Slightly more than half the members of the U.S. Supreme Court believe that the Second Amendment right to own a firearm in this country is inviolable. They have now made that clear in their 5-4 decision on McDonald v. City of Chicago, striking down Chicago’s 30-year-old handgun ban and extending to all the states the protections of the amendment.
What I don’t understand is why that unassailable right to “keep and bear arms” trumps the right to public safety. And I really can’t grasp how expanding the number of guns and the people who have them will reduce the volume of gun violence in this country.
Is there any evidence to suggest that this court decision will not increase firearm sales?
The court’s decision seems to be more about deterrence than promotion of the common good.
I don’t know what the odds are that my home will be invaded or that I will be mugged on the street. My guess is that neither of these is likely to happen.
Yet many of the commentators happy about the court’s decision are now saying that there will be less crime because criminals will be mindful that their intended victims are more likely to be packing heat. Instances of breaking-and-entering, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault will decline because perpetrators can no longer assume that their targets will be unarmed. Indeed, the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action is quick to point out that there is less violent crime in those states where it is lawful to carry a gun.
So we are launching out into a brave new world. Gun enthusiasts and their lobbyists will continue to contest every effort to reign in the proliferation of firearms. For the moment, the court has made it very clear that the right to own firearms for the purpose of providing a militia is no longer in play; it’s about self-defense in one’s home.
It would seem to me, however, that the number and type of circumstances where a firearm could be used as a means of self-defense are much more likely to occur outside the home. So one way or another, we are looking at further relaxation of state laws that guarantee the right to bear arms in public.
According to the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, currently 40 of the 50 states grant right-to-carry permits to persons who meet state-established standards. A handful of others have minimal restrictions (Connecticut and Alabama) or no restrictions (Alaska, Arizona and Vermont). Another handful have very high restrictions, and two (Illinois and Wisconsin) do not allow persons to carry firearms, or, as the Institute for Legislative Action says, this “right” to carry a weapon in these two states is “infringed.”
I’m all for self-defense, and I certainly understand the effectiveness of lethal force. Does anyone really doubt that if one is carrying a weapon and suddenly finds oneself threatened with bodily harm, that one would chose not to use it in self-defense? Of course not. Brandish it, but not fire it? Hardly. In fact, what has happened in this scenario is that the likelihood of gun violence has only increased.
Using data provided by the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence reports that in one year, 30,896 people died from gun violence and 78,622 people survived gun injuries.
According to the Brady Campaign, gun death rates are higher in those states where there are higher rates of household gun ownership. When states with the highest levels of ownership are compared to states with the lowest, the highest states have 114 percent higher gun-related homicide rates.
Indeed, according to one study by researchers at the Center for Injury Control at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, “guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.”
So much for the court’s argument on self-defense.
What is missing in the court’s decision and all the glee among its supporters is recognition that this ruling accentuates, legitimizes and further establishes our violent character as a nation. Its premise is that violence is best met with and countered by violence, that the best way to fend off a violent attack is to practice violence in turn, including lethal violence.
It clearly supposes that the way to reduce violence is to increase the capacity and means to inflict it. Moreover, it authorizes the privatization of state-sanctioned violence; each can now be given the requisite permission to own and carry – and in certain circumstances, use – a firearm to injure or take the life of another.
It might be unreasonable to expect the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the principles of nonviolence and the sacredness of all life in struggling to find a way to validate the Second Amendment. Unfortunately, these were not enshrined in the Constitution.
Nonetheless, it certainly isn’t reasonable – or moral – to put at risk the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and natural law and biblical ethics, by the vagaries of a court majority that believes everyone has the right to pull the trigger.
Douglas Sharp is dean of the Academy for the Common Good, an initiative of Protestants for the Common Good, a progressive voice that brings a biblical and theological perspective to critical public issues. Sharp is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches-USA.