The conversation about gun violence in America is not one about control or safety. It has never been a conversation Americans should have on a sliding scale – assault weapons versus handguns; bump stocks or high capacity magazines. Guns in America, and the violence resulting from unfettered access to them, has always been about people, about families.
First, we rarely have a conversation. Simply put, almost everyone will start and end with the Second Amendment to the Constitution when talking about gun violence. A scant 27 words deliver the source of the debate: 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. Secondly, there is seldom any conversation about the impact of those words. Few, if any, can talk about the interpretive history of the amendment. Even fewer are willing to engage in meaningful conversations about the challenges of life in a gun culture. Possibly because guns haven’t adversely impacted them personally. To them, that “debate” is simply one of principle.
For me it is real. Over the past 5 years I have corresponded with a family member in prison. I never open his letter the day I get it. Yes, an actual handwritten letter. Not an email or a post on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook . . . an actual letter. Sometimes it takes a week. In fact, I didn’t begin writing back until the year he celebrated his 40th birthday. Before that, I sent greeting cards with short notes of inspiration or wisdom. My nephew has been incarcerated since he was 16 years old. He was convicted of murder all those years ago. The crime was violent – it involved a handgun. A mother lost her life. A husband lost his wife. A child lost a mother. Apparently, that was not the time to talk about guns in America. That one life should have been enough to outrage all of America.
Instead, the response was limited to punishing my nephew and those with whom he conspired to engage in violent activity. To be clear, punishment was necessary. But, is that where response stops? It seems odd that, given the number of deaths each year in the country involving guns, there isn’t a collective move to grow in another direction even if just temporarily. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since my first actual experience with gun violence and little has change. Now children are dying from gun violence in one school shooting after another in unprecedented frequency. Yet, America continues to think it is not the time for meaningful conversation and action regarding guns. We have missed every opportunity to address the scourge of gun violence.
The families on both sides of violent crimes are never the same. I cannot fathom life for a family that loses a mother in such a senseless crime. But I know there is tremendous loss. Loss they shouldn’t have to bear. A loss that shouldn’t be ignored. A loss that is not eliminated or even easier to bear because someone was punished for the crime.
I know that there is also loss for the family of the person or persons on the other side of those gunshots. I don’t know if my nephew will ever live outside of prison walls. But I know what it has done to our family. I have never visited my nephew in prison. I don’t know if I ever will. It is simply a fact that we have all been imprisoned right along with him.
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.
It is through this lens that I look at the need for change in our collective psyche about guns. We don’t have to repeal and replace or even ignore the Second Amendment to take action that changes our current path. The mere thought that you must abolish one in favor of the other is not healthy for anyone. We must begin by understanding the evolution of the Second Amendment. We must take the most recent U. S. Supreme Court decisions (District of Columbia et al v. Heller and McDonald et al v. City of Chicago, Illinois et al) and apply them to our actual daily lives with our families.
In the Heller case the Court held that “[t]he Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” The Court also held that the Second Amendment right was not “unlimited”, making clear that it is not a right to carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. The Court, in the McDonald case, held that “. . . the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Second Amendment right, recognized in Heller, to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.” This decision cleared up uncertainty related to whether the scope of the Heller decision included protection of an individual’s right to bear arms as it related to gun laws enacted by States. But does that mean crossing state lines with guns is the way to go? Reciprocity can’t really be an option. So how do we incorporate these decision in our daily lives?
Maybe we should start with something simple. Surely we don’t all have a need to rush out and purchase guns because the Supreme Courts says we can. Many will say that having a gun protects law abiding citizens from those who intend to do harm with guns. That position just doesn’t seem to bear fruit. We need to look no further than the armed school resource officer in Parkland, Florida.
Eighteen families are forever impacted by the violent actions of a shooter in Parkland, Florida. That is the bottom line. We can discuss the mental state of the shooter, the shortcomings of local and federal law enforcement or whether lawmakers will continue to accept money from the National Rifle Association forever but the issue is simple – there was a shooter; there was a gun; 17 people died. Everything short of a comprehensive approach addressing access to guns is simply fodder for inaction.
When we say Americans have a right to possess a firearm for lawful purposes we also have an obligation to make clear the limits set forth by the Supreme Court. To me, that means we shouldn’t, for instance, address mass shootings in schools, movies theatres, dance clubs and churches by suggesting or passing laws allowing guns in these places simply because the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms. Simply having more people with guns in more places doesn’t solve the problem. That’s why we must take this conversation in a new and different direction.
We parse our words to fit our agendas – we pit gun control against gun safety. Most people interpret control as a negative concept and the same people will accept safety as positive and necessary. We should abandon these concepts and simply ask ourselves what our families actually need. We should realistically assess whether we have not had a break-in because we own a gun or because our immediate environment is safe. We should list the times we were so threatened that the only response would be a firearm. We should examine our true, individual losses and whether a gun would solve that problem or result in more violence.
We should come to grips with the fact that it matters not whether a person suffering from mental illness is allowed to purchase a firearm or not when members of his or her family have assault rifles and other firearms and accessories – usually unsecured and easily accessible. It’s time we admit that our examination of who should lawfully possess firearms of any caliber or action is really just political eyewash. Then and only then can we begin to take steps to address gun violence. The truth is we don’t “need” them as much as we say we do.
It is time for us to speak honestly about the need to carry concealed firearms. Open carry of firearms – why! None of these things create a safer environment for our families. In fact, it does just the opposite. Accidental discharge, domestic violence, suicide. We could have a tremendous impact on the severity of these horrific events if we eliminated guns from the equation. . . . it is not a right to carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. – U. S. Supreme Court
. . . it is not a right to carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. – U. S. Supreme Court
It’s time to put aside the partisan rhetoric of the gun lobby. We are in the moment when rejecting the fear factor so ever-present in the gun debate couldn’t be more important. The money and power associated with the gun lobby threaten the very core of our families. Americans deserve better from the legislative bodies in our state capitals and our nation’s capital.
It took a long, robust career in law enforcement (where guns of all kinds were always within reach) and nearly a quarter century of dealing with the personal tragedy of gun violence to help me realize that we are moving in a very dangerous direction. Any thoughts of teachers carrying weapons into the classroom just doesn’t make sense. We simply don’t need to literally arm ourselves so heavily. Now is the time to address gun violence in America.