Maybe this is finally the time. Maybe the gunning down of 20 small children by a man with a gun designed only for mass killings will shake Americans from their perverted love affair with automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Maybe some responsible legislators will think more about the children among their constituents than about the money they receive from the National Rifle Association. Maybe a few politicians will even become profiles in courage and buck the gun lobby. Maybe the murders in a small Connecticut town will encourage the courts to interpret the Second Amendment in the reasonable manner intended by its framers.
Maybe! But we have heard all this before. It’s not as if this were the first or even the worst mass slaughter in our recent history. We have seen shootings at malls, movie theaters, colleges, high schools, political gatherings and who knows where else. We shed tears. We hear religious leaders try to explain the inexplicable. We see politicians at a loss for words.
And then we hear the gun nuts lying to the public about how semiautomatic weapons and magazines that hold dozens of rounds really save lives rather than taking them—how if only the teachers were armed, the children would have been saved. How states with more permissive gun laws have lower murder rates than states with reasonable gun control. How guns don’t kill, people do. The National Rifle Association is smart enough to remain silent when these preventable disasters occur, but they send out their flack to mouth their positions on cable television and anywhere else that they can get an audience.
The truth is there for everyone to see. The United States has more guns per capita than any other first world country. Indeed we probably have more guns than we do people. We also have more gun crimes, more gun murders, more gun injuries, more gun suicides and more gun accidents than any first world country. This is neither coincidence nor mere corollary. The easy availability of guns causes gun deaths.
Sure people kill, but people with guns kill more efficiently, and people with semiautomatic guns kill even more efficiently, and people with automatic guns and large ammunition clips kill yet more efficiently and quickly. It took Adam Lanza a mere matter of seconds to end the lives of so many innocent people. At about the same time in China, an equally crazed man went on an equally evil rampage against schoolchildren, but the Chinese man had a knife rather than an automatic weapon. The damage he was able to do was limited by the weapon to which he had access. Guns turn temper tantrums into murder, depression into suicide, and a family member wrongly suspected of being an intruder into a corpse.
The data that is trotted out by the gun lobby to prove that unrestricted gun ownership saves lives tends to be the worst kind of junk science. The politics that claims that gun ownership is the essence of freedom tends to be junk politics. Just listen to the late Charlton Heston, who was the poster nut for the gun lobby:
“The Second Amendment is, in order of importance, the first amendment. It is America's First Freedom, the one right that protects all the others. Among freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly, of redress of grievances, it is the first among equals. It alone offers the absolute capacity to live without fear. The right to keep and bear arms is the one right that allows 'rights' to exist at all.”
Both history and geography have proved Heston dead wrong: Nearly every other freedom loving country in the world has severe restrictions on gun ownership; while none has severe restrictions on expression. Experience has shown that you can have freedom without the right to bear arms, but not without freedom of speech. The movement from weapons to words has marked the progress of civilization. As Sigmund Freud once put it: “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.”
So let’s start talking about our differences. Reasonable people can disagree about gun ownership by responsible people for self-defense, for hunting and for other legitimate activities. But there is no case to be made for private ownership of semiautomatic or automatic weapons or for magazines that carry dozens, if not hundreds of rounds. There is no reasonable case to be made against registration, waiting periods, psychological testing or other limitations that are well within the words of the Second Amendment that talk about a “well-regulated militia.”
Maybe the time has finally come for cooler heads to prevail. If not now, when? How many more Newtowns must families endure before the law finally comes to the rescue of gun victims? If these killings don’t stimulate change, I fear that nothing will.
Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, is a practicing criminal and constitutional lawyer and the author, most recently, of The Trials of Zion.
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