WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A retired U.S. Supreme Court justice on Tuesday called for the repeal of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment, which gives Americans the right to keep and bear firearms, and the White House responded by reaffirming its support for the provision.
Former Justice John Paul Stevens, who sat on the country’s highest court for 35 years before retiring in 2010, is one of the highest-profile legal figures to join the national debate on school shootings, gun violence and firearms ownership.
The long-running debate flared anew after a gunman killed 17 students and faculty at a Florida high school in February, prompting an upsurge of gun control activism by teenage students, including mass protests nationwide last weekend.
“Rarely in my lifetime have I seen the type of civic engagement schoolchildren and their supporters demonstrated in Washington and other major cities throughout the country this past Saturday,” Stevens, 97, wrote in an opinion article in the New York Times. “These demonstrations demand our respect.”
His repeal proposal goes further than demands by the student demonstrators, who have generally called for measures such as raising the minimum age for purchasing guns from 18 to 21 and requiring more comprehensive background checks for buying firearms.
Asked about Stevens’ call for repeal, presidential spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, “The president and the administration still fully support the Second Amendment.
“We think that the focus has to remain on removing weapons from dangerous individuals, not on blocking all Americans from their constitutional rights,” she told a news briefing.
Republican President Donald Trump strongly supported the amendment during his 2016 election campaign, but following the Florida shooting has supported some gun control measures such as expanded background checks.
Chris Cox, executive director of the lobbying arm for the National Rifle Association, the leading proponent of gun rights, called the idea of repealing the Second Amendment “radical.”
“We will unapologetically continue to fight to protect this fundamental freedom,” Cox said.
In his article, Stevens described how the Supreme Court had curbed the Second Amendment’s reach during the 20th century and labelled the concern that prompted the amendment - that a national army might pose a threat to the separate states during the United States’ infant years - “a relic of the 18th century.”
The amendment’s text reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Stevens wrote that repealing the amendment “would eliminate the only legal rule that protects sellers of firearms in the United States — unlike every other market in the world.”
“It would make our schoolchildren safer than they have been since 2008 and honour the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence.”
Stevens, nominated to the court by Republican President Gerald Ford, had previously called for modifying the Second Amendment.
Changes to the Constitution can be proposed only with a two-thirds vote in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate or by a constitutional convention called by two-thirds of the states, and must be ratified by three-fourths of the 50 states.
The overwhelming majority of amendments have not passed, and only one has been repealed. The 27th Amendment, which concerns lawmakers’ pay, is the most recent change to the constitution. It was ratified in 1992, although it was originally proposed in 1789.
Reporting by Makini Brice; editing by Jonathan Oatis