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THE RADICAL CENTER | Time to Debate the Second Amendment

Last month, America’s streets were awash with millions of protesters demanding stricter gun control. The March for Our Lives, as the rousing nationwide demonstration was called, came a month after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida where seventeen people—all of them students and teachers—were murdered. The shooting was an monstrous display of human depravity. It was clear that all the demonstrators wanted was to stop this horror from ever happening again. Their signs, posters, and shirts were imprinted with the march’s haunting slogan: “Never Again.”

On their merits, the marchers’ demands are a mix of reasonable and misguided. A universal background check system, verifying that gun buyers aren’t criminals, would probably reduce gun-related deaths. A ban on “bump stocks,” small devices which accelerate the rate of fire for semi-automatic weapons, seems justified. Even the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.), a gun-rights pressure group, has conceded the point on bump stocks. But a ban on assault weapons didn’t work to reduce gun violence when America tried it in 1994. There is little to indicate that a fresh assault-weapons ban would have a different effect today.

Yet the marchers’ policy demands mask a deeper question. Their agenda does not appear to infringe upon anyone else’s constitutional rights. Nor does their rhetoric explicitly wade into the treacherous waters of repealing the Second Amendment. Indeed, the march’s organizers, many of whom are classmates of the high schoolers slain at Parkland, claim no hostility to the Second Amendment, which confers a constitutional right to “keep and bear arms.” But the march’s ultimate goal—to put an end to mass shootings—is at odds with the organizers’ purported indifference toward the Second Amendment.

To see why, begin with the evidence. A recent review of gun-policy literature by the RAND Corporation was inconclusive on the link between various forms of gun control and mass shootings. (Inconclusive evidence of a link is, of course, not the same as no link at all.) But even if there was a link, it would be a meager one. The plurality of mass shootings are carried out with handguns, as are the majority of gun crimes. Moreover, the right to keep and bear handguns is protected by the Second Amendment, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller. So the only way to end mass shootings is to ban handguns. And the only way to ban handguns is to repeal the Second Amendment.

This tension is at the heart of the marchers’ demands. Their rhetoric calls for fundamental change—“never again” should any life be lost to a mass shooting. But their policy prescriptions, far from radical restructuring, amount to marginal tinkering. The marchers, perhaps exhibiting political savvy, have elected to sidestep questions of the Second Amendment. They settle instead for expansive rhetoric and modest demands.

The inconsistency of the marchers’ arguments arises from, I reckon, one complicating fact: more guns means more gun violence. This is an ugly truth for both sides. For gun-rights types, their freedom to bear arms costs lives. For gun-controllers, their ultimate goal must be to drastically reduce America’s vast supply of guns, totaling over 300 million. That means instituting a gun confiscation or mandatory buyback program—which would necessitate the repeal of the Second Amendment.

The political barriers to repealing a constitutional amendment are hard to overstate. Both houses of Congress must with a two-thirds margin pass the proposed change. Then, three-fourths of the states (38 of them) must ratify it. Little wonder why most liberals steer clear of the repeal argument. It seems a political impossibility.

But political feasibility can change. Already, prominent voices have begun to call for the Second Amendment to be repealed, including, most recently, former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens. As such calls proliferate, the repeal argument will cease being a far-left position. The window of political acceptability will shift. And with that shift, a new debate will emerge.

Some conservatives, smelling blood in the water, have already begun to relish in what they see as a political blunder by liberals. I wouldn’t be so sure. The repeal argument is radical precisely because few publicly advocate it. But polling data show significant portions of left-leaning voters supporting sweeping gun bans, which would require a repeal. If overturning the Second Amendment became a mainstream Democratic position, some independents would doubtless be swayed, too. A pro-repeal coalition might not seem so far-fetched.

It is time to have an open and honest debate about the Second Amendment. If liberals want to put an end to mass shootings, they must become comfortable with arguing for a repeal. They must attempt to convince the American people that guns endanger lives. They must, above all, persuade the public that their notion of freedom is the right one.

I do not believe in a Second Amendment repeal. But I do believe in the power of persuasion. The way forward in America’s gun discourse is to bifurcate it—one debate about marginal gun restrictions, another about the Second Amendment. You will find this columnist on the anti-repeal side of the Second Amendment debate. But I can be persuaded. So can America.

Header image courtesy of Brian Shan

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1 comment

  • There can’t be an honest debate about the 2d Amendment until people understand and admit the historical facts surrounding it’s enactment. Ironically there are very well established definitions of the key portions of the amendment that will support both sides of the debate. Progressives do not want to engage in an honest discussion of this amendment or the Constitution generally because they have been undermining the very nature of the Constitution in our society since the beginning of the 20th century. The Courts have purposely undermined and ignored the Constitution through many opinions, e.g., giving tremendous deference to decisions by the administrative (executive) agencies, to allowing federal overreach in the regulation of commodities, to name a couple. Law schools that teach “critical legal theory” (same thread as Foucault and deconstructionists) hold that there is no reason that the Constitution should limit anything the Government or Courts decide the words mean so policies can be enacted that hitherto violated the express terms of the document. Those who rely on “constitutional rights” refuse to read the preamble to the document that states that rights do not spring from government. Those who rely on the amendment for arming themselves are ignorant of the fact that after the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified any state could make it illegal to own any weapon and they would have every right to do so (however, see 14th Amendment for another day). Progressives, of course, don’t want to go there because many states actually had laws that mandated that individuals who made up the militia (all males 16-46 in New York) had to own military grade weapons by law. E.g., If someone freed a slave the former owner had to pay for arming the newly freed person so they could participate in the defense of the state, even as against the federal government, for which the amendment exists. People would much prefer to remain ignorant however, because ignorance supports their desired policy objective. The notion that an individual had a right to take up arms against the state or federal government alone is absurd (one had to be called up by the State for it to be valid, hence militia) but the position that there is no individual right to own a weapon is also absurd and contrary to a voluminous and very definite expression of that right by all states and individuals. The bulk of the civil war was fought by militia with personally owned military grade weapons.

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