Even in a time of war and economic troubles, eye-opening news stories about gun violence still continuously present themselves for our consideration. Do we let the implications of these events challenge our thinking? Or do we look away?
In recent weeks, I have been drawn to striking stories that serve different functions:
- Illuminating surprising new problems: The discovery that people are using drones to smuggle firearms from the United States to Canada, as a drone carrying a shopping bag containing eleven handguns got stuck in an Ontario tree across the St. Clair River from Michigan (Cecco, 2022).
- Potential opportunities to design impactful laws and policies: Findings by a U.S. House of Representatives committee show that between 2014 and 2020 six small gun retailers in Philadelphia “sold more than 11,000 weapons that were later recovered in criminal investigations or confiscated from owners who had obtained them illegally” (Thrush and Benner, 2022). These findings parallel other examinations that found disproportionate adverse impacts on Chicago gun violence by a small number of gun retailers in Indiana (Hauck, 2021). Shouldn’t we be able to create new regulations or provide closer oversight in ways that reduce the disproportionate harms that originate from a small number of gun retailers?
- Evidence-based action to address gun violence: The University of Chicago Crime Lab announced $27.5 million in seed funding for programs to train police and community violence intervention leaders (University of Chicago, 2022).
At this moment, however, these and other stories about gun violence have been overshadowed by the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York. A teenage gunman, armed with a military-style rifle, reportedly made quite clear the racial hatred that motivated his killing of ten people.
There is so much about this incident that deserves extended attention but let’s just touch upon a few issues raised by this horrific event that have implications for American democracy.
- What is the cost to Americans of widely-available weapons of war in a free speech society that necessarily protects the expression of hate-filled disinformation? According to initial news reports, the shooter published a manifesto aligning his motives to the false, hate-producing statements of prominent media figures and politicians about a purported “replacement theory” in which white people in the United States are to be “replaced” and politically overwhelmed by people of color. Such fear-generating falsehoods appear to be useful for producing electoral support from a segment of the public, but we can also see that such falsehoods can help to cost innocent people their lives. Speech free from government control is considered a bulwark of democracy. Easy access to weapons of war, however, is a threat to everyone and to the very existence of democracy. How can we forget the threatening protesters holding weapons of war in the visitor galleries of the Michigan legislature? Or the revelations from January 6th investigations about domestic terrorists stashing such weapons in D.C. area hotels to be ready to increase the lethality of their attack on the national Capitol and effort to overthrow our governing system? (Viswanatha, 2022).
- A successful, stable democracy presumes that people who disagree with each other will debate, discuss, and seek to persuade voters to support their priorities. However, we have tragic experience with how the easy availability of firearms can enable people to “express their disagreement”—and thereby disrupt society—through mass murder:
- The attack, at a Tops Friendly Market in a largely Black neighborhood in east Buffalo, conjured grim comparisons to a series of other massacres motivated by racism, including the killing of nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015; an antisemitic rampage in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 that left 11 people dead; and an attack at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, where the man charged had expressed hatred of Latinos. More than 20 people died there. (McKinley, Traub, and Closson, 2022).
- The system of federalism in the American democracy presumes that states can regulate various matters, including firearms, so long as their regulations do not violate established constitutional rights of individuals. Just three days before the teenage gunman committed mass murder with a military-style rifle in Buffalo, by a 2-to-1 vote, a panel of federal judges struck down California’s law that barred the purchase of semiautomatic rifles by individuals under the age of 21 (Jones v. Bonta, 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals). While there can be legitimate debates about age discrimination against young adults, in this case the court emphasized that young adults were being deprived of a constitutional right—even though existing constitutional doctrine from the U.S. Supreme Court defines the Second Amendment right as applying only to handguns kept in the home for self-protection (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008). This expansion of the Second Amendment’s meaning by a lower court comes at the cost of democratic lawmaking in state legislatures. In 2018, the voters of Washington state approved a ballot issue that similarly raised the minimum age for purchasing a semiautomatic rifle to age 21. One wonders about the potential fate of that law created through the most democratic of processes given that Washington state is also under the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. As objective description of the circumstances of the California decision, it can be noted that the two judges who voted to strike down the law and expand the Second Amendment were appointed by President Trump and the dissenting judge was appointed by President Clinton.
- The undemocratic aspects of law-shaping processes that are operating to expand the proliferation of and easy access to firearms are obscured by the rhetoric about and image of the U.S. Constitution and attendant laws as embodying “democracy.” In Michigan, consideration of proposed gun safety laws has been blocked by one political party that controls the state legislature. The will of the people? Hardly. The current legislature, like the state’s legislatures for the past decade, reflects Michigan’s status as “among the most gerrymandered in the nation” in order keep a monopoly on power by one political party notwithstanding actual expressions of citizens’ preferences based on voting and public opinion polls (Van Sant, 2021). In light of the districts drawn by the bipartisan districting commission for the November 2022 elections, the upcoming vote could produce a legislature more reflective of citizens’ policy preferences.
At the federal level, the U.S. Supreme Court will soon issue a ruling on the Second Amendment that is widely-expected to expand gun rights to include a right to carry firearms in public, with limitations presumably to be defined in the opinion. Among the six justices who are expected to potentially support expanded Second Amendment rights, five were appointed to the Supreme Court by presidents who came into office despite losing the popular vote (George W. Bush; Donald J. Trump). Do debates about gun policy provide a basis for considering whether the Electoral College, an invention from an eighteenth-century context, is democracy-enhancing or democracy-defeating in our twenty-first century world? Similarly, the undemocratic structure of the U.S. Senate—with Wyoming, population-581,000, having representation equal to that of California, population-39 million—permits senators who represent a minority of the nation’s population to block gun safety legislation and the appointment of a Supreme Court justice by a popularly-elected president (Barack Obama)? Again, an expedient compromise from an eighteenth-century context raises questions about its utility (or harm) for democratic policy making in the twenty-first century.
- What do our insufficiently-recognized undemocratic structural elements (e.g., Electoral College; composition of the U.S. Senate) and political practices (e.g., gerrymandering) have to do with the Buffalo mass shooting? We have good reason to ask ourselves whether the structural impediments to policies that actually embody citizen preferences have been a central element in keeping weapons of war easily available to members of the public, including the teenage shooter in Buffalo. Remember the federal “assault weapons ban” enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 2004 that expired in 2014? Efforts to renew the ban have never made it through the Senate. Yet, various public opinion polls over the years have shown that two-thirds of Americans support a renewal of the ban (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2022).
There is much more than can—and will—be said about the Buffalo mass shooting. But first reactions give us plenty to think about concerning the impact of guns on our democracy and our governing system’s facilitation of the easy availability of guns.
Christopher E. Smith, J.D., Ph.D.
MCPGV Board President
American Academy of Pediatrics, “Advocacy: Assault Weapons Ban,” Website of the American Academy of Pediatrics, May 15, 2022 (aap.org).
Cecco, Leyland, “Drone Carrying Guns into Canada from the U.S. Intercepted After Crashing into a Tree,” The Guardian, May 3, 2022 (theguardian.com).
Hauck, Grace, “’Eye-Popping Numbers’: Chicago Sues Indiana Gun Store Tied to 850 Firearms Recovered from Crime Scenes,” USA Today, April 27, 2021 (usatoday.com).
McKinley, Jesse, Alex Traub and Troy Closson, “10 People Are Killed and 3 Are Wounded in Mass Shooting at a Buffalo Grocery Store,” New York Times, May 14, 2022 (nytimes.com)
Thrush, Glenn, and Katie Benner, “6 Gun Shops, 11,000 ‘Crime Guns’: A Rare Peek at the Pipeline,” New York Times, April 28, 2022 (nytimes.com).
“University of Chicago Crime Lab Launches Community Safety Leadership Academies,” UChicago News, May 10, 2022 (news.uchicago.edu).
Van Sant, Will, “Michigan Is a Prime Example of How Gerrymandering Can Doom Gun Reform,” The Trace, December 18, 2021 (thetrace.org).
Viswanatha, Aruna, “Oath Keepers Cached Weapons for Jan. 6 Capitol Attack, Prosecutors Say,” Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2022 (wsj.com).