By Lion Summerbell and Joshua Smith
How do you describe what we saw in Florida? Obscene? Hideous? Monstrous? These words sound perfunctory, performative, like they’ve been read from a script. The fact is that we’re too used to this now. Our language of outrage has been debased. The shooting in Parkland is something we’ve grown accustomed to, just like in Texas, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, and a thousand other names between.
The plain fact is that our political class did nothing to prevent any of them. And they won’t do anything about this. We know that now. So we say obscene, hideous, monstrous — and the sentiments all vanish into thin air. The scale of the tragedy doesn’t matter. The identity of the victims doesn’t matter. America touts itself as being a meritocracy, and we laugh, but on firearms policy it is truly need-blind. No matter your age, race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation, your inalienable right to life is perfectly alienable to keep guns pouring into public and private life.
At an impasse like this, there’s no choice but to be bold. Which is why we think that the only way to guarantee that we will dramatically reduce acts of violence involving guns is to remove guns from society, and until somebody gets enough ‘oomph’ to repeal the Second Amendment that’s not going to happen.
We didn’t come up with that last part ourselves, actually. We left out quotation marks and proper attribution. Because Karl Rove said that, not us, and on Fox News, no less. He was there to discuss the shooting of 28 people, 20 of them children, at Sandy Hook.
And he’s not the only conservative to show something like a conscience in this respect. Bret Stephens, one of that dreary tribe of op-ed conservatives who writes for the New York Times, said the exact same thing in October of last year, in the wake of Stephen Paddock’s Las Vegas massacre. As you’d expect, he dismissed what he called “common sense’ gun laws” as “feckless,” and even managed to exculpate the NRA (only $3.5 million in donations since 1998, according to Stephens!). But in this case — and we say this through gritted teeth — he did it in service of a greater cause:
Americans who claim to be outraged by gun crimes should want to do something more than tinker at the margins of a legal regime that most of the developed world rightly considers nuts. They should want to change it fundamentally and permanently.
And he’s right. Our problem is beyond the scope of transactional politics to solve. Today, a deliberate legal and legislative strategy has given Biblical authority to one single sentence in the Constitution. Until we address this tremendous imbalance, there will be no going forward on guns.
In the ‘70s, the NRA stopped being a gun enthusiasts’ group and became a defense industry lobbyist instead, thanks to a well-documented coup. The new blood took aim at the Gun Control Act of 1968, which aimed to restrict firearm ownership in response to white fears of armed dissident groups like the Black Panthers. Of course, the NRA wasn’t going to bat for the Panthers. Quite the reverse.
With the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986, the NRA got what it really wanted. The Act severely curtailed the federal government’s ability to regulate gun ownership, banning collection of data on gun sales and loosening restrictions on interstate arms transfers. And what justification do you think Congress provided for this about-face in federal policy? Section 1(b) of the law, “Congressional Findings,” begins: “(1) the rights of citizens—(a) to keep and bear arms under the second amendment to the United States Constitution.”
From that point onwards, the Second Amendment became synonymous with that right — even though it doesn’t actually grant it. It simply addresses whether and by whom it can be infringed. The Supreme Court made that clear in its first major Second Amendment ruling, US v. Cruikshank (1876):
The right to bear arms is not granted by the Constitution; neither is it in any manner dependent upon that instrument for its existence. The Second Amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government.
We had to wait until 2008’s infamous District of Columbia v. Heller decision, which struck down Washington D.C.’s ban on private handgun ownership, to clarify where exactly that right came from. The majority opinion was written by Antonin Scalia, who later died at a clubby West Texas hotel whose weapons room was filled with “rifles, pistols and shotguns, including fine-quality Spanish side-by-sides, and plenty of ammunition.”
The right to bear arms, according to Scalia, originated in the sixth provision of England’s 1689 Bill of Rights, which reads: “That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.” The bill was adopted after James II, the recently dethroned Catholic king, had tried disarmament as one way of quashing Protestant and Parliamentary opposition to his rule. Scalia’s assertion was that, despite this very nuanced historical contingency, the language of the provision nevertheless formed the basis of a natural right to self-protection that had come to be more universally understood by the time of the Constitution’s framing.
By Scalia’s own admission, then, if we repealed the Second Amendment, private citizens could still own guns. The right to do so was granted to them by God or the English, whichever you’d like. And both Bret Stephens and Karl Rove certainly wouldn’t mind.
But our right in that respect is simply to bear arms. It says nothing about what those arms are. What if we replaced the Second Amendment with a more concrete statement of what kind of arms we all have a right to bear — something like this?
THE TWENTY-EIGHTH AMENDMENT TO THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION
Section 1. The second article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 2. The manufacturing, transportation or importation in or into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of pump-action, semi-automatic or automatic firearms is hereby prohibited.
Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within ten years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
In other words, you can have a gun, provided it is manually loaded. That means one bullet loaded in the gun, by hand, at a time. We think the compromise should satisfy amateur and hobbyist gun-owning constituencies. Hunters, sport-shooters and private individuals will still retain their right to access enough firepower to pursue their hobbies or to protect themselves.
There are other groups who have much more valid concerns about gun ownership restrictions. Non-white and other marginalized groups whose rights are routinely violated by the police may view this both as restricting their ability to protect themselves and giving cause for unwarranted search and harassment by the criminal justice system. We in no way support any measure that would increase the scope and scale of police violence. The provisions outlined in our amendment would have universal application in the United States: they would extend both to citizens and to law enforcement. The militarization of the police goes hand-in-hand with firearms proliferation, and ending it is something the DSA must stand for, both as morally necessary and as a powerful political message at the local and national level.
The language of the amendment is subject to debate, and we welcome it. We aren’t lawyers, or even legal scholars. We aren’t even the best historians of this extremely delicate issue. What we are is citizens and socialists, and as both, we believe that gun violence is an emergency that must be met with unwavering determination and with solidarity across all groups.
Discussion of a repeal campaign has already begun in some DSA chapters, and we hope that the conversation will continue to grow. We want disagreement, dissent, and debate. They can only make our argument stronger. And we know we’ll need it to be strong, because with an issue like this, an issue of enormous importance to the lives of Americans now and in the future, you can be sure that there’ll be hell to pay from the other side. But we are willing to pay it — where Democratic and Republican politicians won’t, we will.
Lion Summerbell (@smmbllsm on Twitter) is a DSA member, a writer and an investigative analyst, formerly with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. He lives in Paris.
Joshua Smith (@JoshuaSmith1983 on Twitter) is an artist and organizer living in Los Angeles.
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