I have struggled with what to say about the latest horrific incident in a public accommodation, which, as I write this, is still last week’s Valentine’s Day school massacre in Parkland, Florida. Like everyone else, I am sickened, both at the carnage and the repetitiveness of the responses. Like most people, I have opinions about what should be done to reduce gun violence in the United States. And like many people, I suspect, I find responses like “thoughts and prayers” to be insufficient, frustrating, and at this point, pretty insulting to the memories of the deceased.
I am not usually at a loss for words. And, at least in some respects, my professional interest in risk management, safety, and security at live events and venues includes schools like Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But I don’t want to just rant, or restate (yet again) facts that will be easily dismissed as part of some group’s agenda.
Here is my effort to point out a few things I know because I am both a lawyer and a person who thinks about risk and safety for a living. Much of this feels obvious to me, but as I listen to the latest news, I observe that apparently it is not.
- I have great respect for the private security professionals I know, but security guards don’t get paid enough to run towards bullets.
- Police officers should head towards a shooter, even with an assault rifle, because they have appropriate training, experience, and equipment, but none of that comes cheap, and at least where I live, public education funds are being slashed, not raised.
- The man who cuts my hair had to go through a more rigorous licensing process than the shooters in Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, Texas, or Parkland.
- I don’t want to be near anyone who is trying to fire a weapon at another human being for the first time – this strikes me as a recipe for collateral damage.
- Some of my favorite people are teachers. The previous comment goes for them too.
- For well-known psychological reasons, most people don’t instantly recognize gunfire as gunfire. In Parkland, for example, students innocently mistook the burst for Valentine’s Day balloons popping. If only….
- Consequently, the instruction to Run, Hide, or Fight tends to devolve into cowering and waiting, which turns a potentially moving target into an easier stationary one.
- A robust event or venue communications system operated by a level-headed leader can provide the information and perspective that most people lack when they fear they are about to die.
- Such a system must be designed, written, and practiced by EVERYONE who might need it if there is any hope of it working effectively during an emergency.
- As inconvenient as it is to have a show interrupted for a practice evacuation, even promoters and venue operators must acknowledge that hospitalization or untimely death is more inconvenient.
- And costly, in terms of human misery, years of litigation, and ruined reputations, among other downside risks of inaction.
- I am not anti-gun. I grew up in a house that had handguns and a rifle marbled like fat on a good cut of beef.
- I am opposed to getting shot.
- I learned in law school, where the United States Constitution is the subject of serious study, that nothing in the Bill of Rights is absolute.
- That’s why the First Amendment, for example, allows even people with terrible opinions to express them publicly, but venue managers can impose certain restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech in order to keep people safe.
- The Second Amendment, like all laws, was passed in a particular historical moment and has been interpreted differently over time.
- In what was known as the “Arkansas doctrine,” the Founders understood the constitutional right to “bear arms” to refer to members of the militia in its military context. An 1840 Tennessee case interpreting the Second Amendment observed, “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk, and buffaloes might carry his rifle every day for forty years, and yet it would never be said of him that he had borne arms….”
- The term “gun control” was not always pejorative. The National Firearms Act of 1934 imposed a heavy tax on the weapons gangsters had used during Prohibition. The National Rifle Association, then a sportsman’s group, supported the bill.
- That law was challenged, and upheld, in a 1939 U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Miller. The unanimous opinion explained that absent evidence that a sawed-off shotgun “has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.”
- In the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, which established a federal licensing system for gun dealers, banned the importation of military-style weapons, and prohibited certain classes of people from purchasing or possessing guns.
- After President Reagan was shot in 1981, Congress passed the “Brady Bill,” which required a background check and a waiting period before one could buy a gun.
- The 1994 Crime Bill included the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, which banned semi-automatic weapons with several specific designs, and prohibited the manufacture of ammunition magazines holding more than ten rounds.
- Nearly all of these restrictions have been actively rescinded or allowed to lapse by Congress.
Why recite all this history? Because even Constitutional rights are what we make of them in the present as we try to look back in time. Or, to quote William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
That is to say that the best time to discuss these difficult issues is now, and always. Thinking about our rights is not a spectator sport – it is the essence of participatory democracy. We sit on our hands and let others set the terms at our own risk.