In two rulings over the past two years, the US Supreme Court has asserted a fundamental right to possess a gun. Yet in both cases, the slim majority of winning justices seemed to hold their noses about these decisions.
Yes, they said, a gun right exists – in theory at least, based on a 21st-century reading of the Second Amendment of the Constitution. But let’s leave the door open to have that right restrained for the sake of public safety.
Gun-control advocates need to keep trying to get through that door. They must test the courts to show that the harmful effects of widespread gun ownership outweigh the benefits to society of owning a gun for self-defense. Some 80 Americans die by guns every day, but it’s unlikely that gun possession saves 80 lives a day in deterring murder. Such empirical evidence can overturn these court decisions.
The latest ruling, issued Monday, takes the court’s 2008 decision that found a gun right involving federal laws and applied it to local and state laws, specifically in challenging Chicago’s strict ban on handguns.
Much of this latest ruling deals with a debate over whether the Bill of Rights applies to state laws under the 14th Amendment. The various opinions also debate the wisdom – or not – of learning from other countries about gun control.
But the decision’s big benefit lies in the court being forced to take into account dozens of local and state laws aimed at reducing easy access to guns. Indeed, Justice Clarence Thomas all but asked the majority’s opponents for ways to measure how gun ownership impairs the lives of others so that the “liberty” of owning a gun might be curtailed.
The majority of justices still welcome restrictions on guns aimed at felons and the mentally ill, while also accepting laws that, for instance, license gun ownership and bar guns in public places. The high court might also some day allow rules on gun access for children or licensing of guns based on character, such as a person’s propensity for violence.
In other words, a gun right is not absolute. In fact, since the 2008 decision (D.C. v. Heller) other court suits against existing gun laws have mostly been dismissed by judges.
Courts cannot ignore the heavy toll that excessive gun ownership takes on families, society, and the economy. The task of reducing gun killings by both criminals and law-abiding citizens requires a constant legal challenge to notions of gun rights and also passing laws to regulate such practices as sales at gun shows.
The proper solution against violent crime isn’t more guns – there are already 250 million to 300 million guns in the United States. It is to have fewer guns, which will reduce the opportunities for killing.