Must We Learn to Live With It?

Americans celebrated Thanksgiving this week in the aftermath of two more mass shootings.  


Last Saturday in Colorado Springs an attacker clad in body armor opened fire in an LGBTQ nightclub during a drag show and killed five people. 


On Tuesday in Virginia, a Walmart manager gunned down six co-workers. He had purchased the gun legally that very morning. 


So far this year, there have been more than 600 mass shootings, according to the Gun Violence Archive, based on a definition of four or more shot or killed not including the shooter. 


On Thanksgiving Day, President Biden spoke at a firehouse on Nantucket and said he would attempt to pass some form of gun control before a new Congress is seated in January. 


“The idea we still allow semi-automatic weapons to be purchased is sick. It’s just sick. It has no, no social redeeming value, zero, none. Not a single solitary rationale for it except profits for gun manufacturers,” Biden said.


I’m rooting for his success but I’m pessimistic. In fact, we might as well get used to it. 


Mass shootings have become part of our American existence, and we lack the capability to make the fundamental change necessary to reduce them. 


Instead, we’ve fallen into a typical pattern. It involves extending thoughts and prayers, followed by expressions of hand-wringing by some of our elected officials who do want change. Then comes a retort focussed on mental health by Second Amendment purists, maybe some limited debate, and then the news cycle moves on only to be repeated soon thereafter when there’s another mass shooting. 


Let’s stop spinning our wheels and realize that this is the price we pay for living in the United States. This is mostly because of how the enshrinement of our gun culture as the Second Amendment has been interpreted by the Supreme Court.  


The Second Amendment reads, “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 infringed.”


I think it’s pretty straightforward those 27 words are not to be parsed and must be read as a complete thought. Immediately post-Revolutionary War, the idea was that militias needed to keep and bear arms. Otherwise, why even reference a militia in the amendment?  


And where the days of well-regulated militias are long gone, so too should any unfettered right to keep and bear arms, yet that’s not how the Supreme Court saw it in the 2008 Heller case.  


In the case, Justice Scalia wrote for a 5-4 majority, and instead found that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to possess firearms unconnected to service in a state militia. Until the composition of the Supreme Court changes and the Heller decision is overturned, nothing big can be done about guns.  


Theoretically, we could repeal and replace the Second Amendment. However, that requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress, or by a convention called for by two-thirds of the states. It then must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, or their conventions.


That’s not happening. The last time the Constitution was amended was in 1992 the 27th Amendment, having to do with whether Congress could vote for its own pay hike. The Second Amendment is here to stay, and without an invitation from the Supreme Court to make change, Congress can only tinker at the margins. 


Last June, President Biden signed into law what was said to be the most significant gun control bill in three decades. It was bi-partisan legislation that enhanced background checks for gun buyers 21 years of age, provided $750 million for mental health services, and closed a loophole to prevent convicted domestic abusers from purchasing firearms for five years. All of this is worthy, but not enough to stop the madness.  


According to a new study, the number of American adults who say they carried a loaded handgun with them daily in 2019 was 6 million   double the number from just four years earlier. 


Even if Congress were not limited by Heller, it lacks the resolve to make monumental change. How do I know? Because of Sandy Hook.     


In 2012, a 20-year-old gunman killed twenty 6- and 7-year-olds plus 6 adults and still nothing changed. Even more, that was 13 years after Columbine, when two high school seniors murdered twelve classmates and one teacher. Now we have the more recent school tragedies at Parkland and Uvalde. 


So no amount of carnage even involving kids will give politicians the willingness to address a uniquely American problem. We aren’t inherently more violent than the rest of the planet, nor do we have a monopoly on mental health problems here in the United States. Our kids are not the only ones to watch movies and play violent video games. What sets us apart is the access to and inventory of guns.  


According to a 2015 study by Adam Lankford, a professor at the University of Alabama, Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns.  From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American. Adjusted for population, only Yemen has a higher rate of mass shootings among countries with more than 10 million people — a distinction Mr. Lankford urged to avoid outliers. 


Yemen has the world’s second-highest rate of gun ownership, after the United States. And no, the answer is not to arm even more people.


Last year, I spoke on CNN about analysis from Texas State University’s advanced law enforcement rapid response training center. They looked at 433 active shooter attacks in the U.S. from 2000 to 2021. The data they reviewed found that most attacks were already over before law enforcement arrived.  

433 active shooters in two decades, 249 attacks ended before police arrived, and in 185 of those, the attacker left the scene or committed suicide, which leaves 64 cases. In 42 of them, the shooter was subdued by bystander, and in 22 cases the shooter was shot by a bystander — 12 of them being citizens. So only 12 of 249 that ended before police arrived were due to a good guy with a gun? Arming everyone isn’t an answer.  


I’m not advocating surrender. If mass shootings are a part of what we’ve become, I don’t think we stop trying. However, maybe we sharpen our focus. We continue to grieve and mourn the dead, and we enhance security. 


We harden targets like schools, workplaces, and places where we gather in large numbers. We also give law enforcement the Apple/Meta/Google-level technology it needs to improve background checks that are accurate and instantaneous.


We restrict as much weapon access as a post-Heller decision will permit. We elect presidents who will appoint Supreme Court Justices who don’t think the Second Amendment reference to “a well-regulated militia” extends beyond militias.   


All the while we hope that if Heller is overturned, Congress will have the courage to seize the moment. At the same time, we lead our lives.


Michael Smerconish

Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.

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