I spent a number of years closely tracking the acrid debate over gun control in America, so I’m more than a little puzzled by these lines in a NY Times editorial criticizing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling against Washington, D. C.’s handgun ban:
After seven decades of holding that the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is tied to raising a militia, the court reversed itself and ruled that it confers on individuals the right to keep guns in their homes for personal use. The decision will no doubt add significantly to the number of Americans killed by gun violence.
Seven decades of what? Reversed itself how?
A visitor from Mars reading these words would think that for the past seventy years, the country had observed strict laws against personal ownership of guns, that guns were quite a rarity in America, and that now, hearing of this Supreme Court ruling, Americans were clustered in the town square saying, “You mean. . . I can have a gun? Me? Just a li’l ol’ individual who’s not a member of a militia? Gosh, how do I get one?”
Our Martian visitor would think that the morning paper is not filled with stories of drunk boyfriends and angry gangbangers blasting away in the night. Elderly people don’t commit suicide with handguns or shotguns, thank God, because all guns are stored down at the militia headquarters. Curious toddlers never find loaded guns in their parents’ bedrooms and accidentally shoot their siblings because, after all, the Court has long held that “the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms is tied to raising a militia,” and it would just be wrong to own a gun for personal use. And of course there are no gun shops or gun displays in sporting goods stores, WalMarts and the like, because only those militia members need to be armed.
I don’t quite get the reaction of the Times editorial board and other critics to this ruling, which seems to me to leave the gun landscape pretty much unchanged. Status quo ante: Millions of people own guns. Most states and cities make little effort to limit ownership. A few federal laws are on the books (the Brady Law, assault weapons ban). Status quo post-ruling: Millions of people own guns. The ruling says that states and cities can continue to craft laws against certain types of people possessing guns, against bringing weapons into certain places, and against certain kinds of weapons.
So I just don’t see the momentous change the Times seems to fear. For better and/or worse, we were a heavily armed country before the ruling. We’ll be a heavily armed country after the ruling. Depending on your politics this may be glorious or lamentable, but it’s not the dawning of some brave new world.