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The Lack of Progress on Gun Control

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The Lack of Progress on Gun Control

Mark Dunlea

Pointing out in 1982 that John Lennon probably would still be alive if he had lived in his home country of England or his wife's nation of Japan generated the most media coverage I received in my race for Congress.

The NRA repeated the normal mantra that people, not guns, kill people. So we have spent thirty years not getting guns off the street but enacting tougher laws to punish people after they do bad things with guns. The end result - more guns are used to kill more people.

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There was some brief flurry around handgun control after President Reagan was nearly assassinated. A few reforms were enacted. Back to business as usual.

Now we are discussing whether it would make sense to stop allowing people to possess automatic weapons whose only real purpose it to kill a lot of people really fast.

When I was in law school in the mid-1970s those who thought the 2nd amendment gave individuals the right to own guns were generally dismissed as the lunatic fringe. That legal argument had been repeatedly rejected by the courts for more than 300 years.

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It is disturbing, though expected, that those who attack "activist judges who treat the constitution as a living document that adjusts to the changing times" don't decry what has happened to the 2nd amendment. 350 years ago things like electricity, trains, cars, planes, indoor toilets, computers, the telegraph, the Pill, etc., had not been invented. Hard to expect the founding fathers to establish clear legal doctrines for things that not only didn't exist but would have been viewed as magic.

Guns did exist however when the constitution was written. Granted, far fewer people owned guns at the time of the American revolution than they do now. And those who did own guns back then were far more likely to use them to feed their families than present gun owners. The guns that did exist would take a minute or so to reload between shots; not the semi-automatic weapons used today can shoot hundreds of bullets in a minute.

But the founding fathers did not include guns in the original constitution.

The 2nd amendment was part of the much maligned Bill of Rights that the states required to be added before they agreed to sign on the dotted line. And the states were very clear about what they were doing with the 2nd amendment. The states gave themselves the right to arm their own militia without the need for the permission of the federal government. And the states only gave themselves the right to arm a militia -- citizens were not given the right to raise their own militias. Granted, a few states went further in their own state constitutions with respect to the right to gun ownership -- but not in the federal constitution. And much of the initial debate (and drafts) in Congress was over the definition of a militia and including language to protect the right of individuals to refuse to be forced to bear arms in a militia if it violated their religious principles.

In the decades after the 2nd amendment was adopted, the few militias that were created -- the public generally being opposed to standing armies -- were generally armed with clubs rather than guns.

But let's put aside the discussion of how the radical right and the NRA have been able to overturn three centuries of legal precedence to rewrite the 2nd amendment. The 2nd amendment may be the most stark example of how our present Supreme Court has rewritten legal history to reflect their political biases, but it is not the only one.

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Why has Congress, whose members until recently used to compete to see who was the strongest law-and-order candidate, been willing to allow an epidemic of gun violence to flourish in the country often over the opposition of law-enforcement agencies whom they otherwise rush for photo ops with?

The answer is a lack of courage among politicians, for whom winning the next election is invariably more important than what is best for the future of the country. The bottom line is that while many Americans want gun control, it has not been an issue that has risen to a level where they will vote against a politician who fails to take action. And while there may only be 5% of the voters who will vote against a politician solely for supporting gun control, this 5% is concentrated in enough districts -- usually rural and conservative -- that they are effectively able to control a large enough voting bloc in Congress to block action.

So the public -- not politicians -- are the only ones that can't give us gun control. And it will have to be done against a rogue US Supreme Court and a spineless, gridlocked Congress.

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President of Green Education and Legal Fund Inc. Executive Director of Hunger Action Network. Author of Madame President: The Unauthorized Biography of the First Green Party President. Co

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