Like many mornings, I woke up last Monday to an Associated Press alert. Thirteen people had been killed at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. My heart sank, not only due to the horrifying news, but because I realized I was somewhat unsurprised.
I’ve grown accustomed to these atrocities, and while I hope I never feel numb to the pain they cause, our culture is adjusting to the frequency of these events. We need to take action, but a minority of Americans who don’t understand the true meaning of the Second Amendment are stifling progress.
According to a Gallup Poll released in January, 91 percent of Americans support expanded background checks on firearms purchases. A Washington Post-ABC Poll in April showed that 56 percent of Americans support the ban of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. Most Americans agree that this is common sense legislation that should be enacted, despite Congress’ inaction.
Beyond bans and background checks lies a more complex problem. Gun violence thrives on America’s gun culture and a profound misunderstanding of our constitutional right to bear arms.
“The Second Amendment is not clearly written,” said Chad Westerland, a political science professor who has been studying the Constitution for nearly 20 years. “It doesn’t say you have a right to carry a gun; there’s a right to bear arms that’s connected to maintaining a well-regulated militia.”
It was not until 2008 that the Supreme Court recognized the individual’s right to own a firearm in the District of Columbia v. Heller decision. The framers of the Constitution did not protect the right of citizens to bear arms for entertainment’s sake. The Second Amendment was created because a fragile nation had just defeated a tyrannical government through guerrilla warfare, a style of combat that requires an armed citizenry.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, told Meet the Press earlier this year that an assault rifle ban would be “an absolute abridgement under the Heller case.”
Westerland disagreed, saying, “the justification for individual property protection and protection in your home isn’t quite there with an assault style weapon.” Westerland said there can be limits on the types of weapons permitted.
The Constitution does not deal with absolutes. It is a flexible document. This is true with even our First Amendment rights, which have many limits and regulations.
“Freedom of speech is far more explicit in the Constitution about an individual liberty than the Second Amendment, and we restrict the First Amendment all the time,” Westerland said. “While there is an individual right to own a gun, it’s not unlimited. If Congress or a state or local government can show why we can put a limitation or a ban, then we can do it.”
I cannot think of a more legitimate interest than protecting our citizens and our nation’s children from weapons of war. In 1992, former attorneys general Nicholas Katzenbach, Ramsey Clark, Elliot L. Richardson, Edward H. Levi, Griffin B. Bell and Benjamin R. Civiletti summed up our lack of progress in a joint statement: “The nation can no longer afford to let the gun lobby’s distortion of the Constitution cripple every reasonable attempt to implement an effective national policy towards guns and crime.”
This statement is as applicable today as it was 21 years ago. We must address the issue of gun violence and mass shootings once and for all. But to do so, there must be an informed counter-movement against the gun lobby’s misinformation about the Second Amendment.
Anthony Carli is a political science senior. Follow him on Twitter.com/@acarli10.