Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a mass shooting earlier this month claimed the lives of 17, are planning a march on Washington in March to protest gun violence. They want this school massacre to become a turning point in the elusive quest for government action on gun control.
These students have already traveled to Tallahassee to lobby Florida’s legislators and to the White House to meet with President Trump. Across the country, students from dozens of other high schools walked out of class last Wednesday to protest gun violence and honor victims of the Parkland shooting. This youthful groundswell seems to be making an impression on cynical politicians long accustomed to stonewalling pleas for reform.
I applaud the students’ goals, but I believe those goals to be too modest. For my part, I hope their efforts spark a nationwide campaign to repeal the Second Amendment — a crusade with the moral force of the Civil Rights Movement.
Though I’m generally a centrist, who urges cautious, reasoned, compromise positions on most hot-button issues, my patience with moderation on this issue has reached its limits. Enough is enough!
For decades, the National Rifle Association has maintained a level of political influence that has enabled it to arrogantly shut down all efforts to strengthen lax federal firearms laws in the face of an epidemic of gun deaths only slightly less lethal than that associated with highway accidents. It has staunchly opposed strengthening background checks and prohibiting the sale and possession of military-style assault weapons, ammunition and expanded magazines. It has even tried to turn federalism upside down, fighting to undermine stricter state gun control laws by pushing for universal “concealed carry reciprocity” legislation.
Through heavy campaign contributions and even more heavy-handed lobbying, bankrolled by an estimated $140 million just in 2016, the NRA has managed to stuff the entire Republican Party and many Democratic elected officials into its pocket. As a result, no gun control bill has been able to make any headway in Congress or in most state legislatures.
Not only has the NRA blocked gun control legislation, it has distorted the entire public conversation about the regulation of firearms. The gun lobby has succeeded in making it seem un-American to try to take gun out of the hands of “law-abiding citizens.” Gun control advocates, placed on the defensive, are resigned to talking cautiously about “common sense” measures to make gun ownership safer.
The NRA and its allies have wrapped themselves in the American flag and tried to make the very notion of firearm ownership the most sacred tenet of American values. They have done so by elevating the Second Amendment to an exalted position it does not, and was never intended to, have under the Constitution. It’s time to de-mythologize firearms, something that can only be achieved by making gun ownership and possession, like motor vehicle ownership and operation, a privilege instead of a right.
I get that hunting and target shooting are traditional and well-loved recreational pastimes of many Americans. I also get that a lot of citizens in rural and some high-crime urban areas of the country live where police protection is not just a “911” call away and feel they need firearms to protect themselves, their homes, businesses and families.. But hunting and target shooting are no more sacred than bowling, and those who want firearms for recreation or need it for protection could still do so in a system which, like motor vehicle licensing and registration, carefully regulates their use.
I doubt the Constitution’s drafters ever envisioned the lofty status for gun ownership rights espoused by the gun lobby. The framers had in mind two political extremes that they wanted to avoid — monarchy and mob rule.
One of the characteristics of 18th European monarchies was a large standing army with a government monopoly on firearms. For their new country, the founders envisioned instead a small professional army, supplemented by volunteer militiamen who owned their own muskets, knew how to load and fire them, and could be mustered when needed for national defense in times of invasion or insurrection. Hence the language of the Second Amendment: “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.”
The framers also realized that conditions would change over time, and, with it, there would occasionally be a need to amend the Constitution. They provided that a constitutional amendment could be proposed by Congress through a two-thirds majority in both houses and ratified by three-fourths of the State legislatures (38 or 40).
Our country’s founders were pretty smart guys for the 18th century, but they weren’t clairvoyant. In 1791, when the Second Amendment was adopted, they couldn’t have foreseen a country whose population would grow by a factor of 60, whose cities would house millions of people, whose political system would be able to accommodate both democracy and a large standing military, and whose sophisticated technology would enable a single shooter, running amok, to kill as many people as an entire colonial regiment.
Any effort to repeal or modify the Second Amendment will be undeniably arduous and could take a generation or more to achieve. After all, it took a nearly a century, and the heroic efforts of young civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall, to dismantle the brutal segregation system that followed Reconstruction. However, the time has come to attempt it.
I hope the students of Parkland, Florida, will be the ones to fire the opening shot (no pun intended) in this new struggle for the soul of our country.
Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer.