We Americans have always considered our country exceptional. Today, we are exceptionally well-armed and vulnerable to being fatally shot at movie theaters, music concerts, churches, synagogues and schools.
Parents send their children to school every morning, fearing they may never again see them alive. We may be shot if we ring the wrong doorbell or try to enter the wrong car. We may be riddled with bullets by edgy police officers after being stopped for a broken taillight. Our chance of surviving is significantly reduced because the weapon of choice for mass murderers is a combat weapon of “phenomenal lethality,” as the Pentagon puts it.
In last year’s World Population Review of safest countries, the United States ranked 129th. Our position has fallen every year since 2016. These factors may have something to do with it:
- In the last 28 months, mass shootings have rocked communities in 28 states, sometimes more than once. The U.S. is said to be the only developed country where mass shootings have occurred every year for the last 20.
- As of April 10, more than 200 men, women and children had been killed in 146 mass shootings this year. Since 1968, more than 1.5 million Americans have died in gun-related incidents, exceeding the 1.2 million deaths in all wars in U.S. history.
- There were more school shootings last year than any year since 1999. Data studied by the Heart Connecticut Media Group show shooters were younger than 18 in 29 of 62 school shootings between 2000 and 2019.
- So far this year, 74 people have been killed or injured by guns in schools. Nearly 350,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine High School slaughter in 1999.
- You may never return home if you worship in a church or synagogue. Shooters recently killed worshipers at church services in California, Texas and Charleston, S.C. Between 1980 and 2005, 185 people, including 36 children, were killed during 139 church shootings. Since 1990, America’s Jewish population has been subjected to nearly 30 shootings, bombings, kidnaps and terrorist attacks.
- If you attend a movie or music concert or go out for an evening at a nightclub, you may die in a mass shooting. That happened to 59 people in 2017 at a concert in Las Vegas, 49 at a nightclub in Florida in 2016 and 12 at a movie theater in Colorado in 2012.
- Police officers are more likely to be killed by guns in the United States and more likely to shoot and kill civilians than in other developed countries. The proliferation of guns “means that every single [police] call is treated as if someone involved could be armed — and that an otherwise nonviolent wellness check, mental health call, or traffic stop could turn into a deadly encounter,” according to Vox. Data show 456 police officers were killed by guns from 2012 to 2021, including 33 so far this year, while police shot and killed more than 1,000 people in an average year from 2017 to 2021.
- The weapon of choice in mass killings is the AR-15, a semiautomatic version of the military’s fully automatic M-16 combat assault rifle. AR-15s were involved in 10 of the 17 deadliest mass shootings in the United States between 2012 and 2020.
- There are 20 million AR-15s in the United States. About 16 million American adults (one in 20) own at least one. The Washington Post notes the AR-15 is “revered as a modern-day musket,” especially by people on the far right. A bill in the House would designate the AR-15 as “the National Gun of the United States.”
- Congress imposed a 10-year ban on military-style assault rifles in 1994 but allowed it to expire. After that, Congress has approved no significant gun control for 30 years. Congress finally passed a new gun control bill last year after a former student wielding an assault rifle killed 19 students and two teachers and injured 17 others at a middle school in Uvalde, Texas.
Why do we allow this mass insanity? It’s a combination of misinformation, political power, complacence and extremism.
Misinformation: The gun lobby has led Americans to believe the right to bear arms is absolute. It’s not true. Writing for the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, the late Justice Antonin Scalia cautioned, “We do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose.”
Using guns to commit crimes is not protected, of course. But the court also has said gun rights don’t allow “bodies of men to associate together as military organizations,” to carry firearms “in such manner as to strike terror to the people” or to openly carry weapons that are “dangerous and unusual” or intended for a “wicked purpose.”
Pollical power: With an estimated 5 million members, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the “most feared and effective players in Washington and the 50 state capitols.”
The NRA opposes any constraints on guns, arguing that any compromise would put America on a “slippery slope” to government confiscation of firearms. But the lack of constraints has us sliding into anarchy and uncontrolled gun violence affecting Americans of all ages.
Complacence: A Gallup poll in February showed 63 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with current gun laws, the highest in 23 years of tracking. Most Americans have favored stricter laws since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. However, the polls have not translated into “boots on the ground” with mass, sustained protests and vote drives.
With the NRA opposed to the relatively modest gun controls Congress approved last year, only 29 of Congress’s 222 Republicans voted for it. Above all, members of Congress want to keep their jobs.
Extremism: The far right’s response to the murders of children and law-abiding citizens is somewhere between sociopathy and psychopathy. Republicans in Washington are wearing miniature AR-15s on their lapels. This week, one day after a shooter used an AR-15 to kill five people, including a 9-year-old in Texas, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) posed smiling with a T-shirt showing an AR-15 and a caption that called it a “cordless hole puncher.”
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s response to school shootings is to put more guns in schools, which is akin to believing the way to end fatal car crashes is to repeal all road rules and put more cars on the road. Instead, Congress’s next steps should be to renew the ban on assault weapons for anyone below age 21 and hold parents accountable for the misuse of firearms by their minor children.
There is a big gap between the parties on this issue, but we should be able to agree on one thing: When the authors of the Constitution wrote the Second Amendment, this was not the “well-regulated militia” they intended.
William S. Becker is co-editor and a contributor to “Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People,” a collection of more than 30 essays by American thought leaders on topics such as the Supreme Court’s perceived legitimacy. Becker has served in several state and federal government roles, including executive assistant to the attorney general of Wisconsin. He is currently executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), a nonpartisan climate policy think tank unaffiliated with the White House.
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