Mass Shootings: How the Hell Did We Get into this Hellish Situation? Part II

I checked the Gun Violence Archive this morning. So far this year 12,996 people have been killed by gunfire in the United States. 25,080 have been injured (595 of these casualties have been children; 2,517 have been teenagers 12-17 years old). And there have been 316 mass shootings.* That’s up from 312 two days ago when I checked these numbers for Part I of this essay.

Ghastly. Grisly. The very idea of so many deaths is horrifying. Imagine the ripple effect among families and friends, traumatized by the loss or injuries of loved ones. Imagine the anguish, terror, pain and recurring nightmares of the survivors, some of whom will have to live with lifelong physical disabilities as well as emotional damage. Imagine the burden on first responders, striving frantically to rescue bloodied victims, severely wounded, and remove the mangled, lifeless bodies of the dead. For the weapons of choice used by mass shooters don’t make neat holes; they shred flesh, splinter bones, rip through internal organs, unleash fountains and rivers of blood. Create physical wounds that with luck will heal, psychic wounds that often do not.

Seriously. How the hell did we get into this hellish situation? We all know the answer. The Second Amendment. The NRA. And the cowardice of politicians. (They know the majority of Americans want meaningful gun control legislation passed. But their priority is to please deep-pocketed campaign contributors, not those who elected them.) Guns. Let’s look at the statistics. Of 29 mass shootings* that resulted in “at least 10” dead, all but two involved semi-automatic pistols and/or rifles.

So what is a semi-automatic weapon? It is a weapon “that not only fires a bullet each time the trigger is pulled, but also performs the steps necessary to prepare it to discharge again—assuming cartridges remain in the firearm’s feed device.” An article that appeared in Popular Science on September 11, 2018, (did they publish it on that particular date on purpose?) explains why semi-automatic guns are deadlier than non-automatic weapons. The article also explains why scientific knowledge about guns is woefully inadequate; it’s because the federal government is banned from funding research on firearms. The 1996 Dickey Amendment states that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Whhhaaaat? In addition, 2011 legislation prevents the National Institute of Health from spending money on gun research. Good grief!

I’d like to stop right here and go get an ice bag to plunk on the top of my head. However, I will forge ahead. After all, this entire essay is an exercise in Writer’s Therapy. I’m hoping I will feel less anxious about guns and mass shootings when I’m done. (But I’m not optimistic.)

For years now, I’ve blundered along on the assumption that lawmakers have been powerless to change the current (deadly) status quo because of Supreme Court decisions vis a vis the Second Amendment. A good friend and respected colleague of many years assured me that I was wrong. He encouraged me to read Antonin Scalia’s Opinion of the Court in District of Columbia V. Heller (June 16, 2008). I finally decided to do so. And what did I find out?

Dick Heller, a D.C. special police officer, brought suit because the District of Columbia made it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm or to register a handgun or to carry a handgun without a license, or even to keep lawfully owned firearms in the home unless they are “unloaded, disassembled, or bound by a trigger lock or similar device.” (Although Scalia’s decision doesn’t explicitly say so, I deduce—being too lazy to look up the five statutes cited—that police officers were licensed to carry handguns, but only while they were on duty.) Heller challenged the City’s gun ordinance on the grounds that it violated his right under the Second Amendment to use a gun for self-defense within his home.

Scalia, writing on behalf of the majority of Justices, starts out by quoting the Second Amendment: “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 abridged.” He notes that this wording has been subject to debate right from the get-go. What is meant by various words and phrases: The People? Arms? Militia? And A Free State?

Scalia traces the genesis of the Second Amendment to the disagreement between Federalists—who felt strongly that the new nation should be defended by a standing army—and Republicans—who preferred the Colonial system of home-grown militias separately defending each state. Prominent among the pro-standing army Federalists were John Adams, George Washington (whose opinion was based on his experience as commander of the Continental Army during the Revolution) and Alexander Hamilton (who had served as Washington’s aide de camp). Most notable pro-militia Republicans were wealthy southerner landowners Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, whose priority was protecting states’ rights.

When thinking about the context of the times, it’s easy to visualize men of the late 18th century grabbing their muskets and rifles and mustering on village greens. What is beyond imagining is that any of these men would be storing true military weaponry in their homes or on their property. For that would involve individual ownership of artillery pieces—cannons, mortars and howitzers.

The Court decision goes on for 19 pages of verbal exploration—quotations, explanations, and citations—until finally Scalia comes to the point: The Court rules that “the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.”

But along the way, the decision representing the Court’s majority also states:
• The Second amendment is not “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”
• States are allowed to make their own rules about concealed weapons.
• The Court is not saying that laws preventing felons and the mentally ill from having guns should be changed. Ditto laws the forbid bringing firearms into “sensitive places” such as schools and government buildings and “laws that impose conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
• The sorts of weapons protected by the Second Amendment include those “in common use at the time” the Amendment was written and not “dangerous and unusual weapons.” Scalia notes that the kinds of weapons currently used in the military, specifically “M-16 rifles, and the like” can be banned. He recognizes that some people might not like this and goes on to acknowledge the fact that the Court has to differentiate between the “right” that the amendment grants and the reality that the kinds of weapons ordinary citizens are likely to own would be largely ineffective in fighting against the weapons of modern warfare.

So the Supreme Court is NOT the reason dozens of unhinged nutcases have been able to legally purchase the semi-automatic weapons that have proven so lethal in mass shootings. We have our elected representatives to thank for this sorry state of affairs.

*Note: While the Gun Violence Archive defines “mass shootings” as any incident when more than one victim is killed or injured, the Wikipedia article on Mass Shootings that I referred to in summarizing the most horrific incidents in the past seven decades counts only those that resulted in ten deaths or more.