The massacre in Uvalde, Texas, that took place earlier this week is just one more in a long succession of horrific examples of gun violence in America. But even after this atrocity, is it possible for Americans to have an honest debate about guns and mass shootings? Based on recent experience, the answer is clearly “no.”
Yet such a discussion, painful and divisive though it will be, is there to be had. The question is: Will anyone among those who are the loudest in speaking about the need to do something about guns have the candor and the courage to go to the heart of the issue rather than continue to virtue signal or play politics on it?
If they do, then they’ll stop spouting anodyne slogans about “sensible” gun control or more laws about background checks or imposing limits on the sales of specific weapons that are little different from those that would remain legal, since those proposals barely nibble around the edge of the issue. Instead, they’ll talk about the real reason that the United States remains inundated with firearms: the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees Americans the right to own guns. So long as this right is guaranteed, guns will continue to be available to criminals and disturbed individuals who use them to commit crimes, as well as to law-abiding citizens who want them for self-protection, hunting or target shooting.
Pointing this out isn’t the same thing as supporting the repeal of the amendment. But if Americans were willing to debate that idea, then they would be having an honest discussion about guns rather than the disingenuous pontificating, which mostly consists of finger-pointing at political foes or knocking down straw men, that currently passes for informed opinion on the issue. And it would not be out of order for the liberal Jewish advocacy organizations that are usually at the forefront of the posturing on guns to lead this honest debate. But, to date, they prefer to pretend, along with their political allies on the left, that mass shootings and other crimes will be deterred or prevented if regulations that do nothing more than to inconvenience the law-abiding are passed.
The senseless slaughter of 19 children and two teachers at the Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was the second in number only to the loss of 20 children and six adults in 2012 at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn. But coming hard on the heels of another such atrocity last week in Buffalo, this tragedy—a shocking reminder of the existence of pure evil—was especially hard to bear.
It has led many to voice understandable frustration about why these crimes happen so often in the United States as opposed to the rest of the world. The one clear difference is that—unlike in much of the rest of the world, where individual citizens don’t possess the right to own guns or they are severely restricted—the United States is different. The Second Amendment ensures that most Americans who want firearms can get them.
Such rights are severely restricted in some states and municipalities. Buying and owning a weapon can be a bureaucratic nightmare. But the constitutional guarantee explains why there are more guns than people in the United States. One recent study showed that there are currently 120.5 guns per 100 persons, a rate that far exceeds other nations. According to Gallup, 44% of Americans live in a gun-owning household with 32% declaring themselves to be personal gun owners.
Those numbers went up drastically during the coronavirus pandemic. A University of Chicago study found that 18 percent of U.S. households bought guns in the last two years with 5% of Americans becoming first-time firearm purchasers during this period. Of those, 69% were minorities, and 85% of them were under 45 years of age.
It’s hardly surprising. Americans of all races felt they had to protect themselves.
The pandemic undermined faith in public order as well as increased most people’s sense of isolation. The summer of “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter riots in 2020 led many to believe that police officers’ fears of being accused of being racist had produced a decline in law enforcement and a rise in crime.
This shows that there is a vast constituency for gun rights that goes beyond the millions who belong to the National Rifle Association, which is widely accused of being responsible for gun crimes because of their opposition to even the most minor gun regulations.
Guns are deeply ingrained in American culture. That culture is alien to many of those who live on the coasts or in big cities and regard guns with horror. Though there are many Jews who are gun enthusiasts, the constituencies that support liberal Jewish advocacy groups can be counted on to support any and all efforts to restrict or ban all sorts of firearms.
Still, these pro-gun control groups, like their Democratic Party allies, prefer to speak as if additional regulations on gun purchases and ownership will do something to reduce gun violence. This is patently false since the criminals who use guns don’t worry about background checks or gun-show exceptions. As we drill down into the circumstances of each mass killing, we almost always find that the laws that are proposed in response to them wouldn’t have prevented those crimes for any number of reasons. Efforts to ban certain kinds of guns, like assault rifles, including the widely popular AR-15 that has been used in mass shootings, ignore the fact that the difference between these weapons and others is largely cosmetic.
More attention and funding for mental-health awareness and care would help to prevent some of these terrible crimes. So would better enforcement of existing gun laws.
But if the Second Amendment was repealed and gun ownership largely banned, the number of firearms could be vastly reduced. That has happened in other countries, either in reaction to mass shootings or because governments, both tyrannical and democratic, have the power to prevent individuals from owning means of self-protection. In theory, that could mean that a person would find it a lot harder to obtain guns to use to commit atrocities like the ones in Uvalde or Newtown, where the killers were 20 and 18 years old, respectively.
A lot of Americans would think that would be a worthwhile exchange and point to the quality of life and safety of those who live in countries where gun ownership isn’t widespread. Indeed, even in Israel, where, due to widespread army service and security problems, there are a lot of guns in circulation, there is no right to own one.
In response, others would argue that Second Amendment rights are integral to the American political tradition, which values liberty and individual rights over communal safety or a cradle-to-grave responsibility of the government to provide for their well-being. They would also point out that the right to bear arms is rooted in the particularly American notion that the idea that the government should have the monopoly on weapons is antithetical to liberty, even if few currently envision a need for citizens to possess guns to defend their rights against domestic tyrants. Not without reason, a critical mass of Americans values this tradition.
The strength of that tradition, as well as the vast number of Americans who currently legally own firearms and have no intention of giving them up even if it might somehow reduce mass shootings, is why even the most liberal politicians claim they have no interest in repealing the Second Amendment—no matter that many of their supporters would actually be eager to see the government taking guns away from their fellow citizens. If liberals want to abolish gun rights, and many of them do, then let them say so openly. Until they are willing to do so, our gun-control debates, and the arguments and virtue signaling of those Jewish groups that take part in them, will remain disingenuous and utterly irrelevant other than to those who look to them as ways of solidifying their political bases.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.