Most people who pay attention to the issue of gun violence know the grim statistics. According to the BBC, 21,386 Americans committed suicide in 2014 using a firearm, while 11,008 Americans were murdered with firearms. In addition to deaths, firearms cause nearly three times as many nonfatal injuries, upwards of 75,000 annually. Figures vary from year to year, but the trend is upward. Americans are in possession of 270,000,000 firearms, roughly nine firearms for every ten Americans. This is nearly twice as many as the next most heavily armed nation—Yemen, which is in the midst of an ongoing civil war—and almost three times as many as third-place Switzerland, where universal military service is mandatory and citizen-soldiers keep their weapons at home.
My gun-toting acquaintances argue that without their guns, they and their loved ones are at the mercy of the criminals; that any gun controls at all are the slippery slope toward banning firearms entirely; and that the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution is sacred and inviolable.
But while there are all sorts of anecdotes bandied about, demonstrating how “a good guy with a gun” is the antidote to “a bad guy with a gun,” the overwhelming evidence makes it clear that being in possession of a legal firearm actually increases the risk of injury or death rather than reducing it.
And as for the arguments involving the Constitution, unlike the late Antonin Scalia and others who claim to be “strict constructionists” following the “original intent” of our Founding Fathers, I am a true strict constructionist. I believe the 2nd Amendment should be strictly interpreted as the Founding Fathers originally intended.
And I cannot believe, even for a nanosecond, that when those men wrote the 2nd Amendment, they could possibly have envisioned high-powered military assault rifles with 30-round magazines or pocket-sized .45-caliber handguns or shotguns capable of firing ten rounds in succession before reloading.
What did those Founding Fathers intend? A typical weapon of the day was the “Brown Bess” muzzle-loading flintlock smooth-bore musket, nearly five feet long, over ten pounds in weight, and capable of firing no more than three rounds a minute, even in expert hands.
Like our Founding Fathers, I believe absolutely that every American citizen has the fundamental, constitutional right to keep and bear one of these weapons. I’d like to see somebody rob a bank with a Brown Bess. Or shoot up a nightclub. Or commit suicide.
But what about all those Americans who love to hunt? Easy. State-run and regulated armories where hunters—once they’ve fulfilled certification requirements (much like drivers have to do)—can rent out a rifle or shotgun, and purchase ammunition. When their hunting adventure is over, they turn in their weapons along with the spent cartridges and unused ammo. Weapons not turned in or ammo not accounted for, you’re under arrest.
As for the argument that when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns: that one’s easy, too, if we’re really serious about ending gun violence in the US. Any person caught in illegal possession of a firearm goes to prison for life, period. Any person committing a crime while in possession of a firearm: automatic death penalty, no appeals, no fifteen years on Death Row. Either criminals will stop carrying guns or all the criminals will eventually be disposed of. Either way, no more criminals with guns.
Cruel and unusual punishment? I’ll tell you what’s cruel and unusual punishment: that I and my family have to live every day of our lives wondering when some whacko with a gun is going to shoot up the movie theater we’re in or the store where we shop, or the classroom where I teach, even though we’ve done nothing wrong or illegal.
I am as law-abiding as all those law-abiding gun owners who argue that law-abiding gun owners are not the problem. Yet because those law-abiding gun owners demand the right to have unlimited access to all the guns and ammunition they can cram into their houses and garages and cars, I have to live 24/7 in the slaughterhouse that has become ordinary life in America, where 96 people are killed with guns every single day, where 50 women are shot to death each month by intimate partners, where 4.6 per cent of the world’s population accounts for 82 per cent of gun deaths worldwide.
You think my solution is too draconian? If you’ve got a better solution, I’d like to hear it. Or maybe it’s best just to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past 50 years as Congress and state legislatures have knuckled under to the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers. That would be nothing. We can continue to do nothing. How effective has that approach been so far?
W. D. Ehrhart is a combat-wounded Marine veteran of the American War in Vietnam and a Master Teacher at the Haverford School in Pennsylvania.