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Guns, Murders and Suicides, and the U.S. Constitution

by Dog Gone, published

Although it is a statement widely attributed to Abraham Lincoln relating to a temporary suspension of habeas corpus under the Suspension Clause of the Constitution (Article 1, Section 9, clause 2), the first actual recorded quote that the U.S. Constitution is "not a suicide pact" was made by Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson in his Terminiello v.  Chicago dissent, not quite 100 years later.  It was used again almost 15 years later in another SCOTUS decision in 1963, also about freedom of speech and the First Amendment.

That should apply as well to the Second Amendment; the statement refers to the entire document, not only the First Amendment exclusively.

What the U.S. Constitution IS supposed to be and do, instead of functioning as a suicide pact,  is explicitly spelled out in the preamble:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

In that larger context, looking at how we interpret and implement the Constitution, it is fair to look at the Constitution generally, and the Second Amendment specifically so that it is not LITERALLY a suicide pact, which permits gun violence that kills large numbers of Americans (and for that matter, others who are not citizens, but who are within the borders of the U.S.).

Saturday, July 20, 2013 is the one year anniversary of the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting, and a little more than six months from the Sandy Hook, Connecticut mass shooting. It is worth looking at both murders and suicides, especially mass shootings, together because most mass shootings are murder suicides.  We have  some 17,000 suicides a year using firearms, which is HALF of all suicides.

In looking at homicides, in comparison to other countries in the world, which is a fair comparison for a larger sense of how our constitution is functioning to assess and evaluate how successfully or unsuccessfully  our interpretation of the constitution is working to fulfill its expressed  purpose in the preamble, which is in part about the public safety of citizens, not only from foreign threats, but from our fellow Americans.  In that regard, expressed as homicides per 100,000 persons, we are second behind Pakistan, and FAR higher than for example, Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom.  The graph below reflects data from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime; if you use the FBI statistics, we fare even worse in the comparison, by about 0.5%.

The Preamble specifically mentions the Posterity of the founding fathers and other citizens of the United States.  Such a reference to posterity inherently presumes that the offspring of citizens survive to enjoy all of the benefits outlined in the preamble, and are safe from firearms injury.  Therefore, not only when we think of the Sandy Hook mass shooting but the other statistics of children dying from firearms, and being injured by firearms, this is a significant concern in the context of the preamble of the Constitution.

From a USA Today news article earlier this year:

In 2010, 15,576 children and teenagers were injured by firearms — three times more than the number of U.S. soldiers injured in the war in Afghanistan, according to the defense fund. Nationally, guns still kill twice as many children and young people than cancer, five times as many than heart disease and 15 times more than infection, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. "We see guns as much of a threat in their life as we used to see bacteria and viruses," said Dr. Judith S. Palfrey, a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the co-author of the New England journal report. "If you look at what's actually killing children and disabling children, guns is one of the major things."

Although the following comparison is a bit dated, because the pattern of these statistics has remained relatively constant over the past twenty years, it is worth noting, in looking at 'Posterity', to evaluate how well we are interpreting and implementing the U.S. Constitution, including the 2nd Amendment.  The original figures come from the Center for Disease Control, by way of the American Bar Association web site:

  • The overall firearm-related death rate among U.S. children younger than 15 years of age is nearly 12 times higher than among children in 25 other industrialized countries combined.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 1997;46:101-105.

  •  The United States has the highest rate of youth homicides and suicides among the 26 wealthiest nations.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rates of homicide, suicide, and firearm-related death among children: 26 industrialized countries. MMWR. 1997;46:101-105

Here is what is wrong with how we have applied the 2nd Amendment, especially in permitting lax gun regulation, which contributes heavily to gun violence, both homicides and suicides, and to gun accidents, and which includes making it relatively easy for mass murders to acquire firearms to use in mass shootings.  An excerpt from the Huff Po around the time of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting murder/suicide makes it clear:

How freely do guns flow in the United States compared with the world's other industrialized countries? According to, run by Philip Alpers, a firearms analyst at The University of Sydney, the United States is unusual with what Alpers described as the "two pillars" of gun control: licensing gun owners and registering weapons. "You are basically the only country in the developed world that doesn't license gun owners across the board and you are almost alone in not registering guns across the board," Alpers said. "It's very difficult to compare with others, because you simply don't have those things." New Zealand and Canada are the other developed countries that don't register guns across the board, Alpers said. The two countries register handguns and military-style semi-automatics, but not rifles and shotguns. The Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva, noted that of the 28 countries it surveyed for its 2011 report on civilian firearm possession, only two consider civilian ownership of a firearm a basic right: the U.S. and Yemen. But even Yemen has begun clamping down on civilian guns, Alpers said.

A document establishing the outlines of appropriate government, the Constitution is literally not a suicide pact regarding guns used in homicides or suicides or accidental shootings. When it becomes such a large problem that it is resulting in the deaths and injuries of so many Americans, where much stricter limitations on firearms could dramatically reduce those deaths and injuries, as well as the fear of threat and intimidation by firearms in the hands of our fellow Americans, it is time to follow the wisdom attributed to Lincoln in the 19th century, and specifically expressed by Supreme Court Justices Jackson and Goldberg, respectively, at different times in the 20th century.  It is time for "we the people" to be protected from "we the people with guns", not just the crazy ones, not just the mass shooters, but all the other people who pose a significant safety and public health risk to the rest of us, who should be more rigorously regulated for them, for ourselves, and for posterity.

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