In 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States decided in District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects a civilian's right to keep a gun in his home. In 2010, the court decided in McDonald v. Chicago that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limits the power of state and local governments to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. The vote in each case was five-to-four — not exactly a ringing endorsement of the court's reasoning in either case. But for now, the law of the land with regard to easy access to guns is settled.
The Second Amendment is enthroned — mistakenly, but as a matter of law — as a fundamental dimension of individual freedom. The practical result is that we must live with carnage by firearms as a daily fact of American life.
Surely, the timid voices of reason and humanity whisper, there is some limit to the atrocities that Americans will tolerate. When Adam Lanza, with no prior criminal history nor treatment for mental illness, killed 26 people — including 20 first-grade students — at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on December 14, 2012, the nation was riveted and horrified. Something this unspeakable, this ghastly, this straight-out-of-hell, changed exactly nothing in federal law.
Then, in June of this year, a gunman killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. Two months later, a Virginia TV news crew was slaughtered on air, and the deed posted almost immediately to social media by the killer. And Thursday, a gunman killed at least 9 people and wounded others on the campus of Oregon's Umpqua Community College.
What will it take to shock us out of our torpor? Another dead president? Not likely — half the country will applaud it. How about a dozen people inspired by ISIS slipping simultaneously into the Mall of America and unveiling the assault weapons they have obtained in perfectly legal ways? I cannot imagine what level of gun violence will serve more to horrify than to entertain.
It is certainly a respectable idea to accept the Second Amendment and treat death by firearms as a public health issue. It is doomed to fail, however, because it isn't the criminal or the psychotic who produces the murder, it's the easy means to act out one's fantasies that produces the criminal and the psychotic. Millions of guns, thousands of gun deaths.
Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, the leading dissenter in Heller and McDonald, has published a wise little book, "Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution." He suggests five words be added to the Second Amendment so that it reads "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed."
I say, let's get rid of the Second Amendment altogether. Let the states and Congress regulate firearms as they see fit. Some states, most of them without big-city violence, will retain laws that allow citizens to carry concealed firearms. Gang-ridden Chicago will try again to crack down on guns. Congress will reconsider universal background checks and the prohibition of assault weapons.
As Justice Stevens informs us in his book, "legislatures are in a far better position than judges to assess the wisdom of such rules and to evaluate the costs and benefits that rule changes can be expected to produce. It is those legislators, rather than federal judges, who should make the decisions that will determine what kinds of firearms should be available to private citizens, and when and how they may be used. Constitutional provisions that curtail the legislative power to govern in this area unquestionably do more harm than good."
And we've all already seen enough harm.
Hal Riedl retired from the Maryland Division of Correction in 2010, and from the office of the state's attorney for Baltimore City in December 2014. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.