April 7, 2018

THE RADICAL CENTER | Time to Debate the Second Amendment

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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