On the morning of April 20, 1999, millions of students across the country arrived at school just as they had countless times before. With books and backpacks in hand, they were more likely to be preoccupied with unfinished homework than with concerns over their own safety. And yet, by the end of the day, their innocence would be shattered as a result of the actions of two heavily-armed teens who committed one of the deadliest school massacres in American history. This tragedy at Columbine High School that took the lives of twelve students and one teacher sparked intense debate across the country concerning mental health, video games, and even rock music. However, when concerns were raised about the ease with which Americans can acquire guns, critics insisted that any legislation intended to restrict access would violate the Second Amendment. The debate eventually subsided, and little was done to curtail the ease of access to guns.
Fast forward to April 16, 2007. Once again, Americans across the country were jarred by the news that a student orchestrated a nightmarish attack, this time on the campus of Virginia Tech, killing thirty-two people and wounding seventeen others. Then came the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14, 2012. In a scene that was becoming far too familiar, a disturbed young man arrived at the school and opened fire. When the smoke cleared, twenty children and six adult staff members were dead. And on Friday, October 24, a student in Washington mercilessly gunned down several classmates before being stopped. In fact, according to ABC News and USA Today, there have been at least seventeen school shootings since Columbine and many more foiled plots. As a result of these shootings, one thing has become painfully clear: although the Second Amendment was conceived as an important safeguard against tyranny, Americans should support a series of measures to restrict the access to high-powered weapons in order to make the recurrence of such tragedies far less likely.
Since the major criticism of gun control policies centers around their perceived infringement on our constitutional rights, it is important to revisit the Second Amendment, which states that “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.” The historical context of this amendment is important to consider when parsing the language for its meaning. When the first ten amendments to the Constitution were ratified in 1791, the fledgling United States did not have a standing army. In this context, the Second Amendment was deemed necessary to provide the means to protect the states from foreign enemies. However, the controversy surrounding the Second Amendment stems from the awkwardness of the language. An article published by Cornell University Law School explains the ambiguity: “…some scholars point to the prefatory language ‘a well regulated Militia’ to argue that the Framers intended only to restrict Congress from legislating away a state’s right to self-defense… [while] some believe that the Amendment’s phrase ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’ creates an individual constitutional right…” It would take a few high-profile Supreme Court cases to clarify the rights protected by the Second Amendment.
The first major decision came in 1939 in United States v. Miller. Cornell University Law School explains that, in this case, the Court determined that the intent of the Second Amendment was to ensure the effectiveness of the military. This changed, however, in 2008. In McDonald v. Heller, in a vote of 5-4, the Court found that a Washington, D.C. law banning the sale of handguns was unconstitutional, and “proclaimed that the Second Amendment established an individual right for U.S. citizens to possess firearms…” This interpretation has given critics of gun control the ammunition to challenge attempts at regulatory legislation. In this view, the Second Amendment is sacrosanct, ending any conversations intended to propose solutions to the very real problem of gun violence in schools. However, the problem affects the most vulnerable members of our society, children, and requires flexibility rather than dogmatic intransigence. There is hope: as Cornell University Law School points out, “the Court suggested that the United States Constitution would not disallow regulations prohibiting criminals and the mentally ill from firearm possession.” With this more flexible view in mind, we can consider a series of measures designed to minimize the possibility of another regrettable—yet altogether avoidable—school massacre.