Justice Stevens Shoots At Gun Decision

Justice Stevens Shoots At Gun Decision

Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, now 99 years old, has written a book, The Making of a Justice: My First 94 Years. Apparently he considers the  District of Columbia versus Heller decision to be the worst of all those that was made during his time on the Supreme Court, that one on  a 5-4 vote.  That decision upended the interpretations of the Second Amendment that had been in place since the amendment was adopted, with Stevens noting that in fact this longstanding interpretation reflected gun laws from even the colonial era.  That interpretation allowed for gun control legislation for civilians as it was always assumed that the opening phrase about “maintaining a militia” (by state governments) meant that the second phrase about “the right to bear arms shall  not be ingfringed” only applied to those in the military.  The Heller decision undid that, making the right to bear arms disconnected from the business about militias and essentially absolute.

Clearly Stevens feels guilty about what has happened since then, most clearly the epidemic of mass murders with high-powered weapons that were actually banned for civilian use for a decade after 1994, during when such mass murders happened at a lower rate than before or after.  That law was allowed to lapse, when instead the US should have extended it and followed a policy more like what Australia did by buying up outstanding such weapons, which was followed by a dramatic decline in gun-related homicides.   As it is, the US now has a far higher rate of per capita gun ownership than any other nation, more than twice as many as Serbia, the nation with the next highest such rate.

While the upshot has been an increase in these mass murders, there have actually been positive trends that have been going on since the 1990s.  In particular, the percent of households that own any guns has been steadily declining, albeit still well over 30 percent.  Going along with this has been a general decline in the rate of gun-related homicides, even as the rate of mass gun-related homicides has risen.  So it would seem that since guns per capita have been rising, it seems that the households that have guns are tending to increase the number they own.

The much more serious problem associated with guns, although much less publicized than mass murders or homicides more generally, has been gun-related suicides.  The number of these is about twice that of gun-related homicides in the US.  Furthermore, while the relation between homicides and guns per capita across states is not strightforward, the relation across states of guns per capita and both the gun-related suicide rate as well as the overall suicide rate is very strong.  Ironically, the equivalent of a state that had the lowest rate of per capita guns, the District of Columbia, the jurisdiction involved in the Heller ruling also had the lowest per capita suicide rate.  It is simply a hard fact that it is very easy to commit suicide on the spur of the moment in a fit of what otherwise would be temporary depression if one owns a gun.

Besides the trend to fewer hosueholds owning guns, the only other favorable recent event I have seen is the apparent outbreak of major problems within the National Rifle Association (NRA).  Once upon a time the NRA emphasized gun safety and training, only to move to its current stance against any gun control more recently.  It would seem that its heyday was when Obama was president, with the NRA able to excite gun-toting racists to give it money out of fear that Obama was going after their guns.  Ironically now that super pro-NRA racist Trump is in the White House, donations to the NRA have collapsed and it has become tangled up in internal dispute money, with its most recent president, Oliver North, being ousted.  We can only hope for it to continue to decline.  But I fear we shall have the Helller ruling that Stevens excoriates with us for an unpleasantly long time.

Barkley Rosser

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