A student recorded the scene inside his classroom on Snapchat as Nikolas Cruz shot at students just meters away in a hallway at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. The video is only 17 seconds long, but I counted at least 17 gunshots from Nikolas Cruz’s semi-automatic weapon. The students in the classroom looked so frightened—so frail, it’s difficult to accept that the other students in the hallway were more vulnerable than they were. I couldn’t see what was happening to them, nor did I want to. But I knew what was happening. I could hear what Nikolas Cruz was doing to them. The students screamed over the impossibly loud gunshots. I was probably listening to the cries of some of the 17 murdered students and teachers and the 14 more injured that Wednesday afternoon.
Mass shootings, especially the kind that keep children from returning home, fill us with many questions. We immediately think of the parents waiting on news about their children’s safety. We imagine what the scene inside the school looked like when the students were fighting for their lives. We think about why mass shootings are becoming increasingly common in America. We wonder why or how anyone could do such an evil thing. And for those of us who are not Americans, we ask why so many Americans own semi-automatic weapons.
An estimated 35% of American households own guns. These households own over 15 million semi-automatic guns and over 320 million guns altogether. To put this into perspective: there are almost as many guns in American households as there are people in American households.
I’ve seen a gun only a couple times in my life. The first time I saw a gun, I was a little boy, no more than 5 years old, when my uncle showed off his long, rusty hunting rifle to me in Ghana. The last time I saw a gun, I was a big boy, no more than 15 years old, when my friend showed off his pistol to me at our high school.
He brandished the pistol because he thought the gun made him cool. And I imagine that in some way, many Americans probably feel that way too. Americans appear to have an inexplicable cultural affection for guns. Some Americans, including law-abiding citizens, brag about their collection of guns the way others brag about their collection of cars. For many Americans, guns are just as much for posturing as they are for protection. This is perhaps why gun shows are a thing in America. There are approximately 5, 000 gun shows in the country every year.
The Second Amendment of the U.S. constitution declares that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In other words, it is the fundamental right of Americans to own guns. The right to bear arms is as fundamental to American society as their right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.
That might sound ridiculous in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, but America’s founding fathers didn’t develop the Second Amendment for men like Nikolas Cruz to kill and hurt children. They developed it as a fundamental right to protect American citizens from Government tyranny. They recognized that had Great Britain succeeded in confiscating firearms from Americans during their rebellion against Great Britain’s tyranny, Americans would’ve been powerless and unable to win its independence.
George Mason, the co-author of the Second Amendment said, “When the resolution of enslaving America was formed in Great Britain, the British Parliament was advised by an artful man, who was governor of Pennsylvania, to disarm the people; that it was the best and most effectual way to enslave them.”
Some Americans, however, believe that the Second Amendment is outdated. They believe Americans do not need semi-automatic weapons for protection against the American Government because in their mind, the government will never become tyrannical. The problem with that argument, however, is that much of the same people making this argument also argue that the American government is systemically racist against Black Americans. They are the same people who believe that American police officers systemically target and murder Black Americans. If Black Americans are suffering systemic racism in America today, is it really sensible to ban the weapons they might need to protect themselves from oppression?
After the Atlanta Race Riots in 1906, when between 25 to 100 Black Americans were murdered and many more were injured by white mobs, W.E.B. Dubois said, “I bought a Winchester double-barreled shotgun and two dozen rounds of shells filled with buckshot. If a white mob had stepped on the campus where I lived, I would without hesitation have sprayed their guts over the grass.”
In fact, if Americans did not have the right to own guns, the Civil Rights Movement may have collapsed under violent opposition. In his book, That Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, Charles E. Cobb Jr. details how guns made the Civil Rights Movement possible. The book is full of examples of how Black Americans took advantage of the Second Amendment to protect their families and neighbourhoods from the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups. You probably don’t know that Martin Luther King Jr. applied for a concealed carry permit in 1956 after segregationists bombed his home—before he was assassinated 12 years later by a gun.
The weapons some parents use to protect their children are the same weapons men like Nikolas Cruz use to kill children. I don’t know what to make of that. I only know that it’s heartbreaking, so heartbreaking.