Since the shooting in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, gun control has been receiving significant media attention, even more so than usual. The activism spearheaded by the young survivors of the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has inspired millions to attend protest marches, call their legislators and use the hashtags #marchforourlives and #Neveragain. Their organizing has even moved some lawmakers to propose legislation that would make it more difficult—or even illegal—for people to purchase assault weapons. In addition, some stores such as Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods have ceased to sell assault weapons in their stores and have raised the age to purchase the firearms from 18 to 21.
In this vein of activism, on March 27, former Associate Justice to the Supreme Court John Paul Stevens wrote an opinions piece in The New York Times in which he made a radical proposal: repeal the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. This suggestion was met with controversy because it seemed to be an unrealistic goal that would never be passed by the American legislature. According to journalist Aaron Blake at The Washington Post, Stevens’ op-ed was “about the most unhelpful thing” because it falls”… into the Republican talking point that this is the ultimate goal of gun control advocates, which is to take away guns, to not have gun ownership be a right, to repeal the Second Amendment.”
Blake is correct in saying that Justice Stevens’ piece would incite fear amongst the conservative right. A March 2018 Gallup poll reported that 67 percent of Americans believe that gun laws should be stricter than they are now. Yet in the minds of some Second Amendment supporters, making access to guns more difficult is the start of eventually banning them all together. Since the right to bear arms is in the Bill of Rights, it is equated with each American’s individual freedom, meaning that if you cannot buy a gun, you are not free. While Justice Stevens’ proposal is commendable and ideal, our polarized political culture and people’s perception of what it means to be free would need to change for the repeal of the Second Amendment to become a reality in the United States.
First, we would need to solve the gridlock in Congress. Even before the controversial election of President Donald Trump, it has been nearly impossible to work across party lines and draft bipartisan legislation. Since the Parkland shooting, politicians claim to have heard the cries of the Parkland survivors and their allies and have promised to pass gun legislation to make communities safer. However, this has not been a bipartisan endeavor. On the contrary, Republican politicians still receiving campaign funding from the National Rifle Association (NRA) have proposed laws that make communities feel less safe, including arming school teachers. Democrats who lack the numbers in Congress to pass anything substantial, have also been reluctant to propose radical legislation that would regulate the gun industry out of fear of further alienating American gun carriers. Another huge factor which inhibits the passage of gun reform in the United States is the relentless lobbying by the NRA. Since its founding, it has bought the votes of politicians and embarked on a campaign to make the Second Amendment about the preservation of freedom rather than the safety of communities. According to former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, the NRA has committed “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” By using its powerful platform, the NRA further perpetuates the bipartisan gridlock in Congress. Given the amount of gridlock in Congress and the strong presence of the gun lobby in Washington, it seems unlikely that change will come from our government at this time. Based on Gallup’s March 2018 poll, which reports only a 15 percent approval rating of Congress across the country, it seems like the American people agree. Until both political parties are able to work together, it is highly unlikely that the Second Amendment will be repealed.
In order for an Amendment to be made to the constitution or for an amendment to be repealed, we need two-thirds of Congress to propose the change and then three-fourths of the state legislatures to approve the proposal. Another option is for two-thirds of state legislatures to call for a constitutional convention to propose Amendments, which has never happened before. Given the amount of bipartisanship in our government today, it seems impossible for Stevens’ idea to even be introduced on the House and Senate floors. In the event that this happens, we would then need 38 states to approve the amendment, which is also a daunting task. Since the founding of the United States, only 27 Amendments have been passed. The only amendment to be repealed was the 18th amendment, which established prohibition. With significant mobilization, it might be possible for the repeal of the Second Amendment to get to the second phase of state approval; however, that would not guarantee its passage. For example, in the 1970s, it was thought that the Equal Rights Amendment would pass. Yet it fell three states short of the ¾ majority of state legislatures it needed to pass. Given the historic difficulty of passing Amendments, the chances of the Second Amendment being appealed are extremely low.
In order for there to be even a chance of actually repealing the Second Amendment, gun ownership would have to cease being equated with personal freedom in the U.S., a nearly unimaginable task. Due to lobbying by groups such as the NRA, a significant number of Americans believe that gun regulation is a direct restriction of their personal freedom. Opponents of gun reform routinely claim that ownership of guns is a fundamental right that cannot and should not be infringed upon because America’s founders enshrined “the right to bear arms” in The Bill of Rights.
What these opponents fail to see, however, is that the Second Amendment is an outdated law that was intended only for maintaining “a well regulated militia” that would defend the country if deemed necessary. However, overtime the courts began to rule in favor of an individual’s right to own a firearm. For example, in 2008 the Supreme Court ruled in District of Columbia v. Heller that the right to own a firearm is protected outside of the regulated militia. According to Justice Stevens, “That decision — which I remain convinced was wrong and certainly was debatable — has provided the N.R.A. with a propaganda weapon of immense power”. Individual citizens owning guns is not a well-regulated militia. Given that the ownership of guns is ingrained into many people’s understanding of their own personal freedom, how can we change that sentiment?
I currently struggle to imagine a world in which guns don’t exist. Growing up in Texas, gun culture was part of my everyday life. I understand that gun sports such as hunting and target shooting are a big part of people’s lives and that when politicians propose taking guns, it could seem like they are trying to take away something intrinsic to a gun owner’s identity and freedom as an American. One way we could bridge this divide would be to make it very clear that our goal is to protect people’s right to live free of gun violence, which has been pervasive in our society. There is no need for assault rifles in hunting and target shooting. We simply wish to take away the guns that threaten human life. People should not be free to own weapons that have caused so much pain and death.
Although I find it difficult to envision our nation without guns, I do see a way in which those who have guns for hunting or sport keep them in their own possession. For example, filmmaker Michael Moore proposed that we reword the Second Amendment to fit the needs of America today by writing, “A well regulated State National Guard, being helpful to the safety and security of a State in times of need, along with the strictly regulated right of the people to keep and bear a limited number of nonautomatic Arms for sport and hunting, with respect to the primary right of all people to be free from gun violence, this shall not be infringed.” As Moore states in his proposed Amendment, we need to equate the right to be free from gun violence with vital individual freedoms and not with the ownership of weapons. While using Moore’s proposal and still allowing people to hunt and use guns for sport, because we can’t realistically take that away, no matter how much we may want to, we would come to an ideal compromise, that allows for people to continue enjoying their guns while also preserving and protecting human life, which is of paramount importance.
The only way that Justice Stevens’ proposal has a chance of becoming reality is if we as a nation change the way we interpret the Second Amendment and the place of firearms in our national culture. Due to extensive lobbying by the NRA, gun rights have become so ingrained into the fabric of our society that the right to have a gun has been conflated with personal freedom. If we no longer equate the ownership of a weapon with individual liberty, then we can finally do something about this issue which has led to so many tragic deaths.