To find a hopeful path forward regarding gun policy requires reviewing the source of America’s dilemma. Our gridlocked debate stems largely from the 1980s and 1990s. Campaigns then to ban handguns (the weapons used in most homicides, suicides and accidents) led most gun owners to conclude: “They plan to take away all our guns.” The NRA’s don’t-give-an-inch strategy emerged, and millions of hunters, home-defenders and sport shooters signed on.
Fast-forward through 20 years of rapid social change, including wildfire growth of the internet and social media, the 9/11 attacks, two foreign wars, varied home-grown terrorists and unending culture war. Now, with grievances and fears abounding, America has more guns than adults and averages one mass shooting per day. Assault rifles are legal in 41 states and teens can buy a wide range of firearms. Yet, the NRA aggressively maintains its No Slippery Slope position, stymieing passage of almost all new regulations.
Many progressives believe the Second Amendment is now irrelevant, so it’s no surprise that gun rights activists stay in battle mode. Though it’s meaning is quite debatable, treating that amendment as sacred text remains a NRA winner.
This situation need not be hopeless, though. Saner policies could very likely be achieved if – and only if – gun enthusiasts had a new, indisputable Constitutional protection of their right to have guns for self-defense and hunting, the uses they care most deeply about. I believe many of them – also sick of the murders of innocents – would then come to support red-flag laws, thorough universal background checks and a mandatory buy-back of assault weapons. Such a national commitment might look something like this:
28th Amendment to the Constitution
Section 1: Due to major changes in weaponry and the behaviors of criminals over the past 100 years, the Second Article of Amendment is hereby replaced.
Section 2: The right of citizens to have and use weapons that are appropriate and sufficient for the purpose of either: (a) reasonable defense of themselves from threatening individuals, or (b) hunting of game shall not be denied by the United States, any state, or any local government, except as outlined in Section 3. The manufacture, sale, rental, transportation or possession of weapons for any other purpose may be regulated or prohibited by any duly elected governmental entity.
Section 3: To protect the lives and liberty of citizens, the above right to weapons possession and use does not extend to: (a) those who consider themselves at war with the United States; and (b) those deemed, by clearly defined standards, to have a mental health condition that currently presents a far above-average risk for future violent behavior.
Any law or regulation identifying those who are denied this right for either above reason must have been passed with 55% or greater support in each chamber that is authorized to consider the legislation.
As opposed to our intractable abortion debates, the regulation of gun use in America (done for the past 80-plus years) has dozens of negotiable issues. To seriously consider compromising on any of those, though, gun rights advocates would surely require a binding national statement like this to calm their deep fear of confiscation. Such an amendment might feel to both sides like capitulation, often indicative of a good compromise.
Like past amendments, this one would spawn important debates. Just what gun regulations are appropriate for the nation? For each state? But courts and legislatures would now have a new certainty about what is constitutional. Clarifying the boundaries of this civil right would also be an invaluable confidence-building achievement for our embattled nation.
Remember, it took a century, a horrific war and three constitutional amendments to eradicate slavery in America. Our job is far easier: replace a contentious 1791 Amendment with one that speaks far more clearly to our current needs. Modest courage and compromising are all it would take.
Dr. Tyler Taylor is a Los Alamos physician