cocaine epidemic that caused much of it. The Second Amendment does not make gun owners a law unto themselves. Many “stand your ground” laws, like the one in Florida, only make it harder for the authorities to convict criminals of gun violence.
All Americans should be encouraged to recognize that gun ownership is a right, but that gun owners still have a civic duty, to exercise the right carefully and responsibly, not recklessly. The current impasse makes the next gun massacre simply a matter of time. “Living With Guns” explores ways to make it possible for Americans to live in greater safety, even with so many guns around.
All of the recommendations in “Living With Guns” on how to make it safer for all of us to live with guns turned up in one form or another in the package of legislative and executive measures proposed by President Obama on Jan. 16, after the Newtown massacre.
See the proposals as they appear in Chapter Eight of the book, where the reasons for them are fully explained. READ MORE HERE.