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The Second Amendment has failed America

The Week logo The Week 8/4/2019 Joel Mathis
a person holding a sign: A woman mourns © AP Photo/Christian Chavez A woman mourns

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Enough. No more. Stop.

The gun massacres in America are now coming so quickly, one after another, that it's impossible to process our grief and anger before the next one occurs. There is a sickness in our land, and it cries out for an immediate, righteous, and even radical response.

It's possible you went to bed Saturday night, like I did, upset and angry about the news that a 21-year-old man besotted with white supremacy and armed with an assault rifle opened fire in El Paso, Texas, killing at least 20 people and injuring dozens more. How could you know that, by the time you awoke, another mass shooting — this one in Dayton, Ohio — would be making headlines?

Early reports suggested there were multiple casualties in Ohio, and video from the scene showed a massive response by local police and medics. And all of this happened just days after another young man, a 19-year-old who was also obsessed with white supremacy and armed with an assault rifle, opened fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, killing three people.

God help us.

Scratch that. It's time that we help ourselves. And we can start by understanding and declaring that the Second Amendment is a failure.

It's not just a failure because guns are used so widely, and to such ill effect. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a failure because the right to bear arms — the right it so famously defends — is supposed to protect Americans from violence. Instead, it endangers them.

As the conservative National Review noted last year, "supporters of a right to bear arms have rooted their arguments in a murky pre-constitutional right to self-defense." The right to bear arms is based on an old understanding in English common law: If somebody attacks you, you have the right to protect yourself. There's nothing controversial about that, is there?

The language of self-defense was made explicit in D.C. vs Heller, the 2008 Supreme Court ruling cementing individual gun rights. "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home."

But in reality, guns are used far more often on offense, by bad guys who have easy access to deadly firepower in unthinkable quantities.

Data shows that people who own guns legally are more likely to kill themselves than they are to kill an intruder. People who own guns legally are more likely to kill a family member — on purpose or accidentally — than they are to kill an assailant. And people who own guns legally don't actually use those weapons in self-defense all that often. "The average person [...] has basically no chance in their lifetime ever to use a gun in self-defense," a Harvard University researcher told NPR last year.

There are exceptions, of course. On Saturday in El Paso, a soldier armed with legally concealed handgun helped shepherd mall customers to safety. Good for him. But that's not enough.

On balance, guns do more harm in America than good. The damages are easily measured, while the benefits are mostly theoretical and rare. This means the Second Amendment, as currently observed, doesn't actually work under the terms of its own logic.

In recognizing this, America doesn't have to throw away a formal right to self-defense, or eliminate guns entirely. But it's time to reexamine Second Amendment rights with a bigger emphasis on the amendment's underlying justification, which is to help Americans be and feel safe, and less emphasis on the right to carry a deadly weapon.

A healthy understanding of the right to self-defense should include the reasonable expectation of safety in both private and public places. That in turn means Americans should be able to gather at places like churches, schools, shopping malls, and concerts without fear that they've made themselves easy targets for the latest angry man possessing the tools to kill dozens of people within a few fatal minutes.

Until that moment arrives, the Second Amendment is failing all of us. Just like it failed the people of El Paso. Just like it failed the people of Dayton. And just like it will fail the victims of the next gun massacre, the one we all know is coming.

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