If the US can’t fix its gun policy, maybe an international lawsuit can

Gun Rights

The Supreme Court heard arguments this week as to whether people accused of domestic violence who are issued protective orders have a constitutional right to possess firearms. While the justices signaled they might hold that abusers may not have that right, that’s cold comfort.

There have been 597 mass shootings in the United States so far this year. That’s an average of two mass shootings a day. Last month a gunman with an AR-15 assault rifle killed 18 people in Lewiston, Maine, and forced the state into lockdown. Last week a shooter in a drive-by shooting sprayed 22 rounds into a crowd of children in Cincinnati in a few seconds. And so it goes.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have imperiled what few gun restrictions there are by asserting a private right to guns, which effectively takes precedence over Americans’ right to live. Gun violence is at record levels and while the public demands a stop to the carnage, Congress has done more to protect the gun industry than people’s lives.

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It’s time for a new approach. That’s why we are bringing the “Lawsuit for Survival before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It’s the first suit to demand that the United States uphold the human right to live, free from gun violence. It’s part of a broader global Campaign for Survival to reframe the gun debate by ensuring that all nations, including the United States, recognize and protect our most fundamental right.

We are counsel and plaintiff in the lawsuit, which is filed in the names of Joaquin Oliver, who was killed in the 2018 Parkland high school gun massacre, and his parents, Patricia Oliver and myself, Manuel Oliver. Our suit asks the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has jurisdiction over the United States as part of the Organization of the American States, to affirm that international law requires nations to protect people from gun violence, and that by enabling and tolerating ubiquitous shootings, the United States violated its obligations under human rights laws and Joaquin’s right to live.

If the United States regulated guns like other countries do, Joaquin would be alive today. Most countries don’t presumptively allow gun purchases by buyers who can’t demonstrate they will use guns safely. The shooters in Parkland, Lewiston, and other mass killings were allowed to buy firearms despite troubling personal histories filled with red flags. Britain, Australia, and New Zealand banned assault weapons after one gun massacre on their soil. Yet despite the use of military-style assault rifles in slaughter after slaughter in the United States — at high schools, movie theaters, music festivals, places of worship, bowling alleys — virtually anyone over 18 can buy an assault-style rifle.

The United States’ failure to enact comprehensive gun safety policies has led to gun-death rates 20 times higher than comparable countries, as well as rampant gun trafficking of US-made guns to cartels in Mexico and gangs in gangs in the Caribbean, fueling violence and instability throughout the region. Most of the world’s gun deaths occur in just six countries in the Americas, the United States prominent among them.

Lax US gun policy has caused an international public health and safety crisis, and blatantly violates human rights laws. The Constitution does not dictate this policy, not even under the Supreme Court’s recent erroneous, gun-friendly Second Amendment rulings. As Justice Robert Jackson famously said in 1949, the Constitution is not a “suicide pact”; the court has consistently constrained the exercise of all other rights when public safety is threatened. It’s high time to constrain gun rights the same way.

The obligation to protect life under human rights laws is consistent with America’s founding principles. “America’s First Freedom” is not a right to guns, as the National Rifle Association claims; the first right the Founders enshrined in the Declaration of Independence was the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Guns weren’t mentioned. When the Framers later addressed “arms” in the Second Amendment, it is our view that they intended to protect state military units (“a well-regulated militia”), not individual gun rights. Nor did they intend that gun-toting individuals, rather than government entities, should defend fundamental rights.

The right to live outweighs the right to own guns. This principle is recognized throughout the world and should unite all people. Even the most avid gun owners should agree that the right of children to live deserves more protection than gun ownership. The gun violence epidemic in the United States will never end until the federal government recognizes that its most basic obligation, morally as well as legally, is to protect Americans’ right to live and not be shot.

Jonathan Lowy is president of Global Action on Gun Violence. Manuel Oliver is the father of Joaquin Oliver who died in the Parkland high school shooting.

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