Intellectually -- despite the events in Newtown, Connecticut -- I can appreciate that the “right to bear arms” is a fundamental constitutional guarantee, inherited from both the Glorious (1688) and American revolutions. I still wonder, though, whether it applies to a society in which most people live in suburban condos and tract houses, which are largely absent of Redcoats or the Hole in the Wall gang. Why have guns in our lives? We know the status quo ante of the 18th century Second Amendment isn’t working. The issues surrounding guns failed to make even a cameo appearance in the recent election, and, when they have been raised in the recent past they certainly did not elicit the same tears that they did at the Newtown press conferences.
Americans own 300 million guns, which kill about 30,000 people each year; about half of the deaths are suicides. Teenagers are involved in a disproportionate number of the shootings and deaths in the violent exchanges, and teens and children are at high risk from all gun violence, which in 2007 and 2008 claimed the lives of 5,740 young victims across the United States (that's almost three "Newtowns" a week). What has become of the original intent of gun rights, if in those years firearms wounded 34,387 teens and children?
Ironically, gun legislation is not much of a deterrent to loss of life from gunshot wounds. In 2008, shooting deaths per thousand in Vermont, with few gun laws, were about the same as those in nearby Massachusetts, which has some of the most strict gun-control laws in the country. The gun laws in the District of Columbia do little to prevent criminals from carrying them into the capital from nearby Virginia or Maryland.
On average about 24 Americans are murdered every day with a gun, and since 9/11 some 300,000 have been gunned down. I came to many of these statistics and reflections while reading Craig Whitney’s Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment, which searches for the middle ground between the National Rifle Association “standing its ground,” and those that would wish away the 300 million firearms that are in American hands.
I had turned to the book hoping to find an argument that the gun right of the Second Amendment was tied to militia enlistment, and that without a call to arms at Lexington or Concord few outside of law enforcement officers needed firearms. What I got instead was a well-reasoned argument for gun ownership, provided that the firearms are handled, bought and sold with care.
Whitney, a former New York Times editor, argues that guns are synonymous with the founding of the American republic, and that the only way to reduce gun violence is to see that firearms, like the equally deadly automobile, are only used in safe hands and in a responsible manner. He believes strict laws that prevent ordinary citizens from having guns to ward off intruders and attackers are unproductive and unconstitutional.
Among his suggestions for ways to keep guns out of the hands of those that would open fire in malls and schools are tighter background checks for buyers and sellers, including at gun shows; nationwide standards to teach responsible gun handling and the issuance of permits for owners who complete rigorous courses; better data bases to trace missing or stolen guns; harsher penalties for illegal gun use; and easier methods to trace bullets and handguns discharged in a criminal act.
My own view of guns is that they scare me. Before moving to Europe in 1991, we lived in New York City. One evening, standing on the doorstep of our Flatbush brownstone, I heard the firing from an automatic weapon on a nearby block and decided that maybe there were other places to raise my children.
Living in Brooklyn didn't give me much sympathy for the NRA, given that the borough has more liquor stores than deer, and that most local weapons are used during open seasons on shop owners. I constantly had in mind a newspaper report about teenagers carrying concealed weapons on the subway. A police detective interviewed for the story said, “I can’t say that every fourteen-year-old on the subway is carrying a gun. But I can say that every other kid has one.”
Part of the reason I react so negatively to guns is because I came of age between the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy in, respectively, 1963 and 1968. By chance, I saw each one in person just before he was killed, so the image of their head wounds (from cheap mail-order or pawn shop guns) contrasted vividly with my recent memories of their thick, wavy hair and broad smiles.
Like many, I only think about guns after hearing about shootings like those at Sandy Hook Elementary, or that a madman went berserk at Virginia Tech or at the movies in Colorado, sacrificing dozens of innocent lives on an altar that is later covered with flowering clichés from the Second Amendment (“If only the Batman moviegoers had been armed...”). Does a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs really need nine guns for protection, especially when he is only hunting down his girlfriend?
Despite these negative feelings, I listened carefully to Whitney’s arguments that gun control has little effect on preventing murders or crimes, and that guns are in America to stay, whatever the consequences. I found myself uncomfortably weighing his long interview with a gun advocate who believes that the only deterrence to gun violence is to have everyone packing heat. Could he be right?
Although I can accept hunting rifles over the hearth and even registered handguns for home defense, I have a harder time with “the right to bear arms” when I think how easy it is anywhere in the country for a lunatic to buy an automatic weapon and use it on school kids or postal coworkers. Better registration procedures and tracking of guns might keep them away from the likes of Tucson’s Jared Lee Loughner. But do we really want the dress code at places like Sandy Hook elementary to include full metal jackets?
Flickr photo: Newtown, Connecticut, Bus Arriving by AskJoanne.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.