Amending the Second

An Interview with Bret Stephens

The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, energized a movement of young survivors against American gun culture. We spoke with New York Times columnist Bret Stephens — who wrote a controversial column in the fall arguing for a repeal of the Second Amendment — about the way forward, the wildness of American life, and why a great cause, like gun control, needs a commensurate goal.

Octavian Report: Do you think the Parkland incident is going to be a tipping point in the gun control debate in America?

Bret Stephens: I don't know. Who knew that Harvey Weinstein would be a tipping point? He was hardly the first powerful man credibly accused of serial sexual harassment and assault and yet his case proved to be the spark. I have a sense — and I've said this on television — that the same may be true of Parkland. In part because the students who were attacked have been so outspoken, so media savvy, and so fed up with a status quo in which these sorts of shootings have become numbingly routine. I'm hoping this is that moment. But we'll find out in six months or a year.

OR: What should people be doing to build the necessary momentum to repeal the Second Amendment? How do you see that movement taking shape?

Stephens: I'm under no illusions that what I'm proposing will happen next year. But I do think that if a person in a position like mine — a columnist for a large newspaper — doesn't broach the subject, then the conversation will never begin. I remember 20 years ago reading Andrew Sullivan's case for gay marriage. At the time, that argument seemed at the edges of mainstream discourse. In fact, it seemed well beyond the edges of it. Someone has to get the ball rolling. The central question here is: why do we have this extraordinary problem? The answer, as I see it, comes down to the fact that we take it as a given that Americans have an individual right to bear arms.

And they do. Thanks to the Second Amendment. You can interpret it one way or another, but the result is the same. There are 300 million firearms in the hands of Americans. Not surprisingly, we suffer by far the highest rate of firearms-related violence. So unless that conversation begins now, then there's no hope that in 15 or 20 years there will be a more fundamental movement along precisely the same lines.

OR: Do you think there is a cultural change that has to occur before political change of the kind you describe becomes possible?

Stephens: Most proposals for gun control are really small-scale. They treat symptoms rather than root causes. Until you address that root cause, the cultural change is never going to happen. This or that gun control legislation simply isn't going to achieve the desired effect. The point you make in your question is exactly right. We need to have a cultural shift in our attitude towards the ubiquitous availability of guns.

OR: What is it about guns that creates a nearly unique mixture of confusion and intense political division around them?

Stephens: On the Right, gun culture has become almost synonymous with American culture. That idea has old roots in our ideas of the West, of the righteous individual in an anarchic society. It's High Noon; it's John Wayne and Gary Cooper. There is a national ethos that ownership of weapons is synonymous with being American in a way that it simply isn't with being French or being British. I think that cultural fact makes it very difficult for the Right to have an epiphany about what exactly it means that we have this myth and what effect this myth has on our lives. I actually agree with the Right that the Second Amendment does give the individual the right to bear arms — and not as part of a state militia. This is why I feel that the only answer in the long term is a constitutional answer. I think any honest person needs to reckon with the idea that this right is there in the Constitution and that we have a mechanism, through Article V, to amend it. That's what we have to address.

On the Left, there is a conceit that modest forms of gun-control legislation can get at the root of America's gun culture. I think that that's false. We've experimented with gun restrictions of various kinds over the years and none of them has really made a dent in firearms-related violence. I don't know if that's a function of a certain kind of left-wing mythology or political wishful thinking in the face of their view that amending or repealing or revising the Second Amendment is a political pipe dream.

There are blinders on both sides. But you're either for the Second Amendment or you're against it. After having thought about it for a while, I realized I was against it.

OR: If you were to revise the Second Amendment, what do you think should be done to clarify it?

Stephens: I can imagine rewriting the Second Amendment in various ways. One would be to reverse the dependent and independent clauses of that Amendment so that it is clear that the right to bear arms can only happen within the context of a well-regulated militia. That is to say: you want to join your state militia? The National Guard? Then you can have a firearm. Otherwise, forget it. I've suggested cheekily that it should perhaps be rewritten as the right to bear an arm: one single weapon. A handgun to protect your home; a rifle to hunt. But purchasing 33 guns in the space of 12 months, as Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock did, should not be okay.

Yet so long as there's a constitutional right, we are not going to be able to tackle the core issue here: a country which has an estimated 300 million firearms within it. That's what matters now. Later on, intelligent people can figure out methods for revising or repealing the Amendment.

Incidentally, I'm by no means against people having firearms. But if we want to have firearms in people’s hands, we need to make sure that those are responsible hands. Japan has something like 11 gun murders a year. Japan is a country of roughly 130 million people. So if you were to make our populations equivalent, that would mean 28 gun murders in the space of a year. Guns are not banned in Japan, they're just hard to get ahold of. You have to pass tests. The state has to be sure that you are a responsible gun owner, that you have a legitimate purpose for having that weapon. I don't think that's a bad system and I don't think of Japan as an unfree country because they have that particular regulation.