On Gun Control, We’re Missing the Forest for the Trees
As a teacher in Florida, I fret for my students’ safety here more than I ever feared for my own safety on foreign soil, where the word “American” was often unwelcome. My students have shared their concerns and fears about an attack at our school, a fear no child should ever feel.
That said, gun violence in America is not a simple, one cause or one correlation, issue. To argue one point, maybe two, is a reduction fallacy in which the issue is over simplified.
Before continuing, I should share my experience with weapons and violence. In 1977, my family moved to Beirut, Lebanon, a country that was still in the throes of a civil war. Checkpoints manned by various peacekeeping forces carrying some sort of military-grade rifle became a way of life. A stray bullet hit my fifteen-year-old brother’s bedroom window one morning, striking centimeters away from his head, while he was still sleeping. We lived meters away from the Egyptian embassy when it was bombed during the Camp David negotiations between Begin, Sadat, and Carter. Despite being surrounded by images of war and actual violence, there was one place I felt safe: the American Community School. Never did it cross my mind that a soldier of any one of the militias would walk on to our campus and open fire. It could have happened. Our gates were always open. But nothing happened. No one walked on campus with the intent to harm.
The comparison of 70s-era Beirut to contemporary America teeters on the brink of false equivalence. The anti-American sentiment and bombing of the American embassy in 1983 were politically motivated, unlike these school shootings. In political violence, the typical rules of engagement strive to minimize civilian casualties; most, but not all, of the recent mass shootings in America have been a result of mental illness, for which there are no rules of engagement. The comparison is still useful, however, for a specific reason: In the 1970s, Americans did not fear mass shootings and bombings, but now we do, in part because American values have shifted.
The Second Amendment states, “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.” In 1791, when the Second Amendment was ratified, the American population stood at just one percent of its current total. Communities were strong and tightly-knit, because people needed to support each other to survive. We had yet to organize into the massive military power we’ve now become. The militias then were state-organized for two key reasons. First, many of the authors of the Bill of Rights were against a national military, which they feared would allow Britain to enslave the colonies as it grasped at maintaining its imperialistic ambitions. Second, several southern states used their state militias as a means to control potential slave uprisings.
Since 1791, we have altered various rights provided by our Constitution, and added others. We no longer have the right to own people (ratified 1865). We acknowledge that all adults, not just white men, have the right to vote (ratified 1870 and 1920). We have introduced limitations on how many terms a president can hold office (ratified 1951). The men who negotiated and created our Constitution were flawed like all humans, but they had the wisdom to make the nation’s governing document flexible. Why then has the Second Amendment remained unchanged?
In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the “collective rights approach” in United States vs. Miller, interpreting the amendment in favor of bearing arms for the purposes of a militia. This decision reflects that, at the time, Americans still valued and emphasized community. In the eighty years since, though, it seems our values have shifted away from the community to the individual. In 2008, four years after the federal assault weapons ban expired, the Supreme Court acknowledged this shift in District of Columbia vs. Heller; they voted 5-4 in favor of the “individual right theory” interpretation: individual citizens had the right to bear arms.
Every citizen receives “equal protection of the laws” under the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified 1868). American citizens deserve equal protection. All American citizens. Those who enjoy hunting for food and for sport should have the right to own their firearms. Of course, this also means others, those who won’t use their freedom to own firearms responsibly, can build their private arsenals. How then does the Fourteenth Amendment serve those who become targets and victims of irresponsible gun owners? No one, especially our children, should worry about their fundamental right to safety.
Children deserve their childhood, and with each mass shooting they’re forced to grow up too quickly. Sitting with my high school students on February 15, 2018, the day after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, we had deeply-felt conversations about living in the twenty-first century. I shared some of the harrowing experiences from my days living in Beirut. We discussed what to do if we hear gunshots. We discussed the right to own guns and the right to advocate for restricted gun ownership. We discussed mental illness. Through their thoughts and concerns, I began to see the American forest looming over my little saplings. I have spent the last several weeks reading the news and social media reactions, watching video clips, and praising my friend who works at Stoneman Douglas. I’ve read and thought about both sides of the debate, aware of my own bias. I’ve spoken to a gun-enthusiast friend. He and I agree on most points. Based on our conversation, I plan to take gun safety and basic shooting classes this summer, in an effort to better understand the deeply-rooted need to retain the right to bear arms.
I tell my students it’s okay if they don’t remember the definition of metaphor when they’re forty. If they become critical thinkers who are self-aware, then I’ve done my job. It’s time for every citizen to reflect and think critically about the complexity of gun ownership. If people want the freedom to bear arms, then they need to accept the responsibility for the harm this freedom can inflict. And those who fight most vehemently for their gun freedom should bear the responsibility and cost. The responsibility should not fall on the already over-burdened shoulders of educators and volunteers.
During our conversations, one student asked why schools don’t have bullet proof windows. Another suggested that classrooms have escape doors and passages, or at least safety closets. I should note here, I have one small supply closet in my classroom, enough to hide one or two of twenty-eight students, after we pull out all the supplies and shelves. What if the big players with deep pockets – the NRA and gun manufacturers – channeled their political donations into making our public spaces safe, starting with schools?
Another option is to consider the “militia” aspect of the Second Amendment. With a permanent, national military, do we still need a militia for “the Security of a free State”? Banning military-grade weapons is another way to regulate guns in America. Australia’s buy-back program has not led to enslavement by oligarchy. Americans can adopt policies similar to both Switzerland and Israel: anyone who wants to own guns, especially assault or military-grade weapons, must join the military reserves, pass basic army training, and commit to all the required, regularly scheduled trainings and drills. Once out of the military, the government can buy back any privately-owned military-grade weapons a soldier may have acquired. After all, the Amendment reads, “a well regulated militia.” Currently, our laws do little to regulate gun ownership.
It’s time to stop pointing fingers. Few are asking to confiscate all guns. This issue is more complicated than all-or-nothing, an either-or fallacy. This should not be about arming educators or increasing armed guards. We all need to see gun violence as the complex beast it is. This twenty-first century problem may find its resolution in the roots of our nation: community values. It will take the community to bring the era of gun violence to an end. It’s time to band together as a nation, as the colonies did, to create a new vision of a safer America.