By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
All I can say is the Framers of the Second Amendment really screwed the pooch with this nebulous sentence: “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.”
The intent seems clear enough to me in the context of the time that citizens needed weapons in order to serve in local militias as well as for hunting and protection. But I can’t imagine that James Madison, who proposed the amendment, would now condone giving anyone, especially a troubled individual like the Uvalde gunman, an AR-15 and 375 rounds of ammo like he purchased shortly after his 18th birthday.
The results of that permissiveness have been agonizingly obvious for the last 30 years or even more, especially since the 1994-2004 ban on assault weapons was lifted.
We now live in a country where an estimated 390 million firearms are in private hands. That’s more than one per person. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were approximately 50,000 verified shooting incidents in America each year from 2014 through 2020. During that time, nearly 250,000 people died by gunfire (more than 138,000 of them by their own hand) and nearly 210,000 were wounded. That grim toll has only grown during the last two years.
In 2020, there were a record 611 mass shootings (a minimum of four victims). This year there have been 246 as of June 6. Recent ones in Buffalo, Laguna Woods, Uvalde and Tulsa triggered yet another round of calls for “common sense” measures such as universal background checks; “red flag” seizures of firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others; safe storage requirements; and age limits on the purchase of so-called assault rifles and high capacity ammunition magazines.
“Infringed” is defined as “act so as to limit or undermine (something); encroach (intrude) on,” but why must we lock ourselves into violent madness simply because of the wording of an amendment that can easily be clarified and modified? And do legal requirements that bolster responsibility automatically deny everyone a right? I just don’t see how rational regulations are as bad as what we are dealing with every day in this country.
I always hear right-wing politicians and commentators complaining that law-abiding citizens pay the price when gun laws are enacted or made stricter. What price? Inconvenience at having to prove you can meet certain standards? Being unable to own a type of weapon that even law enforcement officers feel civilians should not have? People can’t content themselves with another kind of firearm?
Let’s talk inconvenience and paying a price. I drive a school bus, a job that requires me to take three written exams with fees, provide three references and fingerprints, undergo several months of training, pass a road test and take another one every two years, attend a week of safety classes and annual refreshers, pass an annual physical, and submit to random drug testing, all in the name of safety and responsibility.
Bad bus drivers are still on the road. I read and hear about them all the time. But rather than offer up thoughts and prayers after one of them has a deadly accident, the federal government in 2020 created an online data base that all school districts and private bus companies can access when assessing the driving records of applicants. Surely it has prevented more than few miscreants from taking the wheel of a vehicle loaded with children.
Yeah, I know. The Constitution does not include the right to drive a bus. But buses are not designed to kill. Guns are. So wouldn’t it be simple common sense to require equally rigorous standards for firearm possession if we’re actually interested in safety? Some states, such as New York, are trying, but in Texas you can buy and carry a gun without a permit or training. The current Supreme Court, dominated by conservatives, will likely make such things easier in other states for decades to come.
With our entrenched political conflicts and fanatical gun culture, it is impossible to turn America’s tide of misuse unless responsible owners can be can be encouraged to join forces with lawmakers to craft effective national laws and regulations or improve existing ones. Those owners also need to be free from the fear of being blamed or ostracized for either perpetuating our epidemic of gun violence or defying what has long been a commandment: Thou shalt not compromise.
I suspect that one reason why background checks and red flag laws are so strongly opposed on the right is because some people feel they have something in their personal history that would disqualify them from being able to purchase a firearm. That would also cut into sales and profits for gun manufacturers. As I pointed out in my recent Insider piece about Tucker Carlson, there are huge bundles of money to be made in destructive activities like the sale of firearms. Throw in lucrative stuff like violent entertainment, social media that allows people to withdraw from the real world into echo chambers of hostility and misinformation, and the enthusiastic marketing of high-powered weaponry, and you have a recipe for national tragedy without end.
“The idea that an 18-year-old could walk into a store and buy weapons of war designed and marketed to kill is, I think, just wrong,” President Biden said after the Uvalde shootings. “It just violates common sense.”
At present we have only an ineffective hodgepodge of federal and state laws to regulate our popular tools of death and suffering. A strict law in one state can be undermined by lax regulations in another.
The boilerplate right-wing response to any call for gun control legislation is, “Laws don’t stop criminals.” That’s obvious. Laws only ensure punishment after the deed, but they help lessen incidents of crime.
Robbery, assault, rape and murder are all illegal and still occur. It’s safe to say there would be many more of them if they were not. We still have auto accidents and fatalities even with laws against speeding and drunk driving, but not as many deaths as we did before those laws went into effect.
Like gun laws, speed limits, seat belts and DUI measures were resisted when they were first proposed. Seat belts are credited with saving more than a million lives since being federally mandated in the 1960s. Traffic fatalities declined by more than 50 percent in the first 10 years after the national 55 mile-per-hour limit was adopted in 1974. Annual drunk driving deaths have dropped from 18,000 to around 11,000 since a crackdown began in 1985.
Universal standards are well worth trying with guns, but they’re blocked by the same political party that fights long and hard to ensure the survival of every unborn fertilized egg while also fighting long and hard against measures that would help to protect human beings once they are in this world.
In our political climate, doing the right thing with gun control will surely be seen as caving to the Democrats and liberals, something many in the GOP would probably rather die than be seen doing in the eyes of their peers and base. That tribal mentality is a huge, insidious obstacle. So we get reasoning like this (from a reader on the Poughkeepsie Journal’s website): “You don't have a right to safety. Buy a gun and defend yourself if need be.”
The asinine “If it isn’t 100 percent effective, it’s not worth doing” attitude has also been used with masks during the pandemic even though they have been proven to limit the number of cases when used correctly. Ending all violence committed with guns is impossible, but sensible efforts in regulation and other areas such as mental health, security and promotion of civility will go a long way to reducing it.
A New York Times piece on June 2 points out that six of the nine deadliest mass shootings since 2018 were committed by assailants 21 years old or younger. Some act out of a sense of isolation, helplessness and resentment. Those emotions are also being stoked in the wider population by social media, partisan commentators and extremist politicians.
So how does it make sense that a country awash in anger, fear, alienation, bitter political polarization, and paranoia should have unfettered or easy access to guns? The self-defense argument presents a paradox and only goes so far. If more guns mean more safety, why does America have such a stratospheric level of gun injuries and deaths? Of 50,928 reported shooting incidents from 2014-18, only 23 percent (11,981) involved self-defense.
Enforcement of laws is never perfect, but it can always be improved. Yet as the gun carnage continues, elected Republicans, especially the ones in the Senate, refuse to do even the most obvious thing.
Look at this way: Let’s say America is a house full of people. Adults 21 and over are legally allowed to drink alcohol and smoke pot. Some can handle these mind-altering substances without problems. Others become irresponsible and even violent. Some of the under-aged kids are getting ahold of the comestibles and frequently trashing the house and hurting each other while stoned.
Now wouldn’t the most practical move be for the responsible adults to strictly limit access to the booze and pot? Maybe by locking them in a cabinet where only the legally-aged and demonstrably responsible have access? Their right to drink and toke would still be preserved. Sure, some of the others will find a way to do it, but why make it easy?
As legendary humorist and social commentator Will Rogers once said, “Just because it's common sense, doesn't mean it's common practice.”
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.