Nelson Mandela famously said, “Everything is impossible until it happens.” These days, ending the gun violence and mass shootings plaguing our communities certainly feels impossible.
On July 2, a mass shooting in Baltimore killed two young people and injured 28 others. A day later, a mass shooting in Southwest Philadelphia left five people dead and at least two minors wounded, competing for headlines with a mass shooting in Texas and another in Louisiana.
We are halfway through 2023, and already there have been more than 300 mass shootings in which four or more people were shot, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
And while we know gun violence can happen anywhere, Black and brown communities are particularly vulnerable.
More than 20 years ago, I was a TV anchor in Philadelphia sent to cover the Columbine mass shooting in my hometown of Littleton, Colorado. I took my 6-month-old baby with me so my parents could watch her while I interviewed grieving families and talked to experts on how Columbine would be a turning point to force change. And yet nothing has changed except the 6-month-old is now 24, and gun violence has only worsened. In fact, there have been so many mass shootings in the intervening years that Columbine’s 13 deaths in 2023 do not even make the top-10 ranking of fatalities.
This does not have to be our reality; the rest of the world is a testament to this. Twenty years ago, Australia drastically restricted legal ownership of firearms and, among other measures, introduced a mandatory buyback of more than a half-million guns. The result: Murders and suicides in Australia plummeted. The impossible happened.
In our country, we watched a mandatory assault weapons ban expire, and accepted the excuse that “there just aren’t the votes in Congress” to pass new legislation banning assault bans, even though the people who elected Congress are clamoring for change.
The Johns Hopkins National Survey of Gun Policy has tracked American support of gun policies for a decade. In every survey, the results show that a majority of Americans support gun policies that have proven effective at or show promise for reducing gun violence.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is so intent on giving an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment right to carry arms that it ignores the language of even the most conservative justice, the late Antonin Scalia, who wrote that the right to bear arms is not unlimited. At every opportunity, the majority in the court misreads the Constitution and dismisses settled law to suit its sadly partisan bent: from removing the constitutional protections for abortion to most recently ignoring the clear intent of the Fourteenth Amendment’s constitutional protection for affirmative action, which was enacted to advance equality and remedy wrongs.
For all these reasons, it seems that change is impossible. That is, until it happens.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed amending the Constitution to raise the minimum age to buy a firearm, require universal background checks, institute a reasonable waiting period for gun purchases, and ban civilian purchases of assault weapons.
Critics call Newsom, along with his proposal, crazy, unhinged and a political stunt. This comes as no surprise when the NRA and the Gun Lobby are among his critics.
It is a long shot, as amending the Constitution is a Sisyphean struggle. Without the votes in Congress, you would need two-thirds of the country’s state legislatures to call for an Article 5 convention to propose and decide on the amendment. And then three-quarters of states would have to vote to ratify. Finding that support in many of our state legislatures feels naive and unrealistic, but certainly some states would join California in this arduous task. Maryland has just elected a governor who has already shown he can get hard things done.
We all should reach out to our legislators and encourage them to examine Newsom’s proposal or demand they offer their own. It is the only way to make what now seems impossible, possible.
Renee Chenault Fattah (email@example.com) is executive director of Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity and a trustee at Johns Hopkins University