Years ago, I recall reflecting that probably the only thing that would move the needle among Republican lawmakers on the issue of guns would be a mass shooting that killed many small children. A few years later, exactly that happened at Sandy Hook. The needle stayed still.
And to date, we’ve seen that almost no matter the horror that gunmen do, to no matter how many people, Republican members of Congress typically mouth words of dismay, but don’t take seriously legislation intended to lessen the number of assault-style weapons in the hands of ordinary people. Even after events where mostly children are killed. That 19 children and two teachers were killed this week in Uvalde, Texas, is horrific enough, but consider what Nicholas Kristof wrote for The Times in 2017: “In a typical year, more preschoolers are shot dead in America (about 75) than police officers are.” The carnage continues, and for the most part, Republican elected officials don’t appear to care, presumably because not enough of their constituents are willing to vote them out.
As much as I value trying to see where the other side is coming from on a given issue, my curiosity and compassion have limits, and here I see true immorality — be it as a student of civics, language or just plain life — in the lack of interest some of our officials have in preventing the violence we routinely see.
A lawyer I’m not, but as a linguist I’ve been especially appalled at the way various interpretations of the Second Amendment have been used to justify this inaction, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2008 holding in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which Justice Antonin Scalia said that bearing arms simply means carrying weapons, a contorted interpretation of the founders’ words: In its entirety, the Second Amendment reads, “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.”
Of the phrase “keep and bear Arms,” Scalia wrote that the court found “no evidence that it bore a military meaning.” But as the legal language scholar Neal Goldfarb has explained, “the court’s interpretation failed to reflect how ‘bear’ and ‘arms’ were actually used in the late 18th century,” and that when the Constitution was written, a phrase akin to “‘the right to bear arms’ was most likely understood as conveying its idiomatic military sense, and in particular as meaning ‘the right to serve in the militia,’” not a mere description of someone taking a weapon in hand. This is how idioms work, including ones with the verb “bear” — to bear a child is not to literally “carry” it in one’s arms.
That the founders were referring to a kind of military service is also indicated quite explicitly in the very opening reference to a “well regulated Militia.” The “keep” in “keep and bear” would have referred to harboring the weapons at home, as opposed to in an armory, in order to use them within a militia.
Yes, there were times when people of the period used “bear arms” to refer to personal use. For example, as the Campbell University law professor E. Gregory Wallace notes, the state Constitutions of Pennsylvania, Vermont and Kentucky protected people’s right to “bear arms in defense of themselves and the state.” But this was not the usual usage. And, of course, the founders had no conception of the kinds of guns — the kinds of mass-killing machines — that modern technology would later make possible.
It seems to me, then, that there’s a certain heartlessness — not to mention an insult to the founders — to insist that the Second Amendment’s single sentence somehow translates to allowing all sane adult citizens, including those with no formal law-enforcement or military role, to possess weapons that can kill dozens within minutes, if not seconds.
So, here’s my question: Isn’t this what America should be “reckoning” with right now?
Since 2020 at least, the idea has been that America is overdue for a racial reckoning. That what Americans need to reflect on, to think about most, is racism. But in the grand scheme of things, might we consider that the ideological impasse over gun laws is arguably our most grievous problem? A new Morning Consult-Politico poll found that 59 percent of Americans think it’s important for elected leaders to “pass stricter gun control laws.” Though the number has ebbed below 50 percent at a few points, in most years since 1991, according to Gallup, a majority of Americans have favored making gun laws “more strict.” With horrific incidents of gun violence coming in waves — Baltimore, Buffalo, Laguna Woods, Uvalde, to name a recent few — almost anyone can see that this is one of the most pressing problems in our country.
Yet so much of our national dialogue these days urges a laser-focus on notions of privilege, bias, inequity and vocabulary, and while most Americans want some kind of gun reform, most are less on board with the idea that we must revolutionize our attitudes on these other issues. A 2020 Pew Research survey found that in the U.S., only 40 percent say “people should be careful what they say to avoid offending others” vs. 57 percent who say “people today are too easily offended by what others say.”
As I read that, more of us feel that guns are a pressing issue and political correctness is not. And yet our discourse frequently centers on that issue, only briefly focusing on guns in the immediate wake of tragedies. For those who think racism is still our main problem, we might even think of a reckoning on guns as a component of antiracist efforts, given the repeated instances of violence motivated by racism.
Knowing this and knowing that legislative efforts at the national level went nowhere after shootings at Sandy Hook, Parkland, a Walmart in El Paso and outside a bar in Dayton, the reckoning now would not only have to be a renewed attempt to change gun laws, but also about confronting the fact that doing so appears impossible, and what this suggests about the very trajectory of the American experiment.
My pessimism may seem unwarranted. After all, there was a time when it was reasonable to think little would ever really change on the civil rights front in America. Black citizens and others of good will had been demonstrating, making speeches and were thoroughly fed up long before the civil rights victories of the 1950s and 1960s, only to encounter resistance from a united cadre of nakedly racist members of Congress hostile to calls for integration.
Senator Richard Russell Jr. — a Georgia Democrat for whom the Russell Senate Office Building is named — filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and had, earlier in his career, responded to a challenger by stating: “As one who was born and reared in the atmosphere of the old South, with six generations of my forebears now resting beneath Southern soil, I am willing to go as far and make as great a sacrifice to preserve and insure white supremacy in the social, economic and political life of our state as any man who lives within her borders.”
Part of what turned the tide in the fight for civil rights was a combination of technology and shame. Television offered visual evidence of the barbarity of segregationist racism with a vividness hitherto unknown to many Americans.
But that won’t work this time. The instantly accessible moving image long ago lost its novelty, and most Republicans in Congress give no indication so far of being moved by the images from Uvalde or by the facts. As long as they maintain this posture, they have no more shame than the Dixiecrats of yore — and our system has come to a point where those of us who do have shame, and want to vote for people who will do something about it, are thwarted.
The National Rifle Association will continue to thrive. The rightward-tilting Supreme Court will resist questioning the Heller decision. The Senate is split 50-50, but the Republican senators represent fewer Americans than the Democratic senators. Along with the filibuster, this will ensure that for the foreseeable future, Republican views on guns are represented disproportionately in Congress. And this will almost certainly keep in place a position on gun control that most Americans don’t agree with.
Majority views may not always be the wisest ones, but it’s quite a stretch to think opposition to serious gun control demonstrates the Senate’s appointed function of imposing reflective wisdom upon the passions of the mob. It can hardly be known as the “cooling saucer” of democracy if it fails to meaningfully address violence in the streets.
We are facing the reign of a pitiless, self-centered cynicism thriving in the face of innocents being mowed down with regularity. In a sense, the Dixiecrats weren’t much different: Then and now, in the cases of segregation and out-of-control gun violence, the clear moral path is being blocked by a phalanx of elected leaders for small-minded and chillingly unfeeling aims. The circumstances of the mid-20th century made it so that morality could finally work its way around people like this. I’m less optimistic that anything of the sort will happen now.
The closest to optimism I can muster is that a robust Democratic majority in the House and Senate could get that needle at least moving. But given the prospects of that happening any time soon, I’m inclined to suppose that the mass shootings we now must accept as regular American life are a demonstration that we have failed. Nothing like this was meant to happen under the construct the founders created. If a critical mass of elected officials are, in effect, OK with mass shooting deaths being a new normal in our country, then any reckoning would have to address the sad fact that after close to 250 years, America is simply broken.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”