The carnage in Orlando on June 12 left Americans feeling helpless. And so it makes sense that many took heart in the Congressional push for gun control legislation that happened in the immediate aftermath. In light of shooter Omar Mateen’s potential ties to terrorism, Democratic politicians quickly jumped on a loophole that allows Americans on terrorist watch lists to buy guns. Connecticut senator Chris Murphy spent 14 hours leading a filibuster calling for an end to this loophole on June 15. When the Senate failed to pass any laws that might address the problem, House Democrats staged an old-school sit-in for 26 more hours. It was all very dramatic.
I appreciate their efforts. But such piecemeal measures offer very little in terms of real policy. The fact is that we need fewer guns in the United States. We need to stop selling assault rifles. And if there no way to do this in a way that satisfies constitutional scholars, we need to change the Second Amendment.
As my colleague Tim Fernholz noted earlier this week, lost in the chaos and rhetoric of the Orlando massacre is the fact that terror watch lists are ineffective, potentially discriminatory and almost certainly unconstitutional. “It may seem easier to let a secret court assess who should have these military weapons than to convince society to ban them entirely,” Fernholz wrote. “But rarely do such measures come without unintended consequences. And these proposed policies leverage the same politics of fear that many in the US came to regret after 9/11.”
It’s also worth asking why we’re pouring so much energy into what is ultimately a minor change. If it is this hard to try and get Congress to vote on a potentially ineffective bill, how will they ever push through meaningful reforms?
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has backed US politicians into a corner, spending millions to keep them in office—and in the pocket of the gun lobby. Meanwhile, the country remains loyal to a flawed, centuries-old piece of parchment written by a bunch of white men who didn’t believe women should have the right to vote and who thought that slavery was an economic necessity. There is nothing sacrosanct about our founding fathers.
In the past decade alone, thousands of American lives have been lost to guns because of the way some legal scholars interpreted a comma. It wasn’t always this way. As reported by Politico, “From 1888, when law review articles first were indexed, through 1959, every single one on the Second Amendment concluded it did not guarantee an individual right to a gun.” Rather, the amendment was interpreted as a rather dated measure meant to protect state militias prevalent during the 18th century. What changed? A shift in NRA leadership lead to an aggressive lobbying effort meant to expand Second Amendment protections. Gun control guidelines were targeted and the “well regulated militia” aspect of the amendment was de facto erased.
Now the Constitution, much like the Bible–another flawed text used for centuries as a tool of oppression and tyranny–has become a crutch for lazy leadership and moral ambiguity. It’s an excuse for cowards to masquerade as patriots. Today, the NRA treats personal gun ownership as an inviolable right, regardless of its function or purpose. No matter that, in the case of semiautomatic assault rifles, one person’s cool toy is also the the killing tool of choice for mass murderers.
Which brings me back to Orlando. The past two weeks have not been easy for members of the LGBT community. Heading into the final days of Pride month, the mood remains somber as we remember the members of our queer family who can no longer celebrate with us.
We still do not know what exactly motivated the shooter. We do not know if he was, in fact, tied to any Islamist terror organizations even as he pledged his allegiance to them. We do not know if he was motivated instead by inner demons or mental illness or a tortured relationship with his own sexuality.
What we do know is that a man who was born in the US walked into a gun store near his home in St. Lucie and legally purchased a Sig Sauer .223 caliber assault rifle, a Glock 17, and multiple magazines and rounds of ammunitions. All told, he made three trips to the store, ultimately coming away with semiautomatic weaponry designed specifically so that special forces personnel could kill the most people in the quickest amount of time. (Bonus: assault-style rifles are super manly.)
Of course, Mateen was no soldier. The blood that covered the floor of the gay club that night was the blood of men and women mowed down by a rifle firing over 40 rounds per minute. His victim never had a chance.
The worst nightmare of gun rights advocates is an apocalyptic scenario in which president Barack Obama personally arrives at their doors and takes away their legally purchased guns. The idea that the government wants to run roughshod over the Second Amendment is repeated over and over in order to drum up conservative hysteria. It’s also a lie—Obama has never expressed any interest in anything remotely resembling gun confiscation.
But maybe he should.
Because if we really wanted to honor the memories of the 49 people murdered in Orlando, we wouldn’t be talking about watch lists and waiting periods. We would be talking about decreasing America’s massive gun surplus. Yes, maybe the government should come for some of our guns. Or at the very least, maybe the government should be finding ways to limit the number of civilians allowed to own highly lethal killing machines.
According to the NRA’s own blog, the assault-style AR-15 is the most popular rifle in the US. It’s so popular that an estimated nine million people owned one in 2014, a number that has undoubtedly risen in the past two years as Americans rush to gun stores in the wake of every mass shooting. The cycle of violence is perpetuated by our cycle of gun purchases.
This isn’t a problem that can be solved simply by closing loopholes. We are a nation drunk on our own gun-loving self-righteousness. We are a nation so delusional that the murdering of children seems like an acceptable price to pay for the contents of your neighbor’s gun safe.
To be clear, I know plenty of responsible gun owners. I want hunters to be able to hunt—but not with semiautomatic weapons. And I would like people who enjoy a little target practice to be able to do so at to their local firing range—but not with semiautomatic weapons. If you want to fire 43 bullets a minute, join the military.
The Constitution is supposed to protect Americans’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But right now, the Second Amendment ensures that killers have the right to end the lives of innocents in movie theaters, shopping malls, elementary schools and now gay bars. Orlando was a reminder that LGBT Americans have never really felt safe in America, but honestly, straight Americans shouldn’t really feel safe in America either. Not if we continue to interpret (or misinterpret) the Second Amendment.
Of course, changing the rules would be difficult. A constitutional amendment clarifying the Second Amendment would require a massive plurality in Congress, and it would then need to be ratified by three-quarters of US state legislatures. But seeing as incremental gun control reform hasn’t been working, our options seem increasingly limited. We can choose to resign ourselves to a future of endless and unnecessary bloodshed. Or we can finally accept that our right to bear unlimited arms matters less than our right to live free from the constant fear of gun violence.