Sunday night, I received a news alert on my phone saying that a gunman had opened fire at a Las Vegas hotel. I was naturally worried and distressed, but it wasn't until the next morning, when I found out the unimaginable scale and nature of the attack, that I began to react emotionally to the tragedy.
I hated myself for becoming numb and accustomed to incidents like this, and for immediately recalling tragedies in Orlando, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. I hated how President Trump ended his consolatory tweet with an exclamation mark, and how it echoed the way he had ended many of his nonsensical messages, with a now infamous “Sad!” Then, I hated myself for having that thought when the nature of the message was surely good. I hated bringing politics into an issue that had not even been fully resolved yet.
As the outpour of information and reactions continued, I read Nicholas Kristof’s article in The New York Times urging Americans to action to prevent future incidents like this. Kristof lists eight steps for gun reform. While I agreed with most of these proposals, I couldn’t help but again feel despair and some anger, for I felt that all of this was missing the point, that we were lacking the conversation that we actually needed.
When is the last time that we’ve heard from a politician or a public figure challenging the legitimacy of the Second Amendment itself? It seems that almost every plan for reform is accompanied by countless reassurances that no one is coming to take away guns from people along with a statement of support for the right to own arms. Everyone seems to be working with the inherent assumption that this right is fundamental to America’s identity.
It is true that tenets like the Constitution act as fundamental bases for collective identity, especially for a pluralistic society such as the United States. However, it is wrong and irresponsible to act as if everything within that system is equally important. Can we really say that the right to keep and bear arms is as important to American values as the freedom of speech, the free exercise of religion, due process and the right to vote? The right to bear arms plays no role in maintaining the legitimacy of political institutions like elections, nor does it have any actual significance in protecting fundamental liberties.
The oft-stated argument that citizens need guns to protect against government tyranny is laughable in today’s world — no militia could resist if the government or military actually wanted to strike against its own citizens. Besides, American democracy is far more stable than in the age of the founders, with more safeguards than they could have imagined.
As an international student who has grown up in the States for most of his life, I often feel obligated to act as an ambassador for America to people who have never been to the country. However, even as someone with great reverence for American values, I struggle to explain its infatuation with the Second Amendment. After countless tragedies like this week’s, other countries’ reactions and discourse is based around the question, “Why not just outlaw guns?”
Yet, here in the States, we remain mired in questions around background checks, age limits and whether it’s guns or people who kill. The last subject, for so long the basis of the National Rifle Association’s mantra, has always struck me as profoundly idiotic. People kill with the use of guns — unless your plan is to magically identity all malicious people and to get rid of them, we obviously need to address the means used to address the problem.
Penn’s motto reads “Leges sine moribus vanae,” which translates into “Laws without morals are useless.” It is this observation that laws reflect our ongoing quest towards justice and that they are not foundational truths that ought to make us care about this issue as students. It is no secret that the Constitution, including many of its amendments, has changed throughout the years to reflect the ongoing progress of the country. Make no mistake: This does not weaken the validity of the law — it strengthens it. It reflects the thought that America itself is an ideal to which we edge closer to throughout time.
Many critics have written that America essentially gave up the debate over gun rights after the Sandy Hook incident, that when the country decided to value such rights over the lives of children, it lost all hope. I do not agree with this. I do not believe in a vision of America as Moloch, the great ancient beast to whom children had to be sacrificed. Yet, to prove it, we need to shift the gun rights conversation towards the philosophical and moral legitimacy of the law itself, rather than continue in this dangerous dance with moral relativism. So let’s talk about the Second Amendment.
JAMES LEE is a College senior from Seoul, South Korea, studying English and philosophy, politics and economics. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Conversation” usually appears every other Monday.