On Violence in America


Bill Bradley
Bob Butler


The effort to find a framework for what makes sense, what will work, what will save lives is lost on a Republican Congress consumed by partisan passions and special interest politics, more interested in issues to use in the next election than solutions that would make a difference today. The roar of the Columbine tragedy still echoes across the land. But the Congress, at a time of momentous opportunity, stumbles all over each other to weaken an already watered down background check for guns sold at gun shows. The gridlock persists, and reasonable people are left to wonder: What will it take to save our children's lives?

There are valid differences between the Democratic and Republican philosophies. Republicans would empower the individual to act with a minimum of government interference. Democrats would use big government to solve big problems. The best government is found in a careful balance between these opposing philosophies. The founding fathers believed in a small government. They wished no standing armies. The police force had not yet been invented. Thus, the people themselves enforced the law. The population was mostly full time farmers who were also part time militia soldiers. The 21st Century United States are far more specialized. We now do have full time police officers, soldiers and (alas) politicians. Rather than an armed populace providing security for a disarmed state, we have an armed state that attempts (and, if you accept Bradley's statistics at face value, fails) to provide security for the people. As the armed state is more and more failing to provide security to the people, the state wishes to disarm the people?

There are many that feel they have a right and duty to be prepared to defend themselves. These people, both directly and through the gun industry, do give political donations to Bradley's political opponents. Bradley believes in campaign finance reform. He has a point. Those willing to give money to politicians are better represented than those who are unwilling or unable to donate. The effect of the current political finance system is to legalize bribery. Unfortunately, the essence of many campaign finance reform proposals is to regulate the spending of money to spread one's political views. This raises First Amendment problems. The Supreme Court has consistently overturned laws that prevent individuals and corporations from spending money to advance their political views. This is correctly deemed a form of censorship of political speech. Until Bradley and others develop a voluntary system of financial limits, a system that does not include financial censorship, private citizens and industry organizations will make their voices heard and their wallets felt.

More people concerned with the gun issue are more willing to donate more money to Bradley's political opponents than to Bradley. This might be frustrating to Bradley, but it does not follow that Bradley's position is correct. It is possible to sincerely believe in classic interpretation of the Second Amendment, either as a congressman, or as a person donating funds. The campaign finance and gun control issues are distinct. The First and Second Amendments should be defended (or attacked) separately. These are two complex and important issues. The status quo is not entirely satisfactory in either case. Still, the two issues are not necessarily tightly linked. Emotional language demonizing one's political opponents is not the road to compromise and resolution.

It's going to take leadership - leadership at every level of our society. Leaders in every community. Leadership that seeks to do big things, rather than nibble at the edges of a crisis. Leadership that gives people a reason to believe that we can begin to extinguish the epidemic of violence if we have the will to confront it honestly. And we need leaders who believe that, if politics is the art of the possible, it is the role of a leader to expand the possibilities.

It's going to take people like you here tonight and in communities all across the country to realize the power we possess if we work together toward a common goal. We are a strong and vibrant country, and we have fought the right fights before and won. State-sanctioned racism began to fall when we objected to its moral depravity and we furthered the cause of justice. Today, we have the power to save our children's lives and further the cause of liberty.

State-sanction racism began to fail when Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP began to reverse 19th Century Supreme Court decisions nullifying the federal government's ability to enforce the Bill of Rights. Martin Luther King's later successes had support from the federal government, support that would have been impossible without Marshall's work to reestablish the Bill of Rights. The NRA is fighting some of the same Jim Crow precedents fought by Marshall.

So let's talk about what makes sense for our children. Let's talk about how we might end the thirteen gun deaths a day - a daily Columbine, 365 days a year.

Age --->
0 - 13
14 - 17
Gun Homicides
Gun Suicides
Death Rate Per Day (Click for details)

The probability of a shooting spree drops significantly when law abiding adults are allowed to conceal carry handguns. From John Lott's More Guns Less Crime.

Every amendment of our Constitution is open to interpretation. Our most cherished amendment, our First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, has restrictions. You can't yell fire in a crowded theater. You cannot commit perjury. You cannot slander or libel an individual.

The Constitution is indeed open to interpretation, and is often bent to fit the values of a given era. During the Jim Crow era, the will of majority was to deny the rights of racial minorities. The Supreme Court reinterpreted the Constitution to achieve this end. The Bill of Rights was said not to guarantee the people rights, but only to limit the power of Congress. State legislatures were given free authority to write laws infringing the federal Bill of Rights. The Federal government was declared to lack police power, and thus could not enforce federal law or protect federal rights. It was the role of the states to enforce law and protect rights. The Federal Courts were said to have no power to enforce federal rights. The clauses of the First Amendment were deliberately scrambled, were made dependent on one another. If one is not writing a petition for the redress of grievances, one was said to have no right of assembly. The Second Amendment was similarly reinterpreted. If one is not a member of a state-authorized militia, one has no right to bear arms. Thus, blacks in the south had to look to state governments to protect their rights, and the states failed them entirely. Thus, the states initially gained the power to deny blacks the right to keep and bear arms. They later extended this power to all races.

During the 20th Century, the ACLU, NAACP and NRA fought this late 1800s racist interpretation of the Constitution, an interpretation deliberately constructed to prevent federal enforcement of the entire Bill of Rights. The ACLU and NAACP have for the most part succeeded. The NRA has been less successful. As there have been so few Supreme Court cases effecting the Second Amendment, the 19th Century Jim Crow precedents nullifying federal enforcement of the Bill of Rights are still applied to the Second Amendment.

Bradley is advocating a similar disregard for the letter and spirit of the Bill of Rights. His motives are better than the Jim Crow racists, but a proposal that the Bill of Rights should be reinterpreted to fit the will of the majority during any given era is repugnant to many who cherish human rights and rule of law. Values do change. The effectiveness of firearms has definitely changed. This is why the Constitution has a mechanism for amendments. If a true and broad consensus does develop, let the Second Amendment be modified. Until then, let us not tolerate Congressional, Supreme Court or executive disregard for rule of law.

Yes, one cannot yell fire in a crowded theater, perjure, slander, or libel. The Bill of Rights protects one's rights, but does not confer the capacity to infringe on the rights of others. Thus, there are properly laws that punish both improper speech and improper use of firearms. However, no harm no foul. Congress may not limit one's ability to speak. It may only write laws to punish those who use false speech to effect injury. Similarly, Congress may not limit one's ability to keep and bear arms. It may only write laws to punish those who use arms to effect injury. There is a distinct and critical difference between a law that punishes infringement of rights and a law that infringes rights.

While this difference isn't openly acknowledged, it defines the current strategies of both sides of the gun control issue. The NRA and its allies are successfully pushing "shall issue" laws through many states. Gun permits in such states cannot be denied without cause. If an individual is sane and not a felon, the permit must be issued. The gun control advocates are pushing more for punishment of gun related crimes. They encounter less resistance to increased criminalization of abuse of guns, while they do meet fierce opposition to laws that restrict possession of guns by the law abiding. Bradley's paper is consistent with this trend.

The extreme form of the trend would be to ban with extreme penalty possession or use of any firearm by convicted felons, and to punish any use of a firearm in the commission of a crime. These laws are already in place. There are not, however, laws in place to actively protect the right of law abiding people to keep and bear arms. Bradley proposes no new laws to define and enforce said rights. The Amendment is on the books, but there is no criminal law assigning punishment if someone's right to bear arms is violated.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Second Amendment confers rights on individuals to own guns. My reasons for supporting the rights of an individual to own a gun is based more on personal experience, and less on legal doctrine.

When I was a boy, I used to take my 22 and shoot targets along the Mississippi River with my grandfather. Millions of sportsmen and hunters use guns responsibly, and I see no reason why their passionate pursuit should not continue. Many sportsmen and sportswomen are concerned about government intrusion in their lives. But most of them would agree that there is no need for the junk handguns and assault weapons that are causing carnage in our communities.

If the Congress is granted the ability to infringe upon the right to bear arms, the Second Amendment is effectively voided. If Congress has the ability to ban junk handguns today, this implies the power to ban any form of gun. There is little in the Constitution that separates junk handguns and assault weapons from sporting weapons. There is a statement that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." If there is a distinction, it is that the militia may be called by Congress to enforce the law, suppress insurrections and repel invasions. Assault weapons, the weapon of choice for modern infantry, would be the weapon of choice for a modern militia intended to repel an invasion. Handguns are the weapon of choice for self defense and law enforcement.

While hunting weapons might be Bradley's favorite weapons from the days of his vanished youth, they are not the weapons best suited to performing the roles protected by the Constitution. The founding fathers did not intend to guarantee children the right to shoot targets. They intended a right to self-defense. They intended to secure the country from external threat and government tyranny. Thus, Bradley's position on the issue, based entirely on "personal experience" not at all on "legal doctrine," is more than questionable. If he wishes to place his personal opinion above the Bill of Rights, he needs to pass a constitutional amendment.

A commonsense approach to what kind of gun regulation is needed must be built on the shoulders of the Second Amendment - by applying the same restrictions to it that are applied to other amendments. In our constitutional system, we must always balance the public safety of the people - especially children - against the rights of the individual. And in a society with over 200 million guns and thirteen children a day killed by them, I believe that the government has a legitimate interest in regulating guns.

In classic legal theory, the will of the majority must yield to the rights of the individual. Bradley has changed it to "we must always balance the public safety of the people - especially children - against the rights of the individual." If 'balance' means one can infringe on the constitutional rights of one who has not violated the law, many advocates of rule of law, including myself, will protest vehemently. Congress may not on its own initiative disregard the Constitution. Thus, the next two paragraphs become central to the article.

That means we can decide who is safe to entrust with a gun, what kinds of guns may be manufactured or sold, and how those guns can be distributed. It means that we can pursue a goal of making our country safer from gun violence by applying principles like making guns safer, regulating the distribution of them more carefully, making owners more responsible, and giving police greater abilities to stop gun violence.

But it also means that if you use your gun responsibly, store it safely and use it lawfully - then your rights under the Second Amendment will continue to be protected.

Bradley advocates increased infringement upon the right to bear arms, without a firm bed rock line of where such infringement will stop. While Bradley gives lip service to Second Amendment rights, he is advocating no new laws to protect them. Even his lip service is limited to target shooting and hunting, with no mention of self defense. Thus, many Second Amendment advocates, failing to see a firm fire break where the assault on their rights will be stopped, feel impelled to stand firm and yield no ground.

This is the model I used in my attempt to grapple with these issues during my eighteen years in the Senate.

I sponsored the effort to limit the purchase of a handgun by any one person to one gun a month. The flood of illegal guns in our streets begins with middlemen known as straw purchasers who make legal buys of thousands of guns - which they turn around and sell illegally to street criminals. When Virginia passed a one gun a month law, the effect was felt in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York - because that's where the guns were going.

Then there is the question of handgun registration. There are some words that are so emotionally charged that they inhibit discussion of an issue, and this is one of them. Some gun owners hear this word, and fear unfair government intrusion in their lives. But most Americans would agree that those who own handguns should have to pass a basic safety course on instruction before they can operate them. Most Americans would agree that it is in our interests to know who owns handguns, and to be able to track where those handguns go. And I have supported efforts that would let us do just that.

I led an effort to eliminate junk handguns completely and permanently. Saturday Night Specials are 81% of the ten most used guns which are traced by the BATF. Many of these junk handguns are manufactured here in California by gun manufacturers known as the "Ring of Fire." The evidence is clear and convincing that these guns lack any sporting use and pose a significant threat to the safety of the American public. They are a menace to society and they should be outlawed.

I also led an effort to make it illegal for any person to possess a handgun if they have been convicted of domestic violence. We must do everything we can to offer better protections for fearful women and innocent children against the brutality of batterers. No country - especially ours - should be more worried about protecting the right to bear arms than protecting the arms that carry our children.

Finally, with seven times more gun dealers than McDonald's Restaurants, I supported an effort to increase substantially the license fees on gun dealers and require them to have pictures and fingerprints taken with their application. Between this effort and work 287,000 to 80,000. But we can go farther, and we can get that number much, much lower. With a simple change in our current law, we can do nationwide what you are doing community by community here in California. By simply restricting federal firearm licenses to businesses located in commercial zones and eliminating "FFLs" in residential areas, we can get the gun dealers out of our neighborhoods and into commercial areas with the legitimate dealers who respect the law. Most businesses can not be located in residential neighborhoods - gun dealing shouldn't be the exception. In addition to trigger locks and mandatory background checks at gun shows, these are sensible measures that should be taken now.

I know the blaze of violence has many fires. We won't end violence by reducing gun violence. There are many reasons and many causes. But think how much more effectively we can deal with the other root causes if we find common ground on reducing gun violence. Then, the discussion about prevention, and education, and collaboration between parents, teachers, the private sector, and government becomes a constructive discussion.

We can discuss violent and lethal influences on our children. We can talk about the responsibility each of us has in how our children get the idea that violence is somehow glamorous. But we can't have an honest discussion until we confront the fact that, while our children may be exposed to lethal special effects in movies and videogames, we are doing very little about their access to lethal weapons.

It seems to me that we have a choice. We can continue to participate in a debate of extremes that offers false and hopeless choices. A debate that has allowed the carnage in our culture to become so deeply imbedded that it has become a fact and a way of life. Or we can seek the common ground - a place that offers fewer guns, less violence, and fewer tears. The commonsense approach to discussing violence is only a beginning, not an end. And all proposals that will save the lives of our children and fellow citizens should be considered.

Let me end my conversation with two stories.

A few years ago, the Washington Post ran a story about violence - and in it, they told of an eight-year-old girl who wrote a letter to her parents saying which of her dresses she wanted to be buried in. She wrote the letter because she didn't think she would live to see her twelfth birthday.

And then there are the people in this room. When senseless gun violence left eight people killed and six injured at 101 California six years ago, you responded to tragedy with a purpose. From a small group of lawyers and volunteers mobilized to prevent gun violence, you have grown and persevered over the years. You know the result - today, over seventy cities and counties here in California have enacted nearly 200 local firearms regulations, ranging from junk gun prohibitions to trigger lock requirements. You're doing at the local level what few are even willing to discuss at the national level - and you've made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

When I look around this room and think about the hard work you have done in the name of protecting children and families, I know there is hope and reason to be optimistic about the future. I know that we can look at you and your accomplishments and take that same model of hard work, perseverance, dedication, and will to a national level, and to every community in this country. Because we are a good people and a caring people, who want the best for our children, who want to raise good children, and who believe in the enormous power of working together for the common good. And working together for the common good is what it will take to make a difference in the fear our children - and our parents - live with.

Next - Regulating the Militia

On Violence in America

On Violence in America 2

War Gaming Columbine

Regulating the Militia

War Gaming Columbine 2