Right Place Right Time

The Virginia Tech shooting at the hands of Cho Seung-Hui should have sparked more discussion among Americans about gun control and death and violence fascination than it did. Members of the two major political parties, as well as pundits from across the political spectrum, ducked the issue. California Senator Diane Feinstein did note the obvious: “Shootings like these are enabled by the unparalleled ease with which people procure weapons in this country.” But her observation was a lone ripple across the otherwise placid surface of elite opinion. Not even Bush’s inane comment at the Virginia Tech memorial service drew a comment from the talking heads. “It’s impossible to make sense of such violence and suffering,” the Texan said. “They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Cho Seung-Hui, mass murderer

But those who died at the hands of Cho Seung-Hui were in the right place at the right time. They were in college classrooms learning—rooms that should be safe from the violence that tragically marks the United States as unique among nations of similar political-economic character. This phrase—“wrong place at the wrong time”—is a brainless and heartless copout. So is the construct “senseless violence.” It is possible to make sense of such violence and suffering; we find that sense in America’s pervasive culture of violence, its fascination with warriors and the instruments of warfare, and its easy access to firearms. To say something is senseless is to say you cannot do anything about it. 

Yet the public, despite supporting rational gun control policy in surveys of their opinions, is paralyzed by the assumption that the politicians can do very little about the problem of gun violence in the United States. The gun lobby has convinced Americans that the Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to own and carry firearms. So standard is this view that the mayor of New York, without fear of contradiction, could say the following: “This tragedy does not alter the Second Amendment.” Rudy Giuliani continued: “People have the right to keep and bear arms, and the Constitution says this right will not be infringed.

But this belief is mistaken for a very basic reason: the text of the Second Amendment does not guarantee individual citizens the right to possess firearms. Unclouded by ideology, the text and history of the Second Amendment tell a different story.

“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 first clause of the amendment speaks to intent: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State.” It’s not a throw-away clause, no matter how much the National Rifle Association pretends otherwise. Ownership occurs in the context of a well regulated militia, an entity deemed necessary for the security of a free state. The people—a collective entity—refers to members of the militia.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “the Second Amendment does not confer an unlimited right upon individuals to own guns or other weapons nor does it prohibit reasonable regulation of gun ownership, such as licensing and registration.” The ACLU’s judgment follows the sound judgment of courts and constitution:

  • In the 1939 case US v. Miller, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous ruling that the second amendment must be interpreted as intending to guarantee the states’ rights to maintain and regulate a militia. “In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a shotgun having a barrel of less than 18 inches in length at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”
  • A 1976 Sixth Circuit Court ruling states: “Since the Second Amendment…applies only to the right of the State to maintain a militia and not to the individual’s right to bear arms, there can be no serious claim to any express constitutional right to possess a firearm.
  • In 1983, the Supreme Court let stand a Seventh Circuit Court decision upholding an ordinance in Morton Grove, Illinois that banned possession of handguns within its borders (Quilici v. Morton Grove).
  • The Second Amendment roots in the text of the US Constitution: Article I Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the authority “for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” In this capacity, the Congress is responsible “for organizing, arming, and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.” Article I, section 8 gives Congress the authority to regulate the militia identified in the second amendment.

According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, most Americans are in favor of stricter gun control. Two-thirds of adults surveyed said the laws regulating the sale of handguns should be tighter. Only five percent said the laws should be looser. Three-quarters of Democrats support stricter handgun laws, about half of Republicans feel this way, and 60 percent of independents agree. A large minority in the poll (32 percent of those surveyed) say they support a handgun ban (with the exception of handguns for law enforcement officers). That number could grow with more education about gun violence. Also promising is the finding that a slender majority (54 percent) believe that stricter gun control laws and enforcement would have had some effect on the killings at Virginia Tech.

Given the consensus of legal professionals concerning the second amendment, public opinion polls showing Americans in support stricter gun sale laws, and five dead Amish schoolchildren in Nickel Mines, fourteen dead high school students at Columbine, and now 33 dead college students in Blacksburg, why are politicians ducking the question? Why would they ignore the courts, public sentiment, and death and destruction?

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-gun lobbyists outspent gun control proponents 166:1 for Republicans and 3:1 for Democrats. The gun lobby pours so much money into the politicians’ trough that, although only 27 percent of the public believe that private citizens should carry guns, states are passing legislation permitting carrying of concealed weapons. And, while more than 70 percent of the public believe guns possessed by school officials in school would make schools more dangerous, gun proponents are calling for arming school officials.

Shockingly, 26 percent of those surveyed said that allowing adults to carry concealed weapons would have helped in the situation. This percentage reflects the intensity of gun fanaticism, which, although representing only around one-quarter of the public in the poll, nonetheless indicates the existence of a committed block of voters. These are the fanatics flooding switch boards and Internet forums with the pro-gun slogans. A loud minority can sometimes mislead the public.

To make America safer, we must do the hard work of reversing the corrosive effects of the culture of militarization and violence. We can begin this work by bringing our soldiers home from Iraq and drawing down our armed forces. We must strive to build more supportive social networks. The state must stop its example of using violence as a solution to conflict. And we must pass and enforce strict gun laws.

Tightening enforcement of already existing federal gun laws could have prevented the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Enforcement could have stopped Cho Seung-Hui, an obviously disturbed young man, from purchasing the guns he used to kill 32 people and himself. But Virginia’s interpretation of what constitutes mental illness is too narrow to prevent sick individuals like Cho from legally getting their hands on firearms. 

In the final analysis, although the state of Virginia failed to protect its citizens from a deranged gunman, the people and their representatives have failed to address the culture that deranges the minds of young men. Does this excuse what Cho did? No. Individuals are responsible for their actions. But stating the obvious will not reduce the risk of future mass murders.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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