About a year ago, I wrote an article that started off with one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
While the topic for that article may have been completely different, I can’t help but reflect on the striking profoundness of it as I write about the importance of tighter gun regulation for the second time in as many years.
Those two years have seen more gun-related tragedies than I like to consider. Nationally, we have seen horror after horror transpire, yet the aftermath always seems to end in stalemate.
Part of what makes the debate so pervasive, yet so often deadlocked, is rampant sensationalism, something people on both sides of the debate are equally guilty of. For every clip of a person screaming about how the government wants to take all the guns away, there is another claiming the National Rifle Association is some sort of evil institution, whose only goal is propaganda and manipulation. Neither of these generalizations are correct, but both come to define any attempts at rhetoric.
While this is unfortunate, it isn’t entirely surprising. Emotions run high on the issue of gun control, but putting them aside – at least as far away as is possible – is imperative to finding a solution.
Once you set aside personal biases, the only natural starting point is the Second Amendment, the very root of the matter, which so famously says, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
This may seem more like a conclusion than a starting point. After all, if the Constitution – the supreme law of the land – says that this right is unassailable, then what else is there to question? But in law and elsewhere in life, reading the entirety of a sentence is typically considered essential to reaping the meaning. And in this case, knowing what preceds that famous line is crucial.
In actuality, the Second Amendment is prefaced. In its entirety, it reads: “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.” So, no, the Constitution does not give unlimited rights to a personal armory. Instead, it focuses on a counterforce to a large, standing army organized by the federal government. But I can think of no one who wants to take away guns from the National Guard – the modern incarnation of the state militias.
Therefore, no, the legal foundation for the debate is not quite as solid in favor of one side as most people seem to think. Instead, it careens into the much murkier realm of morality. Operating under such circumstances requires a commitment to compromise.
Representatives of both sides need to come to a consensus about a few basic truths. One is that virtually no one wants to ban firearms for hunting or personal protection. But automatic weapons or extended magazine capacities are not necessary for either of those things.
Another is that advocates of the “guns don’t kill people” mantra are absolutely correct. Guns are not sentient creatures and do not kill people. But they make it easier for people who want to kill people to act on their impulses. They make people who want to kill a lot of people much more efficient in their endeavors. It is for that sake that action must be taken.
Once again, guns are not sentient creatures, which means we are not harming guns by making access to them easier. We do not need to worry about hurting guns’ feelings. But we do need to worry about people who have undeservedly gained access to firearms far beyond their reasonable needs with intentions to use them maliciously. That is a real, and reasonable, fear to have.
Finally, it’s important that all the other topics that get introduced in the gun control debate – our nation’s mental health care, breakdowns in bureaucratic communication and overall violent culture included – are all legitimate concerns that need to be addressed at a national level. They are not merely excuses thrown out by gun rights activists to cover up the real problem. But they are close to that.
Yes, dialogues about mental health or video games should be part of the larger discussion. But they should come after we’ve addressed the central problem. To pretend that they are the sole cause of rampant shooting deaths is foolishness. They are no more than a secondary factor, and only worthy of that status.
Guns are a big part of American culture and that is never going to change. It shouldn’t necessarily have to for people to be safe. As long as both sides of this often vitriolic debate can set aside their differences long enough to reach the reasonable conclusion – not that all guns should be melted down or that every teacher should be carrying them – then we as a society can take a crucial step toward putting our bloody past behind us.
This commentary is part of a Point-Counterpoint package. To see Ibrahim Jacobs’ commentary, “Rights of firearm owners in crosshairs,” click here.
Zack Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ZackScott11.