“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.” – Second Amendment, U.S. Constitution
“Yo I'm livin’ in this time behind enemy lines, so I got mine, I hope you (“got yourself a gun”). You from the hood, I hope you (“got yourself a gun” …you want beef I hope ya (“got yourself a gun”)…” – Nas, lyrics from “Got Yourself a Gun”
The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution consists of just one sentence; 27 words that have created one of the most contentious debates in American politics. At issue: whether the framers intended to give individuals (in the historic context, land-owning white men), the right to own guns, or whether the idea was to protect the right of states to form armed militias.
On June 26, the Supreme Court decided to settle the matter, taking its first Second Amendment case since 1939. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the court's four conservatives: John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, joined by the “swing justice,” Anthony Kennedy, decided in favor of individual rights. So I guess we're all in the militia now.
Heller struck down Washington D.C.'s gun law, one of the country's toughest, which banned the registration of new handguns after September 1976 (when the law took effect); essentially barring anyone but law enforcement from carrying handguns in the District. The law also restricted gun ownership to shotguns and rifles kept unloaded, unassembled, or “trigger locked” at home.
Writing for the majority, Scalia, who has a talent for finding support for conservative political causes in the text of the Constitution, whether it’s broad rights for corporations or the “right” of George W. Bush to become president, said the ban made it too hard for law- abiding citizens to protect their homes by blowing away the bad guys. Scalia wrote that the handgun is special because “it can be pointed at a burglar with one hand while the other hand dials the police.” Nice touch.
Now that Scalia's view has prevailed, would-be gun owners in D.C., including the case's namesake, Dick Anthony Heller, are eagerly awaiting their chance to carry – once a new law is passed that conforms to the court's ruling.
Not to be left out, the National Rifle Association announced that it would celebrate by filing new lawsuits seeking to overturn gun laws in Chicago and other cities, including a law in San Francisco banning residents of public housing projects from getting strapped.
Criminals who have made big business out of selling stolen firearms must be celebrating. FBI data shows that nearly 1.7 million guns were reported stolen in the 10 years between 1992 and 2002, with only four in 10 ever recovered; and statistics show that eight out of 10 stolen guns are taken from peoples' homes or cars.
Meanwhile, police in D.C., and in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Orlando, Miami and Memphis, where gun violence is nearing an epidemic, cannot be thrilled at the prospect that more people stopped for a traffic violation, involved in a domestic dispute or school violence incident, ejected from the workplace or contemplating suicide, could be armed with a legal handgun.
The NRA and its supporters, including Scalia, focus on guns used for “protecting the home.” But of the 30,694
U.S. deaths by firearm in 2005 (the last year for which the Centers for Disease Control has statistics), 40 percent were homicides, but 55 percent – more than 17,000 – were suicides (the other 5 percent were accidents, police and indeterminate shootings).
Suicides by gun have outpaced gun killings in the U.S. in 20 of the last 25 years. Given the despair that already exists in urban, and increasingly, suburban communities as the economy worsens, it's tough to celebrate the idea of more guns in more Americans' hands.
The Canadian comparison
Gun advocates argue that “guns don't kill people, people do.” They point to Canada, which they say has plenty of guns, but comparatively little violence. Statistics suggest otherwise. Canada has roughly one-tenth the U.S. population, with huge swaths of rural areas (analogous to Vermont or Oregon in the U.S.) where many people indeed own shotguns and rifles.
But only about 6 percent of Canada's roughly 10 million firearms are handguns, versus more than a third of
America's estimated quarter of a million guns. The U.S. had more than 11,000 gun homicides in 2005 according to the FBI, Canada, per its Department of Justice, had 222. Meanwhile, the U.S. has 5 times the gun murder rate, and 6 times the rate of gun-included robberies as the Canadians, even though our homicide and robbery rates without guns are roughly the same.
The real differences between Canada and the U.S. when it comes to gun violence are the lower rates of systemic, inner city poverty, and the heavily regulated nature of gun ownership north of the border, where every firearm is registered, and where gun control laws have grown stricter, not looser over the decades, resulting in homicide rates that are declining year after year.
And that might be the real lesson from Heller.
Scalia's opinion pointed out that the ruling did not “cast doubt on long-standing prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons or the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.”
Amen. With the individual right to bear arms on the books, the NRA and other gun advocates have no excuse to stand in the way of common sense gun control, which U.S. cities should seek to aggressively enact, with all deliberate speed. American lives depend on it.