On Aug. 3, we concluded our 50th JACL National Convention. The National Council passed Resolution 3, which offered a long-overdue apology to Tule Lake Resisters. At the Sayonara Banquet that evening, we recognized civil rights pioneers and leaders in Arlene Inouye, Wat Misaka and Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. All things to be celebrated. But the celebration has been tempered.
As we were beginning discussion of resolutions that Saturday morning, a gunman in El Paso, Texas, was entering a Walmart to ultimately kill 22 and wound another 24. Minutes after the Sayonara Banquet concluded, another gunman entered a Dayton, Ohio, bar and shot 27 people, 10 fatally, in the 34 seconds from his first shot until police arrived and killed the shooter.
Such horrific events came on the heels of another mass shooting in Gilroy, Calif., where the local JACL chapter had been tabling that day but had left an hour before the shooting that claimed four lives and injured another 13.
These are the shootings that make the national news. On the same night of the Dayton shooting, seven people were shot, one fatally, in Chicago, Ill. The previous night, another seven were shot in another part of Chicago. In my own city of Washington, D.C., gun violence has become a part of the regular news, easy to fall into the background and be ignored.
We have a problem as a nation, and we need to do something now.
For JACL, we haven’t waded into this area much. Perhaps it is our history of having our constitutional rights taken away that we are hesitant to challenge the Second Amendment right to bear arms. I would argue that it is exactly because of that history that we do have something to say about this issue.
Second Amendment proponents make the argument that the constitutional basis of gun ownership is to enable the citizenry to fight the tyranny of the government. I’ve even heard some make the ridiculous suggestion that the Japanese American incarceration could have been prevented had Japanese Americans been armed in opposition.
Our incarceration was going to happen however unfortunate or unconstitutional, and an armed uprising would have been disastrous.
Why that would have been especially disastrous needs to be looked at in the context of how gun rights, and many rights in this country, have been upheld.
From the beginning, the Constitution, despite its lofty rhetoric, was created to ensure the rights of wealthy white men. Now, wealth may be less of a factor, but in the case of gun ownership, it remains a right of primarily white men. Black male gun ownership is almost automatically seen as illegal, without constitutional protection. Philando Castile is the perfect example of this double standard.
I see the recent increase in mass shooting events as a manifestation of this early American history pattern of using violence to intimidate minority communities. Although not on the scale of slavery, the intent is the same.
The difference is that it is now individuals acting without explicit official sanction from the government that slavery had. Unfortunately, we do see rhetoric from even our president, which gives unofficial credence to the manifestos of hate that have accompanied several of these mass shootings.
It is also implicit to the regressive immigration policies that hearken back to the discriminatory policies against Japanese immigrants at the turn of the last century.
And there is the epidemic of guns in minority communities that we must also address. It is not the high-profile shootings that kill or wound 20 or 30, but the steady impact of one or two at a time.
The stereotype is that it is criminals that are in these communities, and guns are therefore needed for self-defense in the home.
The reality is that more often, guns in the home result in accidental shootings of family members or friends, often children who innocently come across an improperly stored gun in a bedroom and think it is a toy.
In fact, a strict reading of the Constitution says nothing about self-defense, rather the need for a militia is the basis for the right to bear arms. I will leave the constitutional arguments to a lawyer, but even an elementary school level reading comprehension would come to a very different understanding of the Second Amendment than the most recent Supreme Court interpretation.
Gun violence is an epidemic, and we need to treat it as such. It disproportionately affects minority communities, both directly and now in the fear that is felt from the possible terror of being a victim of a shooting.
This past week, a single gunman in Philadelphia held off police for hours, injuring six of them, and terrorizing that community.
Our Declaration of Independence has the line we all know, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Bill of Rights is intended to affirm these rights, but we now must recognize that the right of gun ownership has taken precedence over the fundamental unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It is time to say enough is enough.
David Inoue is Executive Director of the JACL. He is headquartered in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.