The limit of our gun debate

Second Amendment

Every Monday and Thursday, the Times Union editorial board meets to talk about issues we may want to weigh in on. On my list Jan. 9 was the shooting the previous Friday of an elementary school teacher by a 6-year-old student.

Six. Years. Old.

Generally, if an editorial board member is going to bring up a topic, it’s expected they’ll have some position they think the paper should take in an editorial.

I had no idea what to say. Which is disconcerting for someone who has so much to say about gun violence in America.

Back in 2009, I wrote the first of what would be far too many editorials on guns. It was prompted by a shooting rampage at an immigration center in Binghamton by a disturbed man who killed 13 people before shooting himself.

I wrote the last one — the last one to date, that is — this past Dec. 22, marking the tenth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that left 20 children and six adults dead.

Since the Binghamton killings, gun violence in America rose dramatically — from 11,493 homicides in 2009 to 20,958 in 2021. Total firearm deaths from all causes, including suicides (shootings oneself is the most common method of suicide in this country), reached 48,830 in 2021, the most ever.

I wouldn’t attempt to catalog all the shootings, from assassinations like that of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller to the massacres in churches in Texas and South Carolina and a synagogue in Pittsburgh, to a movie theater in Colorado, a nightclub in Orlando, a music festival in Las Vegas, a grocery store in Buffalo, and schools across the country.

Over the past 14 years, we’ve called for better background checks on those who buy, inherit or otherwise acquire guns. For a renewed ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. For red flag laws that take guns away from dangerous people. For a ban on “bump stocks” that effectively turn semi-automatic guns into automatic weapons, and on unstamped, hard-to-trace “ghost guns” sold through the mail.

We’ve seen some progress – restrictions on assault weapons and requirements for periodic pistol permit renewals in New York, federal legislation providing for more comprehensive background checks on gun buyers aged 18-21, and more money for states to fund crisis intervention and red flag programs.

But for every solution we’ve proposed, gun lobbyists and their allies in Congress have a red herring: We have to enforce the laws we have before we pass new ones! If we ban assault weapons, what’s next, knives? Baseball bats? Trucks? The real problem is “mental health”! Silencers protect hearing! The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants!

And for every sensible solution out there, it seems there’s a nutty one. A “reciprocity” act that would require states with strict gun laws to honor permits issued by those with lax rules. Or a proposal to bar taking firearms away from veterans with documented mental health issues — never mind that the suicide rates among veterans is 50 percent higher than in the general population, and that firearms are used in more than 71 percent of veteran suicides.

The original Sandy Hook editorial in 2012 was one of the most painful things I’ve ever written. And that troubles me. Mass murder should always horrify and dismay us. But as the years have passed, I find myself asking, “What would we say that hasn’t been said before?”

So there I was that Monday in January, wondering what one could say about a 6-year-old shooting his teacher. It’s not about assault weapons. It’s not about background checks. It might have been about gun locks, mental illness, school security, parental responsibility — but just four days after the shooting, we didn’t have much in the way of details. And for every gun lock advocate, there’s an opponent who will say they need their gun ready to shoot an intruder. For every person who says guns shouldn’t be accessible in a home with mentally ill people is a member of Congress defending their NRA rating — sorry, I mean Second Amendment rights. It’s tiresome and frustrating.

After 14 years, I’m beginning to think we may be reaching the limit of what’s possible to legislate, considering how long the current conservative majority on the Supreme Court that’s so hostile to gun control will likely endure. Which means — and I say this as a gun owner who thinks gun ownership should be protected — that the next big debate in America may need to be an amendment of the Second Amendment — one that strikes a better balance between the right to bear arms for personal protection or hunting and the right to not live in fear that one individual can easily acquire off-the-shelf modern weaponry and use it to mow down your kid and his classmates, or your congregation, or your fellow Wal-Mart shoppers.

And I’d wager that if ordinary citizens get a say in that, we’d end up with much clearer, much more durable gun rights and gun laws. Constitutionally bulletproof laws that make massacres of 6-year-olds as rare as 6-year-olds with guns.

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