In July, Colorado movie fans thought they were getting a jump on the new Batman film. Instead, they faced a gunman who calmly took aim and began firing. In the barrage, 50 people were wounded; 12 were killed.
Less than three weeks later, Sikh families attending a worship service were attacked by a gunman who suddenly opened fire, killing six worshipers.
And two weeks ago, as commuters went to work near the Empire State building, a disgruntled colleague shot and killed a co-worker, and then was killed himself as police opened fire, wounding nine people in the process.
Shocking as these incidents have been, most gun deaths don’t make the headlines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30,000 people are killed each year in gun-related incidents — an average of more than 80 each day. Not surprisingly, these high numbers lead many to conclude that greater state oversight is required. But again and again, calls for new and increased regulations of gun ownership are met by principled defenses of the right to bear arms.
In this debate over gun regulation, I sometimes wonder if we realize how strange the arguments appear from the outside. The idea that an “unrestricted right to gun ownership” must be maintained as a protection against government power sounds just a little over the top to contemporary ears, especially when most of America’s closest allies place significant restrictions on gun ownership and so far have managed to avoid the descent into tyranny. Were the consequences of this American peculiarity to be benign, we might actually smile at this historical quirk, as we do for the British who believe they aren’t really part of Europe, or for Canadians who believe that they really won the War of 1812.
But as this summer makes clear, this American peculiarity is not benign. There can be little doubt that contemporary interpretations of the Second Amendment have been the cause of considerable human suffering. Thousands of deaths could have been prevented were even the relatively non-controversial proposed regulations put into place: trigger locks, comprehensive background checks, waiting periods, and a ban on assault weapons.