These days, I shudder as I switch on the PBS evening news. It often brings me to tears. The Ukraine tragedy, which could have been avoided by a more judicious American foreign policy, dominated for months. Three weeks ago, the tragedy shifted to America as gun violence flared in Buffalo, then Uvalde.
It's hard to believe: Kids go to class fearing for their lives. Schools have become shuttered fortresses. Active-shooter drills are part of every child's normal routine, even though research shows that each drill triggers a three-month period of increased stress, anxiety and thoughts of death in children from age 5 through high school.
Yet shootings persist.
The 18-year-old Uvalde shooter legally purchased two AR-15-style rifles a few days before his rampage. This gun is a semiautomatic weapon that fires as fast as a killer can pull the trigger. It's been used in more than six mass shootings since 2012, including Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida (17 dead), Las Vegas (58), the Texas church shooting (26), Pulse nightclub in Florida (49), San Bernardino (14) and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut (27).
The starting point for thinking about this problem must be its uniquely American character. A study of the seven most economically powerful countries showed that Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Britain had a total of five school shootings between 2009 and 2018, while the United States had 288. We own far more civilian guns per person than any other nation. We have less than 5% of the world's population but over 40% of its civilian-owned guns. from 1968 to 2017, there were 1.5 million firearm deaths in America -- more than the total number of Americans killed in all wars beginning with the American Revolution (a cumulative 1.35 million). In a list of the number of gun violence deaths per 100,000 people in the 36 most prosperous nations, the U.S. leads every other country by a factor of at least five.
What are the remedies? Everybody agrees that greater attention to mental health, especially for young men, would help. So would greater social justice.
But it's blindingly obvious that nothing will move this needle significantly without much more restrictive gun control laws. Universal background checks and laws banning semiautomatic rifles such as the AR-15 are most frequently suggested.
There is massive evidence that gun control works. During the past few decades there have been mass shootings in Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, New Zealand and Norway. Those nations responded quickly by imposing new restrictions on gun ownership. Britain banned semiautomatic weapons following the massacre of 16 in 1987, and did the same with most handguns after a 1996 school shooting. Britain now has one of the lowest gun-related death rates in the developed world. Canada (in 1989), Australia (1996), Germany (2002), New Zealand (2019) and Norway (2021) also solved their problems by passing stricter gun control measures following mass shootings.
Four years ago, former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a New York Times op-ed article praising demonstrators who called for stricter gun control laws. Stevens, a former GOP antitrust lawyer, added "But demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand repeal of the Second Amendment."
Stevens pointed out that this amendment was passed because a national standing army might threaten the security of individual states. "Today, that concern is a relic of the 18th century," he wrote. He said repeal would move the nation closer to effective gun control than any other possible reform, and repeal was required in order to overturn the 2008 Supreme Court ruling that Americans have an individual right to bear arms.
Stevens' point was that the Second Amendment was never meant to permit widespread gun ownership and was only meant to apply to members of state militias, which no longer exist.
Stevens also had an alternative suggestion: Add five words to the 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." After all, this is historically what the Founding Fathers meant.
Americans favor stricter gun laws. A 2021 Gallup poll concluded that 52% want stricter laws, 11% want less strict laws, and 35% want no change.
Could the Second Amendment be repealed or amended? Given America's devastating gun violence, and given the present Supreme Court's warped reading of the Second Amendment, it is certainly worth a serious and persistent try.