Members of the public shoot AR-15 rifles and other weapons at a shooting range during the “Rod of Iron Freedom Festival” on Oct. 12, 2019 in Greeley, Pennsylvania. The event, organized by Kahr Arms/Tommy Gun Warehouse and Rod of Iron Ministries, bills itself as a “second amendment rally and celebration of freedom, faith and family.” (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
As the riot of gun violence in America produces fresh massacres by the day, firearm fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge the blood on their hands, and their suicidal stance in the face of escalating carnage is that more guns are the answer.
But it’s worse than that.
Take a close look at the arguments that gun extremists advance and a dark truth emerges. They repeatedly put defense against tyranny at the center of their claim to unfettered access to firearms. In the almost 232 years since the ratification of the Second Amendment, individual gun owners have had no substantial or sustained occasion to take up arms against the federal government. Yet guns are involved in almost 49,000 annual deaths in the United States. Anyone who has studied the matter arrives at the simple conclusion that more guns mean more death, and the gun-permissive U.S. is an extreme outlier in the developed world.
The nature of gun violence in America therefore amounts to a proxy war, with school children targeted as unwitting infantry and grocery store shoppers conscripted as cannon fodder. Attackers armed as if for military engagement, backed by Second Amendment fanatics, are deployed in public to kill unsuspecting innocents.
This is a hot war. We know which side is the aggressor. Gun extremists aren’t just political misfits. They are belligerents.
It is true that the framers crafted the Second Amendment as a defense against a form of 18th-century tyranny. Some representatives from the various states were wary of a strong federal government that could establish a standing army and dissolve state militias, and the right to “keep and bear arms” is explicitly tied to militia service in the text of the one-sentence, 27-word amendment.
What’s not explicit in the amendment is an individual right concerning firearms. In the records of the First Federal Congress, which produced the amendment, “There was no discussion at all about private ownership of guns,” notes Ray Raphael in his annotated U.S. Constitution.
Second Amendment scholar Michael Waldman makes a similar point. “There is not a single word about an individual’s right to a gun for self-defense or recreation in (James) Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention. Nor was it mentioned, with a few scattered exceptions, in the records of the ratification debates in the states. Nor did the U.S. House of Representatives discuss the topic as it marked up the Bill of Rights,” Waldman wrote in Politico Magazine.
Courts treated relevant cases accordingly, and state and local governments adopted gun restrictions more or less uncontroversially for more than two centuries.
That all changed with the rise of the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment fanaticism in recent decades. It wasn’t until the 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller that the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time said the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun.
But the ruling was criticized even by some prominent conservative legal observers. No less an authority than Justice Antonin Scalia, who authored the majority opinion, wrote that the Second Amendment was “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” Moreover, right there in the text of the Heller opinion, Scalia allowed that in 21st-century society “where gun violence is a serious problem,” the notion that the Second Amendment “is outmoded” was open to debate, though such a debate was beyond the court’s purview.
But far-right leaders who genuflect to deadly weapons treat a post-Constitution compromise as God-given gospel, and they are willing to watch the bodies of murdered children pile up as a price for their beliefs.
Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, the preeminent and clown-like mascot of the gun lobby, has mastered the language favored by the “shall not be infringed” fringe, as when she tweeted, “Our Founders wisely knew that the right to keep and bear arms was the last line of defense against tyranny.”
Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida embraced a similar interpretation when he told a crowd, “The Second Amendment is about maintaining within the citizenry the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government if that becomes necessary.”
As Democrats in the Colorado Legislature advanced a set of gun violence-prevention bills, Republican extremists voiced factually incorrect, mass murder-inducing views about gun rights.
“The Second Amendment says, ‘Shall not be infringed upon.’ That means nothing — you cannot do anything to affect the Second Amendment. That’s what the Constitution says,” state Rep. Scott Bottoms, a pastor from Colorado Springs, said, adding, predictably, that “the Second Amendment is based upon protecting yourself primarily from tyrannical government.”
This armed conflict envisioned by gun zealots has yet to materialize directly. But it has cost tens of thousands of lives every year. More than 10,000 people have died from gun violence in the U.S. so far in 2023 — well more than the number of Americans who died fighting the Revolutionary War. There have already been at least 130 mass shootings this year, the latest having occurred at an elementary school in Nashville, where three 9-year-olds were among the victims. East High School in Denver has been the site of two instances of gun violence just this year. Gun violence is the leading cause of death among America’s youth.
The far right’s fantasies about armed resistance against some abstract tyranny are made real in the form of countless corpses on America’s streets and in public places throughout the country. Firearm fanatics like Boebert and Bottoms are the cowardly battle commanders who would not show themselves at the front lines but are nevertheless responsible for the bloodshed, and their obstinance in the face of dead school children is a derangement that favors human sacrifice over functional society. They are obsessed with “rights,” but they have forfeited the right to be welcomed as good-faith participants in debates on guns, since democracy is hostile to proxy-war combatants.
It is inconceivable that America’s founders would approve of what gun rights absolutists have made of the Second Amendment. And any constitutional provision is only valuable insofar as it serves us — living Americans trying to make the best common existence for ourselves under current conditions.
The Constitution was made to be reformed, which the presence of amendments makes plain. Lives are superior to laws. But that’s a proposition gun extremists would have us all shot to oppose.
This commentary originally appeared in Colorado Newsline, a States Newsroom affiliate.
Quentin Young is the editor of Colorado Newsline. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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