I can’t bring myself to watch the news out of Uvalde, Texas. As a father, the sadness of parents grieving the preventable murders of their children is too painful to even contemplate. I can’t imagine having to live it like 19 families are being forced to right now.
There’s little I can write that hasn’t already been written, little I can share about the emotions that haven’t already been felt. But here, I want to talk about the question we should have answered a long time ago: How do we prevent these kinds of mass murders?
While no two murderers are the same, the murders they commit share some common characteristics — some least common denominators. Preventing them requires us to focus on those. And more than any other characteristic, the single most salient characteristic shared between mass murders is the weapon the murderers choose: A gun — and not just any gun, but semi-automatic assault-style rifles. That’s the kind of gun that has no use except for shooting a lot of people in a short period of time. You don’t hunt deer with an AR-15; they’re made to hunt people.
Opponents of gun reform will argue that the vast majority of gun owners will never commit a murder. That’s true. They’ll argue that murders can be committed without guns. That’s also true. They’ll point to the mindset of the murderers. After all, every single mass murderer has a complex framework of social, emotional, and circumstantial factors that led them to this. Fine.
So, yes, of course we should force accountability on social media platforms that radicalize and isolate vulnerable people. Of course we should invest in more broadly available mental health services. And yes, let’s tackle poverty and the circumstances that compound isolation, vulnerability, and poor mental health. I’m for all of those things. Let’s do them!
But none of them would address the single thing that mass shooters have in common: they pull a trigger. Guns are American mass murder’s least common denominator. It’s true statistically – more gun ownership predicts more gun deaths. And it’s true anecdotally, both mass murders over the past two weeks were perpetrated by 18-year-olds who bought weapons of war legally.
So what stands in our way? Gun apologists argue that any effort to reduce gun access among would-be murderers would risk infringing on Americans’ right to “bear arms.”
Let’s step back here to analyze whether you can call access to a gun an actual “right.” Philosophers speak of “positive” and “negative” rights. Negative rights are those things that others shall not take away — that you cannot be denied as a function of being human. The right to breathe clean air or speak as you choose to without infringement by your government — those are things that cannot be taken away from you.
Then there are “positive” rights. Those are things that you ought to be provided in order to live a dignified life. The right to an education or housing or healthcare. But guns? Guns don’t add to our lives. They take them.
We are the only country in the world that in any way enumerates a right to arms. And even that’s up for debate. Extremists would have you think that the Second Amendment implies anyone has a right to have any gun, anywhere at any time. But let’s look at what it really says: “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.”
Regulation shows up in the first three words! And it’s couched in the notion that those rights exist to protect access to a “well regulated militia.” It’s also why it guarantees the right to “the people,” rather than every person, to “keep and bear Arms.”
The meaning of “Arms” has also changed since the Constitution was ratified. Those were the times of musket balls that you had to reload after every shot. The framers could not have imagined the laser guided high-capacity semi-automatic assault rifles their words would allow to proliferate.
Until 2008, the Second Amendment was interpreted as a collective, rather than individual right. Meaning that communities had a right to a “well-regulated Militia.” That was until the Supreme Court revised that interpretation in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. In that ruling, the court struck down a Washington, D.C., law banning handguns and requiring that long guns be stored disassembled and unloaded. The Court held that the law infringed on an individual right to bear arms — interpreting that individual right into existence.
The National Rifle Association has fully captured the GOP.
Yet the court’s interpretation is vastly out of step with the American public, who by wide margins support assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans, universal background checks, red flag laws, and other sensible gun policies.
What’s stopping us from passing those laws? Political extremism. The National Rifle Association has fully captured the GOP — supporting anything short of any gun for anyone, anywhere, any time would be punished through the political primary process. Consider Texas Senator Ted Cruz who had the gall to blame the Uvalde massacre on… the fact that the school had a back door.
The irony, of course, is that the same people who are opposing gun reform self-style as “pro-life.” It seems they value the lives of unborn fetuses more than the value of actual children — because they value the rights of guns to be owned more than the rights of women to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy.
Meanwhile, a few Democrats care more about an arcane parliamentary procedure than finally canning the filibuster and passing sensible gun reform. Others, including the entire Democratic House leadership, just backed an anti-abortion Democrat with an A rating from the NRA whose home was raided by the FBI in a South Texas House district over his progressive primary challenger.
It’s been ten years since elementary-aged children were murdered by a mass shooter in their schools at Sandy Hook. Most of the children who were killed in Uvalde hadn’t been born yet. They lived their entire lives in a world where we knew the risks they faced, and failed to prevent them anyway.