The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United State of America is the third rail of politics. Touch it and your future as a candidate for public office is toast. So goes conventional wisdom. There's every reason to believe it's true. But that's the way every significant piece of progress starts: as a hopeless cause.
Maybe it starts becoming more than a hopeless cause this week. Bret Stephens, a conservative writer who joined the New York Times op-ed stable a few months ago to the horror of climate change activists (like me) and others who unearthed a few examples of a capacity to ignore reality, just justified the faith of the editors who hired him by calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment. Hard to believe, but true. If you've used up your free Times articles already this month and don't have a subscription, here are some nuggets.
From a personal-safety standpoint, more guns means less safety. The F.B.I. counted a total of 268 “justifiable homicides” by private citizens involving firearms in 2015; that is, felons killed in the course of committing a felony. Yet that same year, there were 489 “unintentional firearms deaths” in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Between 77 and 141 of those killed were children.
From a national-security standpoint, the Amendment’s suggestion that a “well-regulated militia” is “necessary to the security of a free State,” is quaint. The Minutemen that will deter Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un are based in missile silos in Minot, N.D., not farmhouses in Lexington, Mass.
Given all of this, why do liberals keep losing the gun control debate?
Maybe it’s because they argue their case badly and — let’s face it — in bad faith. Democratic politicians routinely profess their fidelity to the Second Amendment — or rather, “a nuanced reading” of it — with all the conviction of Barack Obama’s support for traditional marriage, circa 2008. People recognize lip service for what it is.
And so on. He makes a solid case to stop pussy-footing around and just get to the real point. But the only thing remarkable about his argument is how rare you see it made in the mainstream press.
When you parse the amendment, it's hard to take it seriously. It begins by referring to the need for a militia, which might have made sense 230 years ago when the threat to individual liberty from state actors was real. It makes no more sense now than another Constitutional provision that defined Americans of African heritage to be worth three-fifth of those of European descent. (So much for the purity of the Constitution. If you can get rid of one offensive section, you can change any other part without losing your patriotic soul).
Then it contradicts itself by insisting that this right to keep and bear arms, which was explicitly qualified (limited) in no uncertain terms as "well-regulated," can't be infringed. (!) If ever there was a better case of legislated cognitive dissonance, I don't know what it is. On these grounds alone, the Second Amendment should be scrapped. Courts have tied themselves up in embarrassing pretzels of reasoning trying to make common-sense rulings that still respect the damn thing. Obviously the right to bear arms is limited. We aren't allowed to own tanks and rocket launchers and nuclear devices. And yet somehow semi-automatic weapons fall on the other side of a completely abitrary line between what's allowed and what's not.
Calling for a semantic tweak is about as far as most Americans with political ambitions are prepared to go on this line of thinking. But the logical endpoint isn't amending the amendment. It's outright repeal.
How many other countries have similarly embedded the right to weapons in their legal fabric. Three: Mexico, Haiti, and Guatemala. Want to take a guess why nowhere else thinks it's a good idea? Hint: that noise you hear isn't the sound of freedom screaming in a low pass over Barbara Streisand's movie set in Beaufort, S.C.; it's the cry of anguish as armor-piercing bullets tear through the flesh of country-music fans.
Yes, yes, come the responses. But Americans feel strongly about their guns. Rational or not, the right to defend oneself from threats real or imagined is part of the national psyche. Maybe the Second Amendment should be repealed, but it's not going to happen, so why should the Democratic Party commit electoral suicide by embracing such a campaign plank? I don't have a good counter-argument. But I do know that we have to start making the case — on the margins, in places and at times that don't threaten the larger goal of taking back the country from the kleptocrats and the kakistrocracy that is running the place. Maybe one day in the dim dark future (and it is pretty dark right now), that case won't be as lethal as it is today.
I'll give the last word to Stephens, because he includes the important point that repeal does not mean a ban. I grew up in Canada, which has plenty of guns (mostly hunting gear) and a small fraction of the gun-related deaths Americans now experience on a daily basis for no good reason beyond misguided fears stoked by a morally bankrupt National Rifle Association, TV producers looking for the next shocking video to distract their audiences, and members of Congress who have lost sight of what they were elected to do.
Gun ownership should never be outlawed, just as it isn’t outlawed in Britain or Australia. But it doesn’t need a blanket Constitutional protection, either. The 46,445 murder victims killed by gunfire in the United States between 2012 and 2016 didn’t need to perish so that gun enthusiasts can go on fantasizing that “Red Dawn” is the fate that soon awaits us.