Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99


News Opinion Op-Eds

The right time to talk about gun control

Newtown, Conn., has just experienced the single most horrid gun tragedy in our nation's history. Yet we are admonished once more that to raise the issue of gun control in the aftermath of such tragedy is untimely or even opportunistic. It is, of course, neither. Claiming that it is somehow inappropriate politicizing to point out how our current legal climate facilitates, or at least contributes to, these horrors is offensive. More to the point, the argument against relying on such events to discuss how our understanding of the right to bear arms has run amok rests on false premises.

In the aftermath of each of the most significant gun massacres - San Diego, Calif. 1984 (21 killed, 19 injured); Killeen, Texas 1991 (23 Killed, 20 wounded); Columbine, Colo. 1999 (13 killed, 21 injured); Blacksburg, Va. 2007 (32 killed, 25 injured); Fort Hood, Texas 2009 (13 killed, 29 wounded); Aurora, Colo. 2012 (12 killed, 58 injured); Newtown, Conn. 2012 (26 killed, 20 age seven or under) - gun rights advocates have repeated that the "answer" is more guns, not more gun control.

The logic is simple. Guns are accessible, and we must accept that as fact. Because guns are out there, the only way to stop such crime is to ensure the availability of guns for those who are responsible and who will therefore use them for good. If more guns were in the hands of those who would deter such attacks, then there would be a reduced incidence of gun crime or, at a minimum, a possibility of stopping such massacres in action. So the answer to gun violence is more guns, not less, just as in the context of the First Amendment, the answer to offensive speech is more speech, not less.

No doubt this argument has a certain internal logic, but it is hardly uncommon for seemingly logical arguments to rest on a false premise. The false premise here is easily identified: the Second Amendment "right" to guns will, of its own force, get guns into the hands of people who would use guns to defend against such horrible crimes. And yet, if those who favor gun control must take as given the accessibility of guns, surely Second Amendment enthusiasts must also take as given that for good reason, or just as a matter of personal sensibility, many, or even most, law abiding citizens will continue to opt against exercising this right.

As a result, it cannot be assumed that expanding gun access is somehow the panacea, or even a counterweight, to the onslaught of gun crime. At a minimum, this reality check serves as a cogent response to arguments against regulating access to the sorts of firearms that have no legitimate connection to self-defense or hunting, but that were used in Newtown and other violent gun massacres.

The debate over gun control cannot take place in two juxtaposed theoretical worlds: one in which everyone has arms and the other in which no one does. The hard questions arise because we live in the real world. In that world, some choose to exercise their Second Amendment right responsibly, and others carelessly. (Carelessness includes failing to curb one's gun enthusiasm when faced with even a remote risk that someone exhibiting significant behavioral problems could access one's weapons.) And, of course, some people are simply evil, profoundly mentally disturbed, or both.

We can choose to make it more or less difficult for everyone to gain access to guns that have no justification except on the battlefield or in the hands of highly trained and licensed law enforcement agents. Arguing that individuals could protect themselves and others with guns is beside the point if many are not willing to do so based on a well-founded difference of opinion as to risks and benefits of owning firearms. (Even the most responsible among us can have a house broken into and lawful guns stolen when no one is home.) Certainly we should be able to agree on ending access, once and for all, to the sorts of firearms capable of generating such unimaginable violence as ending the lives of 26 innocents, including teachers and children just 6 and 7 years old.

As someone who has taught constitutional law for 20 years, I care deeply about my constitutional rights. Two quite recent Supreme Court decisions, each issued within the last five years - certainly not a deep-seated constitutional tradition -for the first time found that the Second Amendment creates an enforceable individual right to bear arms and extended the right to limit state and municipal handgun regulations. The Supreme Court's decisions in those two cases were far from obvious.

Yes, these decisions have their defenders, although I will concede that I am not among them. I certainly do not blame recent events on two Supreme Court cases. But these decisions have emboldened, and even distorted, arguments against the most plainly necessary regulation of firearms. Although we are stuck with these cases, at least for now, it is time to infuse this conversation with basic sense. That begins by rejecting the claim that raising arguments for reasonable gun control now, in the aftermath of the most horrible gun tragedy we have ever witnessed, is somehow impolite.

Maxwell Stearns is a professor of law and the Marbury Research Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. His email is

  • Text NEWS to 70701 to get Baltimore Sun local news text alerts
  • Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
    Related Content
    • Guns and the 'permanent darkness'

      Guns and the 'permanent darkness'

      By overwhelming margins, polls show Americans support universal background checks for those seeking to purchase a firearm to help keep guns out of the hands of criminals and those who are dangerously mentally ill. Clearly, the last thing you want is for some paranoid personality, ranting and raving...

    • Punish the gun enablers

      Punish the gun enablers

      Thank you, Dan Rodricks, for continuing to focus on how criminals acquire guns ("Enablers of gun crime hard to trace," April 2). A felon's access to guns would be limited to theft without enablers. And thefts of guns would be easier to trace.

    • What gun rights and marriage equality (should) have in common

      What gun rights and marriage equality (should) have in common

      In the article, "A unique Maryland marriage sits at center of Supreme Court case considering gay nuptials" (March 13), Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland, is quoted as saying the following:

    • Hogan, guns and the attorneys general

      Hogan, guns and the attorneys general

      During the recent gubernatorial campaign, The Sun and several thoughtful citizens were perplexed about the discrepancy between the National Rifle Association's notorious A- rating for Larry Hogan and the candidate's repeated promise that he won't overturn Maryland's gun law if elected. In fact,...

    • Maryland's gun law is working

      Maryland's gun law is working

      The gun lobby's lawsuit against Maryland's life-saving Firearm Safety Act described in Saturday's front page article does not challenge the constitutionality of the key provision of the act — requiring handgun purchasers to first obtain a fingerprint based background check and license from the...

    • Politicians who claim to understand gun crime don't have a clue [Letter]

      Politicians who claim to understand gun crime don't have a clue [Letter]

      The two clowns in Annapolis who claim to understand gun crime don't have a clue ("O'Malley, Brown are kidding themselves with the 2013 Firearms Safety Act," Oct. 6).

    • NRA's paranoia is catching

      NRA's paranoia is catching

      The Sun's editorial reflecting on the National Rifle Association convention in Nashville is an important statement on how the NRA has devalued our lives and our society ("Guns and the 'permanent darkness,'" April 16).

    • Md. gun law is working [Letter]

      Md. gun law is working [Letter]

      Jack Mccauley's letter belittling the Firearms Safety Act fails to mention the most important parts of the new law — the requirement that handgun purchasers get a fingerprint-based license and the authority for the state police to regulate firearms dealers ("O'Malley, Brown are kidding themselves...