On April 28, 1996, twenty-eight-year-old Martin Bryant stopped at an inn near his home of New Town in Tasmania, Australia, and shot to death its two owners. He then drove to the former penal colony and tourist attraction of Port Arthur, where he lunched at a café. After eating, Bryant pulled from his sports bag a semiautomatic rifle with a thirty-round magazine that he had legally purchased through a newspaper ad. With no provocation, he began firing at patrons in the café and its gift shop. Before the police stopped his shooting spree, Bryant had murdered thirty-five and wounded eighteen others. His motive remains unknown.
“There were people everywhere—bodies,” said witness Lynne Beavis. “I thought at the time, being a nurse, ‘I’ve seen dead people, I’ve seen blood, I’ve seen things like this.’ But what I saw in there, nobody but perhaps a soldier would know what it was like.”
The leadership of a shocked nation responded to the Port Arthur massacre not with thoughts and prayers, but with decisive action. The country’s conservative-led government rebuffed their gun lobby, and its American ally, the National Rifle Association (NRA), to adopt comprehensive national gun controls. In a 2015 broadside labeled “Australia: There Will Be Blood,” the NRA charged that these regulations, which Australia significantly tightened as of 2002, have “robbed Australians of their right to self-defense and empowered criminals.”
If the NRA was right, America with its lax controls over firearms for alleged self-defense should be one of the world’s safest countries, certainly far safer than Australia, where criminals presumably evade gun controls to prey on defenseless, law-abiding citizens. Yet, in the latest reporting year, gun homicides claimed 14,542 American lives, compared to 27 in Australia, and all homicides took 19,510 American lives compared to 222 in Australia. Since the NRA issued its warning, firearm homicides have declined in Australia, while soaring by 3,534 in the U.S. An American is now over 30 times more likely per capita than an Australian to be murdered by a gun and seven times more likely to be murdered by any means. If we had rates comparable today to Australia’s, some fourteen thousand American lives would have been saved from firearms homicides in 2017 alone.
By the gun lobby’s twisted logic, Japan, which has one of the world’s strictest gun control laws, should be drenched in innocent blood. Yet, out of a population of 127 million, shooters in Japan murdered only three persons and injured only five in firearms assaults throughout 2017. Australia and Japan are not outliers. As compared to residents of our closest peer democracies in the G7 group of nations plus Australia, an American in 2017 was over twenty times more likely to die from a gun homicide.
The gun lobby would have you forget that gun deaths are not limited to murders; in 2017 23,854 Americans died from gun suicides, 64 percent more than were killed in firearms homicides. As compared to the peer nations, the 2017 per capita rate of firearms suicides in the United States was seven times higher, while the rate of suicides by other means was 40 percent lower. These other democracies all have strict firearms regulations. None has a constitutional right to keep or bear arms, a distinction the United States shares worldwide only with Guatemala, whose gun murder rate is the third highest of some 195 nations worldwide.
Why has America lagged behind the democratic world in protecting its citizens from needless death and injury? The culprit is not spending by the NRA on campaigns and lobbying, which other pressure groups exceed. The real problem is that which gun control advocates fear to name: the Second Amendment. Led by the NRA, the gun lobby exploits a historically defective, perverse reinvention of this amendment to inspire their grassroots supporters, sell guns, and provide constitutional cover for their opposition to making us safer by regulating firearms.
The competing movement for gun control has floundered in response to the gun lobby’s triumphant marketing of the Second Amendment. Gun control advocates have righteous zeal and noble motives but lack a winning strategy. Instead of forthrightly refuting the lobby’s bogus claims, the gun control movement has instead fallen into the trap of lamely insisting, “We support the Second Amendment, but we also support responsible gun control.” With such a self-defeating strategy, the movement can never win. It plays on the gun lobby’s home turf and fails to rally the American majority that favors stricter firearms regulations. It provokes only scorn from a gun lobby that dismisses “yes, but” assurances as rank hypocrisy. And it ignores the clear history and the true meaning of the Second Amendment itself.
The movement for gun control must strike hard with a new strategy. Repeal of the Second Amendment is not only right, but realistic. It would break open the political logjam and open a path for the comprehensive, national gun control and safety measures that have eluded the American people for so long. None of these measures would confiscate firearms or stop Americans from using guns for hunting, sports shooting, antique collecting, or legitimate self- defense.
“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” These two brief phrases, knitted together by a comma, form the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which Congress enacted in 1789 and the states ratified in 1791. “From all the direct and indirect evidence, the Second Amendment appears to apply to a collective, not an individual, right to bear arms,” wrote Jack Basil, the National Rifle Association’s in- house expert on constitutional law, in a 1955 memo to the association’s CEO. Twenty years later the NRA publicly conceded in its 1975 Fact Book that the amendment had “limited practical utility” in combating gun control.
As even the NRA recognized, the amendment protected only the maintenance of a well-regulated militia, not private gun ownership for self-defense or checking an allegedly oppressive government. For some two hundred years it remained largely irrelevant to enacting and implementing gun control laws. Then, late in the twentieth century, after members voted in a new militant leadership, the NRA erased from memory its own prior findings to reinvent the Second Amendment and distort its meaning to claim a virtually unlimited right to keep and bear private arms.
From REPEAL THE SECOND AMENDMENT by Allan J. Lichtman. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.