Monday’s tragic school shooting in Oakland, California is another travesty in a long line of similar occurrences that have cost more than 130 deaths since 1999. The shooting sheds light on America's love affair with firearms, which has a long history beginning with the American Revolution and the signing of the Bill of Rights, and continues through the present in its current form as a warped and dangerous derivative.
The recent fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin and the following outcry are the result of Florida’s statute protecting the use of guns in “self-defense.” Both however, are victims of America’s approach to gun safety and regulation. America’s gun laws and their political defenders, most notably the NRA, have continued to represent the right to firearm possession as an inalienable and inherently American ideal, one that has its foundation in the wishes of our Founding Fathers. Let us break down this approach.
First, the Second Amendment was designed to protect the American people from oppression and an illegitimate government, protecting the right of the people to hold and bear arms to defend their rights. It was not implemented to constitute a blanket protection on the sale, ownership, or use of such weapons. Furthermore, it was instituted in a time when firearms were painfully inaccurate, held a single shot, and to reload was a laborious process. Today, firearms are small, readily concealable, more accurate and deadly, and can hold a large amount of bullets. The reality of the present-day situation does not reflect the reality of the time in which such protections were created. It is now possible for a single individual to do a much greater amount of damage than was possible 200 years ago. The problem is that our laws often protect gun ownership assuming similar circumstances to pre-revolutionary America. Modern America is a relatively stable society in which the public does not have to protect itself individually and has a government that allows changes through nonviolent means. In short, the founding ideal of a unilateral protection of firearm ownership is grounded in a misguided view of the past and an inaccurate characterization of the present.
School shootings are but one element of the problem of gun-related violence in the US. Thousands die or are wounded each year from firearm-related incidents. The fact that the outcry over the death of Trayvon Martin incorporates the very relevant elements of racism and Florida’s self-defense statute, but people seem comfortable that a neighborhood watch volunteer was carrying a pistol (rather than say, a taser or pepper spray), is indicative of our quiet acceptance of the presence of firearms in our culture. In the context of proportional response, even if Trayvon attacked Zimmerman first, he had merely his hands as weapons, while Zimmerman had a firearm. In order to stop a bare-handed attack, Zimmerman should not have needed to use deadly force, no matter what Florida’s self-defense statute says.
Guns are an everyday element in popular culture and are widely available; nearly any adult without prior criminal convictions can obtain a gun at his/her local Wal-Mart. The prevalence of guns in our society and the way gun ownership is represented are the real problems here. Guns provide an aggressor with the opportunity to effect much more carnage than any other readily available; guns are far more likely to be deadly than other types of weapons. Gun ownership itself is also less a problem than our approach to it. Firearms should be restricted in their civilian use, especially with other effective and non-lethal forms of self-defense equipment widely available. Protections for gun ownership should not be unilateral, and should not include the purchase of semi-automatic or automatic firearms that serve no purpose other than to be used against another human being. We must remove guns from their pervasively permeated position in society and scale back gun ownership to what is realistic and practical.
We must see guns for what they are: an opportunity for lethal violence. Guns are a tool whose function is to inflict damage. Just as we restrict the use and ownership of other violent tools such as bombs, machine guns, and tanks to their appropriate usage, so should we restrict the use and ownership firearms. Guns play a violent role in our society, and allow tragedies such as Mr. Martin’s death and the massacre of Oakland college students to occur. Only if our society begins to reconsider its approach to gun control and its acceptance of the ownership of deadly weapons will events like these become a thing of the past.