Almost three months ago, a terrorist attack claimed the lives of fifty innocent Muslims at prayer, horrifying the world. In response to the shooting, New Zealand's government swiftly banned military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault weapons. In addition, the government established a buyback program for newly-banned guns in an effort to remove them from market circulation. New Zealand’s immediate response to an unprecedented national tragedy highlights the comparative inaction on the part of the United States government in shootings at Virginia Beach, UNC Charlotte, Parkland, and countless others.
Many Americans who support free and open gun rights have pointed out that a New Zealand-esque approach to gun violence in the United States would violate the Second Amendment and that regulating guns will not meaningfully curb violence. However, the government seems unwilling to deal with any of the issues surrounding gun violence either. The United States government has to stop making excuses for its inaction and take action against both gun violence itself and the mechanisms that can allow violence to proliferate.
The first and most poignant argument gun rights advocates make is that the Second Amendment grants Americans the “right to bear arms.” The Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller even clarified the meaning of the Amendment: citizens should be able to own weapons as self-protection. While one could argue that the Supreme Court's decision in Heller was completely wrong and that a “well-regulated militia” should be interpreted at face value, two realities must be made clear here: that of the Constitution’s archaic nature and of the need to limit certain liberties to ensure the public good.
The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are over two hundred years old. Both documents were written in a different time and in a different political climate. While the founders built mechanisms into the Constitution to account for the future, such as the Necessary and Proper Clause and the Tenth Amendment, there were possibilities they did not account for as well, such as regular citizens having access to the ability to easily murder fifty of their own. Americans overcame past constitutional shortcomings by adding constitutional amendments; there is no reason that the Second Amendment should not be modernized.
The Amendment is outdated and the government should impose restrictions on it. Strong precedent exists for restricting particular rights in the name of securing the well-being of the general population. For example, the First Amendment has been subjected to the clear and present danger test, as well as the imminent lawless action test. At the very least, the United States can restrict gun rights to adults. Teenagers are not allowed to drink, run for office, or even book a hotel in some states, and most cannot vote. Yet, almost a million high school students can purchase an AR-15.
Studies have shown that a gun is more likely to injure or kill an innocent person at home than an intruder and that living in a gun owner's home increases a person's risk of homicide by 40–170 percent. Furthermore, domestic abusers are five times as likely to murder their abusers if they own a firearm. More than 75 percent of guns used in accidental injuries and suicide attempts of individuals aged nineteen and younger were stored in the house of the victim's friend or relative, or the houses of the victims themselves. Outside of the home, owning a gun statistically does not improve one's chances of avoiding harm; instead, according to the American Journal of Public Health, possessing a firearm increases a person's chances of getting shot in an assault by a factor of 4.5.
The Violence Policy Center reported in 2013 that for every time that a gun is used in a "justifiable homicide," guns were used in unjustifiable homicides forty-four times, not even including accidental shootings or suicides. Researchers have concluded that guns are used for aggression at least four times as much as they are used for self-defense. The research that exists on the relationship between gun ownership and the proliferation of violence indicates that the presence of firearms engenders aggressive acts rather than legitimate self-defense Americans cannot continue to ignore the subtle but traumatic negative effects of gun ownership on people’s lives.
Another argument is that decreased access to guns will not decrease gun-related crime. However, studies have shown that gun availability—not just ownership—is highly correlated with gun violence. Lethal violence is likely to be high in countries with high private gun ownership, and instances of mass shootings correlate highly with high gun ownership rates both inside and outside of the United States. The correlation suggests that increased gun ownership may not be an adequate solution to reducing gun violence, despite claims to the contrary. Having armed teachers, for instance, would likely increase students’ exposure to gun violence in educational environments.
Many have complained that legislating more gun laws would be restrictive to gun rights without actually solving gun violence. However, an experimental study showed that all other factors equal, gun control regulation reduced the number of gun-related casualties. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that gun laws relating to child access led to safer gun storage practices. Extreme risk protection orders and minimum age laws would further help keep guns out of the hands of those at an “increased risk of violence.” These kinds of gun laws are not the ones that are discussed in mainstream media, but they have effectively saved lives.
Every year, more than three million children witness gun violence. In 2016, the ratio of gun-related fatalities of children and young adults was higher in the United States than in other high-income and low-to-middle-income countries. In 2018, a student's risk of dying in a school shooting was higher than it had been in twenty-five years. There are even economic costs. Gun violence costs America at least $229 billion a year, more than $700 per American on average and more than the economic cost of obesity or the annual cost of Medicaid. Resistance to changing gun laws in the United States defies moral sensibilities, substantial research, and economic efficiency.
Inaction enforces the status quo. In New Zealand, politicians did not worry about whether their citizens should be allowed to keep assault rifles because of their right to self-preservation. They did not worry that their new gun laws would not work. They moved forward with the ban and took action. The United States does not take action in the wake of mass shootings.
The aftermath of recurring tragedies has become predictable. Some point out that we need better gun laws, and then others insist that the time is not yet right to talk about gun laws. The chatter then dies off until another shooting captivates the national consciousness and the cycle repeats. One thing is certain, though: keeping guns in the equation will make the cycle worse. Real action, grounded in the reality of the interplay between the Second Amendment, gun ownership, and gun violence, is desperately needed.