26 Names by Jason Robert Brown
When I first heard of the shooting at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, I was reading the chapters on the debate over slavery in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the history book that inspired the Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner film “Lincoln.” I was struck by the parallels.
Slavery was embedded in the United States Constitution, as is the “right” to guns in the Second Amendment. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, actually ruled antislavery laws unconstitutional (explicitly the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had restricted slavery in certain territories.) The United States Supreme Court of 2008 ruled a tough gun-control law in Washington, D.C. as unconstitutional, in a 5-4 decision that declared the Second Amendment gives people an individual right to bear arms, not just as part of a militia. (According to the Brady Center To Prevent Gun Violence, however, in the decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, “The Court went out of its way to make clear that most gun laws are “presumptively” constitutional while also putting to rest gun owners’ fears of a total ban or ultimate confiscation of all firearms”)
Many people viewed the issue of slavery as a regional conflict, with the call for an end to slavery viewed by Southerners as an infringement of their rights. Similarly, Westerners in particular seem to put a high value on gun ownership.
Politicians were afraid of losing power by endorsing what was seen as the radical cause of abolition. In the 1850s, most “antislavery” public officials were opposed to the spread of slavery to the territories, and did not advocate for the end of slavery in the states where it already existed. After every shooting, politicians today make vague mentions of taking “meaningful action” but there is actually less action now than in the past. A Federal Assault Weapons Ban was in place from 1994 to 2004, when it expired.
Abolitionists were seen as extremists in antebellum America. I don’t know of any organized movement in the United States to repeal the Second Amendment. Finally, finally, with this latest mass shooting, there are petitions sprouting up to Repeal The Second Amendment
In the 1860 Census, out of a total population of 31 million, there were almost four million who were enslaved. In 2012 America, with a population of nearly 313 million people, there are roughly 300 million firearms owned by civilians. In one year, more than 31,000 Americans die from gun violence – and close to 79,000 more are shot but survive gun injuries.
It took the Civil War for the United States to end slavery, now recognized universally as an absolute evil. What will it take to end gun violence in America?
Update: At the Newtown vigil, President Obama was articulate in expressing the nation’s grief. He also said:
“We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.
We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society, but that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely we can do better than this.”
But what specific action can we take? Mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken the lead with his Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition to spell it out:
“Gun violence is a national epidemic—and a national tragedy—that demands more than words. It demands immediate national action, from the president and from Congress. It needs to be at the top of their agenda.”
Among the action:
*require background checks for gun purchasers
*ban assault weapons
*and make gun trafficking a felony
President Obama should:
*appoint a permanent head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms
*direct the Justice Department to prosecute those who lie on their background-check forms
*lift a gag rule that blocks public access to information about trafficking.
In The New Yorker Magazine, David Remnick details the president’s less than encouraging record on curbing gun violence, then says:
“Obama, having just won reëlection, is liberated to do the right thing. After the Tucson shootings, he talked about having—cliché of clichés—a “national conversation” about gun violence “not only about the motivations behind these killings but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental-health system.” This conversation never happened; further gun violence, of course, did.
….Let there be a conversation. But also let there be decisive action from a President who is determined not only to feel our pain but, calling on the powers of his office, to feel the urge to prevent more suffering. His reading of the Constitution should no longer be constrained by a sense of what the conventional wisdom is in this precinct or that. Let him begin his campaign for a more secure and less violent America in the state of Connecticut.”