On December 8, 2004 a guitarist for a heavy metal band called Pantera (amongst others) named Dimebag Darrell was shot on stage during a performance in Columbus, Ohio. A concertgoer videotaped the incident. A man ran across the stage and shot Dimebag multiple times in the head. A bouncer was also shot and killed. A police officer can be seen with a shotgun coming onto stage and killing the attacker, ending the ordeal. The murder seems to happen so fast and in spite of a police presence at the concert, makes a mockery of the NRA argument that the lack of armed guards and teachers allowed the Newtown, Connecticut shootings to happen.
It seems routine now. I used to go drinking in a pub in Blacksburg, Virginia, the home of Virginia Tech and the scene of one of Americas most deadly campus shootings, where 33 people were gunned down in their classrooms. When one’s drinking hole appears in the background of footage of a University mass murder, it hits home, believe me. I’ll be honest and as damning as it sounds, nothing really surprises me about Newtown, Connecticut. I know that is shocking in its brutal honesty, but I have seen too many of these types of incidents. I am only shocked at the age of the victims, not the number. Columbine, Blacksburg, Newtown.
As of 2009, the United States had a population of 307 million people. Based on production data from firearm manufacturers, there are roughly 300 million firearms owned by civilians in the United States as of 2010. Of these, about 100 million are handguns. Having lived in the southern US for 15 years I can tell you unequivocally guns and, more importantly, the rights of gun ownership are a way of life. Here are two cases in point. One of my rather glamorous female friends recently posted a picture of herself on Facebook in a shooting stance while holding a Colt 45 handgun with the caption, “This is my stance on gun control”. Another friend posted a series of pictures of his young son firing a semi-automatic rifle at a target on a farm with his proud father and grandfather looking on. He is eight years old.
After the Newtown tragedy, everyone with a computer seemed to have an opinion on gun control and furthermore, published it or tweeted it. People started asking the same old questions – why and how can someone get access to 6000 rounds of ammunition? What will Congress do to toughen the gun laws? Even Piers Morgan used his CNN pulpit to demand changes in the gun laws. (He was rewarded with a White House petition with 70,000 signatures demanding his deportation back to the UK). President Obama promptly reacted, promising a new set of laws to ban assault weapons and to ensure people suffering mental health get tough restrictions on accessing guns. As we all know, mentally ill Newtown shooter Adam Lanza didn’t access guns illegally. He gained access to his mother’s weapons and killed her with them. He left the family home and went to the school where he murdered another 26 people before taking his own life.
I read Alistair Bonnington’s piece in the Firm magazine. Mr Bonnington, former principal solicitor to BBC Scotland and former Honorary Professor of Law at Glasgow University, has unfortunately placed too little emphasis on understanding the legal position of the Justices of the Supreme Court placing too much faith in their ability to “rise above the self-interest of politicians”. The law of the land in America is clear. Gun ownership is a constitutional right. In the US, States and municipalities have tried and passed gun control laws. If there ever was a democratic need to pass sensible gun control, it was in Washington DC – the murder capital of the US. The DC council passed the Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 which restricted residents from owning handguns, excluding those grandfathered in by registration prior to 1975 and those possessed by active and retired law enforcement officers. As stated by the local council committee that recommended its adoption, the major substantive goal of the District’s handgun restriction is “to reduce the potentiality for gun-related crimes and gun-related deaths from occurring within the District of Columbia.” DC Regulations also required that all firearms including rifles and shotguns be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock. Seems reasonable.
A lawsuit challenging the Regulation Act was brought by six residents of Washington DC with vague connections to the effects of gun control. It was a manufactured lawsuit. It was dismissed by the District Court. Lawyers appealed and the ban was ruled unconstitutional by the Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court ruling, which can be read in its entirety here enlightens the reader as to how current Supreme Court Justices think. Justice Scalia, for example, states:
“The Constitution was written to be understood by the voters; its words and phrases were used in their normal and ordinary as distinguished from technical meaning.”
In other words, Justice Scalia doesn’t see any ability to construe the language of the Constitution vested in the Court. Scalia is an old-fashioned conservative Justice. Give the words their ordinary meaning, in their initial context. Yet Justice Scalia did exactly this in DC v Heller. He suggests the Second Amendment could be reinterpreted to sound better:
“The Second Amendment is naturally divided into two parts: its prefatory clause and its operative clause. The former does not limit the latter grammatically, but rather announces a purpose. The Amendment could be rephrased, “Because a well-regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
In DC v Heller, Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion where the Supreme Court ruled that the District of Columbia’s Regulations Act was an unconstitutional banning, and struck down the portion of the regulations act that requires all firearms including rifles and shotguns be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock”. Furthermore, he dismissed the “well-regulated militia” argument in Justice Stevens’ dissenting opinion:
“Justice Stevens is of course correct … that the right to assemble cannot be exercised alone, but it is still an individual right, and not one conditioned upon membership in some defined “assembly,” as he contends the right to bear arms is conditioned upon membership in a defined militia. And Justice Stevens is dead wrong to think that the right to petition is “primarily collective in nature.”
I have sat uncharacteristically quiet in the aftermath of the Newtown Connecticut murders. I don’t publically express my arguments for tighter gun control or thoughts on these types of shootings anymore. I admit I am probably very jaded. When two 13 year old kids shot their own classmates in Jonesboro, Arkansas, I heard people screaming for tighter gun control measures. That was in 1998. There have been 37 mass shootings since then including Columbine and Fort Hood, where 13 members of the military where killed. Think about the NRA’s argument now. It really is silly, isn’t it?
Despite donating $22 Million to Congressional Members, (at the rate of 6-1 Republican donations to Democratic Party), it is not the NRA that is the biggest voting bloc in opposition to gun control; it is the US Supreme Court. If Americans want to have any meaningful change in that country’s gun laws, then they have to change the make-up of the Supreme Court. I just don’t see any other way. Single issue voting is infamously prevalent in the US. Look no further than the abortion debate. If you want to ensure a good portion of the electorate votes for you, you could run as Satan himself, but if you are pro-life, I would estimate 30-40% of the electorate in some districts will vote for you regardless of Hell being your domicile. If the right wing can make one’s position on abortion a litmus test of appointment to the US Supreme Court, then why can’t the moderate middle and left ensure candidates pass a gun control litmus test for appointment to the Supreme Court?
Social media sites give people an outlet for their opinion, and there will no doubt be pressure on lawmakers to do something, anything to prevent another mass murder. Unfortunately, I fear the Newtown story will just fade away. Try and name a victim from Columbine. Name a victim from the Batman Theatre shooting in Aurora. The victims’ faces will disappear. There will be another crisis and another shooting. A law or two will pass Congress, but as long as Justice Scalia and other members of the Supreme Court continue to construe the Second Amendment in a manner that allows for these types of weapons with extra capacity clips to be “routinely” kept around the house for self-defence, expect no change to the gun laws.
Want meaningful gun control laws? Clear out the gate-keepers, America. Demand to know the position of any nominees to the highest court in the land. You do this on pro-life matters, and after all, what is more pro-life than sensible gun control?