If you’re serious about the worsening gun epidemic, then you should be serious about the FACTS.
This epidemic has been triggered and fueled by one of the most misguided blunders in Supreme Court history: the Heller decision.
The Heller Inflection
In 2008, the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, for the first time in 200 years, found in the 2nd Amendment an implied right to own a gun for self-defense. Assuming away the settled state-right view of the most mysterious provision in the Constitution, a divided 5-4 Court, recognizing the implications, confidently declared: “We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country…. But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table.”
Since no one talks about what resulted, we’ve mapped out the data to demonstrate how a dangerous new constitutional right to own a gun enabled a devastating gun epidemic.
Heller isn’t solely responsible for the gun epidemic, but it is central to it. And central to Heller is guesswork invited by gun rights and control advocates. Neither side acknowledges Heller’s role, or its deadly effects.
But the correlation is undeniable. Even the historian Heller cited, Joyce Malcolm, called a right to guns a “dangerous public freedom.” An 1832 treatise it referenced condemned pistols that “frequently turned a quarrel into a bloody affray.” And dissenting Justice Breyer, citing the American Journal of Psychiatry, noted “‘[m]ost murders are committed by previously law-abiding citizens, in situations where spontaneous violence is generated by anger, passion or intoxication.’” As Justice Stevens later revealed, “all justices could foresee the negative consequences” of “such a radical change in the law,” calling Heller the “worst self inflicted wound in Court history.”
In fact in 2014, Justice Stevens warned the public: it’s “profoundly important” to see that Heller “curtails the power to regulate handguns that contribute to” record gun deaths, deploring “the slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns.” It should then have been no surprise that by 2015, America’s gun problem became a “Gun Epidemic,” declared by the New York Times.
More Guns, More Gun Violence
The numbers tell the story. Since Heller in 2008 (expanded by McDonald v. Chicago to all states in 2010), guns and gun deaths surged in tandem, from 305 to over 393 million guns and 31,500 to 43,500 annual deaths.
Thanks to Heller, America suffers record gun proliferation and violence—daily (or more frequent) mass shootings, weekly school shootings, suicides, domestic violence, and accidents—that grow worse, year after year.
To confront this epidemic, we need to understand the magnitude of Heller’s disastrous legacy. Let’s break it down.
Primary Effect: Feeding America’s Gun Obsession
Heller marks an unprecedented shift in the history of American gun ownership. Reinterpreting the 2nd Amendment from the longtime state right to maintain militia to an individual right to own guns, Heller made it unlawful and more difficult to regulate most gun ownership. The result has been a startling rise in gun proliferation.
The contrast is stark. Between 2008 and 2016 twice as many guns entered the U.S. market as did in the previous decade.
By 2017, this increase had resulted in 393,000,000 guns in private ownership, the equivalent of 6 guns for every 5 Americans.1 In Heller’s America, it is now easier to buy guns than to regulate their safe use. The unsurprising result of this is a dangerous and sustained rise in gun violence.
Parallel Effect: a Gun Violence Epidemic
Heller’s boost to record gun ownership has been paralleled by record gun violence. Having undone and stifled legislative efforts at prevention, Heller has resulted in the sharpest rise in gun violence since the 1960s—a period of extraordinary civil unrest and assassinations during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War—and reversed a historic drop in gun deaths.
2017 had the highest number of gun deaths since records began in 1968, with 39,773 deaths documented. Since then, numbers have continued to rise. The Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization that tracks gun violence, has reported that annual deaths in 2020 far exceeded that previous record, reaching over 43,500.
Gun suicides have risen steadily over the decade following Heller. 2018 set the record for both the highest rate and the highest number of gun suicides in 40 years.2
This rise is unsurprising in light of findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine that gun owners are four times more likely to commit suicide than non-gun owners. Multiple factors contribute, but guns are disproportionality dangerous, making up only 10% of all attempts yet over 50% of fatal attempts.3
It thus stands to reason that Heller’s new right, that has grown gun stock by almost 100 million in less than a decade, has contributed to a sharp rise in both overall suicides and gun suicides, demonstrating how dangerous guns are for vulnerable individuals.
Yet Heller is commonly overlooked by research. A 2020 study published in the Harvard Political Review cited 2006 as the beginning of the rise in gun suicides. But the decade ending in 2008 showed a largely flat rate. Reflecting Heller’s impact, 2008 was the first year since 1998 that the rate exceeded 6 per 100,000. Gun suicides took off after Heller and have increased ever since.
Mass Shootings And School Shootings
Heller also marks the beginning of a sharp rise in the number of mass and school shootings.
After records began in 2013, mass shootings steadily increased, becoming daily in the period 2015 through 2018, and jumping again since.
May 2020 marked the first month on record that mass shootings doubled to two a day according to the Gun Violence Archive. One month later, June 2020 broke this record with an average of three mass shootings a day, as did July, nearly matched again in August. Such an escalation in rate has made 2020 the first year in American history to exceed 600 mass shootings.
None of this is normal. But it is the new normal in Heller’s America.
School shootings likewise have more than doubled since Heller, according to data compiled since 2009 by CNN.
The available data shows a steady rise in both mass and school shootings since Heller.
Desensitized to their increasing frequency, America fixates instead on whether these incidents constitute mass shootings. Accurate analysis is difficult due to the lack of data and a uniform definition. The oldest database is that of the FBI under its definition for “mass murder” (requiring four or more dead) that understates the problem. It excludes, for example, the 2020 cookout shooting in D.C. that left 21 shot and one dead—a mass shooting by any definition.
The limited data for mass shootings prior to 2013 and for school shootings prior to 2009 has obscured the Heller inflection. Regardless of data used, one thing is clear: the decade since Heller has seen a dramatic rise in mass and school shootings, so much so it triggered in 2018 a nationwide March for Our Lives.
Emboldened Pseudo Militia
Heller has also normalized intimidating, dangerous, and sometimes unlawful public displays of military-grade weapons by pseudo militia. Its related right of “citizens’ militia as a safeguard against tyranny” when order breaks down has inspired heavily armed and unregulated militia activity across America: in anti-government insurgencies, inside statehouses and town halls, along the border, and at 1st Amendment protests across the country, including Charlottesville, Kenosha and Portland that turned deadly.
Predictably, since Heller endorsed the notion of a citizen’s right to guns as a check on tyranny, there have been almost weekly “incidents of insurrectionist violence (or the promotion of such violence),” as catalogued by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence on its “Insurrectionism Timeline.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks private militias and radical anti-government groups, typically spouting “a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy the liberties of Americans.” Data compiled in its Intelligence Report shows the number of antigovernment ‘Patriot’ Groups—of which private militias are a part—has risen dramatically since Heller.
The overall number of these groups fluctuates in response to various factors, but the sustained elevation in every year since Heller demonstrates they have become far more prevalent. Research into the relationship between these increases and Heller is limited, due again to the failure to consider the obvious correlation, and with it the clear threat Heller poses to domestic tranquility and public safety.
Misdirected Media, Research, and Solutions
Heller’s central role has gone unnoticed, unresearched, and unaddressed for a decade.
The news media, never investigating or shining a spotlight on Heller’s role, have normalized unprecedented, increasingly-frequent shootings, which hardly make news anymore, reporting them, if at all, as an everyday ‘part of American life.’
Gun violence research, unfocused on Heller, underfunded, and lacking a centralized effort to comprehensively record the violence, has resulted in a fundamental misdiagnosis of the epidemic.
Gun control’s institutional avoidance of the elephant in the room has left it to offer modest “common sense” reforms, which might barely slow down but won’t stop the rising epidemic.
Universal background checks won’t reach the ongoing misuse of 400 million guns, too often by angered, impassioned, or intoxicated law-abiding Americans—whether by alcohol, drugs, or a self-aggrandizing gun. Age minimums, magazine limits, and red flag (“extreme risk”) laws won’t prevent most shootings. Most involve Heller-protected handguns that enable impulsive suicides and domestic violence in the home. When predictably taken out in public, they contribute to the unprecedented rise in grievance shootings, mass and school shootings, and street violence.
To Cure the Epidemic, Focus on and Overrule Heller
The divisive debate over America’s gun epidemic targets its symptoms—typically the circumstances of each shooting, shooter, and gun purchase. It ignores the underlying disease.
The country struggles to make sense of WHY THIS KEEPS HAPPENING, and to get past the empty ritual of thoughts and prayers. Few ask—not media, researchers, or gun control— what’s behind the worsening gun violence, and what to do about it.
Gun control remains focused on modest solutions and not the deadly, obstructive effects of Heller which triggered the epidemic, and blocks and marginalizes legislative remedies needed to end it.
Justice Stevens, recognizing the root of the problem, called limited solutions useful but no cure, urging “more effective and more lasting reform.” As implored in his memoir, “overruling Heller is desperately needed to prevent [more] tragedies.”
AEP, dedicated to overturning Heller in the courts, takes no position on what legislative reform might be, whether at the state and local level under each State’s constitution, or at the national level in Congress.
But when real reform becomes possible post-Heller, one could look next door to our mirror image Canada, which shares not only a long border but our English heritage, frontier experience, and rural-urban divide. Canada classifies firearms as non-restricted (hunting rifles), restricted (handguns and semiautomatics) and prohibited (certain handguns and automatic weapons). That seems to work for gun rights and control groups alike, as well as schools.
Against our 34 school shootings as of the 2018 March for Our Lives,4 the number in Canada: zero.
Or look to Australia, having experienced few mass shootings following gun law reforms in 1996. “Few Australians would deny that their country is safer today,” says its former prime minister.
Or Great Britain, the direct descendent of “our English forefathers” in whom Heller found a supposed “ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms.” Today, Britain has some of the strictest gun laws and lowest gun violence in the world, and its media assail America’s “obscene proliferation of guns.”
Know the truth about Heller, and help us end the gun epidemic.
For more information about Heller, see HELLER’S 2ND AMENDMENT.
2 – John Hopkins: Bloomberg School of Public Health https://americanhealth.jhu.edu/article/how-do-gun-laws-affect-suicide-rates
3 – Gifford Law Centre https://lawcenter.giffords.org/facts/gun-violence-statistics/
4 – P. Krishnakumar,“Since Sandy Hook, a gun has been fired on school grounds nearly once a week,”Los Angeles Times (updated through Mar. 22, 2018). https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-school-shootings-since-newtown/
5 – CNN, “10 years. 180 school shootings. 365 victims.” CNN https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/07/us/ten-years-of-school-shootings-trnd/#methodology