When mass shootings are the new normal, guns must go

Thousands of feet hit cement as throngs of people tear through the street. From above, the rapidly moving bodies look like a swarm. A sharp bang and the mass heaves forward, relinquishing their belongings to the road and sprinting away. They are running for their lives.

The sound that set off this flight turned out to be a motorcycle backfiring (CBS, “Motorcycle backfire stirs panic in NYC’s Times Square as crowd mistakes sound for gunshot,” 08.07.2019). Just days after devastating shootings at an El Paso Walmart and a Dayton bar, widespread panic befell Times Square, with surges of people mistaking the noise for a gunshot or a bombing.

It’s been several months since then, and both the newscycle and our politicians have shifted their focus away from gun legislation toward impeachment, protests and the goddamn Joker. Several months ago, the NYC panic made headlines, despite it not being an instance of actual gun violence. Yet, just this past week, there were two separate shootings in Kansas City, Kansas. In one, four people died—all of the victims were Hispanic (CBS News, “Police release photos of suspects wanted in Kansas City bar shooting that killed 4 people,” 10.06.2019). In fact, since Dayton, 120 people have died in mass shootings (Mass Shooting Tracker, “U.S. Mass Shootings 2019”).

My former high school is around a half hour drive from Sandy Hook Elementary School. I remember where I was when word of that shooting broke. I remember when administrators informed us over the PA system, our principal somber and grappling to find gentle phrasings. I remember early dismissals and a day off for two different threats. Neither were real, but the fear that they could have been still lingers. We took on even more drills and protocols, much in the way generations past took on nuclear fallout drills, hiding under desks and turning out lights. Except in this era, the violence doesn’t have a single origin, rooted in international political turmoil; this violence could come from anyone, at any time.

Many conservatives characterize taxes and unemployment rates as some of the issues that keep folks up at night; these are the so-called kitchen-table topics that should be at the top of everyone’s political agendas. “It’s the economy,” they say of American concerns.

But it’s time to wake up. For my generation, gun violence and “progressive” issues like it are the types of “kitchen table” topics that keep us up at night. When I first moved into my dorm at Vassar, I remember laying wide awake with my new roommate. Making friends and finding my way around campus were far from my mind. Instead, I was formulating an action plan in the event that a shooter entered the building. Which of the three exits would I run to?

I often contemplate whether it will be safe to go out to a movie, or my favorite restaurant—I mull over cost, timing and whether I’ll be shot to death with equal scrutiny. Millennials and Generation Z-ers have steeped in the milieu of potential instant death occurring on almost any given day for almost our entire lives. Like climate change or student debt, gun violence looms over us, an existential threat that tangibly touches us. It is as real to our lives as the economy, inseparable from our current realities and experiences.

To many people touched by gun violence, advocating for regulations on arms sales, better background checks and bans on semi-automatic weapons are not merely viewed as political leanings, but as bare-minimum necessities. Claims that such legislation would make only a nominal dent in preventing mass violence make little difference to us when pushing for a national bare minimum—for something, anything, to change. To us, being told we shouldn’t push for such legislation because it doesn’t completely eradicate the possibility of future violence is like telling a starving man he shouldn’t bother eating a single grape since it won’t prevent him from impending death. But why not?

To others, the right to own a weapon is an indelible feature of the U.S. Constitution, a fundamental way of American life. Such individuals may question why a mentally stable and law-abiding American should be forced to relinquish their right to a weapon.


To me, the answer seems obvious. Some rights are simply more important than others.

If you’re someone who believes in the Second Amendment, you might also believe in the foundational principles of our federal model. You might be familiar with Thomas Hobbes, a political philosopher whose ideas heavily influenced Western political thought. To scantily borrow from his Leviathan I, Hobbes proposes a social contract theory, wherein everyone agrees to limit some of their rights in exchange for mutual self-preservation. For example, two people may agree that the right to own one’s own property is more valuable than the right to steal from each other. To maintain that more important right, they relinquish a subsidiary right.

The same principle holds here. Let’s say you are given an ultimatum: Give up your house, or die. You would likely comply for the sake of your survival. You probably agree that a gun is a less valuable item than your home. But still, you might argue this mode of thinking is pointless, since these aren’t the conditions you face: Your chances of getting killed by gun violence are low, roughly a 1-in-315 lifetime chance, so you’re not anticipating that this legislation would impact your life directly (Business Insider, “The Odds that a Gun Will Kill the Average American May Surprise You,” 10.29.2018). But if rates of gun-related deaths continue at the current rate, 36,000 people will die in the next year (Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “Gun Violence Statistics”). With that in mind, doesn’t it seem you would give up your home, or better yet, any item comparable to your gun, if faced with an ultimatum that 36,000 people will die if you do not?

If you would be willing to give up a piece of your private property to ensure public safety, then it logically follows that you should be willing to relinquish your right to own a gun. In response, you might say your gun ownership isn’t merely a matter of personal property rights, but of your right to self defense. You simply would be incorrect making such a claim, however, unless you can be certain that the number of deaths private gun ownership has prevented outnumber those it caused. After all, if widespread gun ownership makes you less safe, you can hardly consider it a promotion of self defense. I don’t need to tell you that study after study demonstrates that guns make us less safe (New York Times, “Congress Quashed Research Into Gun Violence. Since Then, 600,000 People Have Been Shot,” 03.12.2018).

You might say that you aren’t the only one giving up your gun—after all, there’s 393,300,000 civilian-held firearms in the United States (Aaron Karp, “Estimating Civilian-Held Firearms Numbers,” 06.2018).

To that, I say: How many lives is your gun ownership worth? What is the ratio of guns-to-lives that we look to confirm before we give up our Second Amendment “rights” on a mass scale?

It seems obvious to me that these “inconsequential” changes brought by relinquishing gun ownership—the prevention of one suicide, say—are, in fact, far from inconsequential. Even if you believe that Americans have the right to own a gun, you must agree that man’s right to life—a fundamental human right, not merely a constitutional right—simply has more weight. Americans must relinquish the right of gun ownership for the social contract of mutual protection.

I’m not saying that any proposed legislation will eradicate gun violence. I’m not even bothering to mention the details of any gun control legislation. What I propose is something radical: A healthy, stable, and law-abiding citizen’s right to own a weapon should not even be a concern in any conversation about reducing gun-inflicted death.

So let’s wake up. Our rights to guns might not be harmful in theory, but their widespread availability has contributed to the collective anxiety that renders us paralyzed. Today in America, we are vulnerable as soon as we step outside of our homes and into the dangers of public space. For the safety of everyone living in this country, domestic terrorism cannot remain a partisan issue. It’s time to take on the NRA, white nationalism and domestic terrorism. It’s time to be able to rest easy again.

A previous version of this article appeared on The Brewer’s Table. https://vclive.miscellanynews.org

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