If you’re an American, how you think about guns is usually related to three factors: What part of our country you grew up in; what you learned from your parents, relatives and friends; and whether you served in the military. Whether you or your family may have also been a victim of violence can have “pro” or “con” effect on your view on guns, and it’s easy to understand either reaction.
Perhaps ironically, our two largest political parties haven’t had much to do with it, especially over the past few years; however, this is not without some major internal intricacies and oddities. For example: Far more Republicans are “pro-gun” than Democrats, but many Democrats from the South and West are also “pro-gun.” And, far more Democrats from the East and West coasts (and the big cities) are “anti-gun,” as are some notable “big city” Republicans.
And, Democrats remember— painfully — 1994, when, during the Clinton administration, the “assault weapons ban” was passed by Congress. The national political reaction was dramatic — a 54-seat “swing” to the Republicans in Congress — this after Democrats had enjoyed the majority in the House for 40 years!
This “political lesson” also explains: 1) why substantive gun-related legislation has not been passed since, 2) why the liberal Obama administration totally avoided “gun issues” during its first term, and 3) why Democrats didn’t raise gun control issues during the 2012 and 2016 campaigns.
In fact, the legislative and judicial mood of the country was clearly headed in the opposite direction — propelled by a steadily enlarging popular consensus — with “right to carry” and “castle doctrine” legislation passing in many more states. And, the Supreme Court ruled against the Washington, D.C. gun ban, while other federal courts ruled against the Illinois gun ban. “Gun bans,” by the way, simply don’t work to control urban gang violence, such as we have in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. Violent criminals, especially drug-centered ones, will always have guns, while the law-abiding citizenry comply with bans.
Finally, so-called “mass shootings in America” — perpetrated mostly by the mentally ill — actually increased slightly during the 10-year assault weapons ban, destroying the basic “cause and effect” assumption of the sponsors of the ban. The lesson here? Simple: Taking guns away from honest people doesn’t keep them away from criminals or crazy people — that’s a whole different problem.
Our Constitution assures us of the “right to bear arms” — even more emphatic, it also says that the right “shall not be infringed.” Perhaps even more important, especially in this context, our Constitution establishes many of our basic “rights” in the form of prohibitions — on our government — i.e., things our government just can’t do. As a result, Americans will continue to own guns, with few limitations, just as we continue to enjoy free speech. In fact, nothing short of a constitutional amendment can change this so long as we exist as a nation. The rest of the gun debate is mostly about definitions, not basic concepts — and we all know this.
Our attitudes toward guns are grounded by the basic constitutional right to have them (and the government not being able to take them away) so no one rationally believes that there could ever be a “gun ban” here, such as there has been in England or Australia, where there are no similar constitutions, or in European civil law countries, with even less fundamental guarantees of basic rights.
We had to fight for our independence and freedoms, and to this day have an extremely limited central government, especially when compared to other world democracies. The federally protected right to bear arms is also part of our sovereign state constitutional system, which takes practical precedence over federal laws in most of our everyday lives, i.e., many, if not most firearms specific laws and regulations are state.
Finally, the inescapable facts are that the latest mass shootings — and most like it — are not primarily a failure of guns in society, but an even more serious and fundamental failure.
That failure? Our “mental health system” of which there simply isn’t. And, there hasn’t been a “system” since we “decided” to put hundreds of thousands of mentally ill people back on our streets, hoping that they would somehow “take their meds”— assuming they even have them — which most didn’t, don’t and won’t. This is the “real problem” and most everyone who can be objective about these tragic events realizes it. In fact, and as is too often the case, many who actually knew these shooters were not surprised by the evil they did—only that the shooters were not under some form of strict supervision.
This is where we “really are” — and always have been — on gun control in America. It’s not “a whole new ball game” and won’t be unless we change our Constitution. And, while we might be able to “beat around the margins” of the issue with some new gun regulations and procedures, hopefully we will — instead — concentrate our real focus, frustrations, resources, and political energies on aggressive and effective new public (mental) health initiatives. Meanwhile, Americans will continue to enjoy their constitutional right to bear arms, just as our forefathers knew we should — as a basic guarantee of our safety and security — and one constitutionally defined as a protection from oppressive government.
• Daniel Gallington served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
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