Is America’s problem guns — or democracy?

Unhinged people shooting up cities, towns, supermarkets, churches and schools are turning us all into hostages. A society that can’t act to protect itself from outrages like Uvalde is no longer a meaningful democracy.

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A mourner places her hand on a memorial for a victim of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde Town Square on May 26.

A mourner places her hand on a memorial for a victim of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde Town Square on May 26.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty

Think about it this way: There is no army or police department in any halfway civilized country — not even the United States — that would allow an untrained, callow 18-year-old like the Uvalde, Texas, school shooter to wear a uniform and carry an AR-15 assault rifle.

Not one. Nowhere on Earth.

And yet, the state of Texas allows somebody like him, a man-child legally ineligible to buy a six-pack of beer, to walk into a gun shop and arm himself to slaughter a schoolroom full of fourth graders. No license, no registration, no training, no background checks, no nothing.

A person needs all of the above, plus liability insurance, to drive away with a motorcycle. But an AR-15? No problem. Just step right up and lay the cash on the counter. You, too, can be a mass murderer.

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Texas Republicans pretty much responded by rote. “The Republican Party makes excuses every time for why this or that act couldn’t have been prevented,” The New Republic editor Michael Tomasky writes, “and we must therefore do nothing.”

Our freedom, we’re told, depends upon it.

Actually, of course, it’s the other way around. Unhinged people shooting up American cities, towns, supermarkets, churches and schools are turning us all into hostages, depriving us of the most elementary kinds of freedom.

In Little Rock, where I live, a 7-year-old girl was shot to death the other day just opposite the fitness center I frequent. The child was on her way to visit the zoo with her mother. The police report called the killing an “isolated incident involving two acquaintances engaged in an apparent dispute.” A humdrum event.

Nationally, the heart of the problem is that a minority cult of Second Amendment fetishists has persuaded itself that the only answer to anarchic murder is more guns.

Arm the teachers, they say, envisioning firefights in fourth-grade classrooms. Barricade school buildings. Hire SWAT teams to protect churches and grocery stores. Do anything but put sane limits on who can own what firearms, and under what circumstances they can use them.

One of the great mysteries of American life is how the rest of us have allowed them to get away with it. We have acted as if, to paraphrase a famous line from Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the nation had turned “the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”

Here’s the Second Amendment in its entirety: “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.”

Of course, no rights are absolute. Possibly you noticed the phrase “well regulated.” Also “militia.” Through legalistic flimflam, the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority has turned the Second Amendment’s meaning upside-down. Nevertheless, opinion polls show that large majorities of the public support broad, common-sense reforms that would go a long way toward restoring a degree of sanity.

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Writing in The Atlantic, Ron Brownstein reports that Pew polling “found that significant majorities of Americans support background checks (81%), an assault-weapons ban (63%), and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines (64%); a majority also opposes concealed carry of weapons without a permit.”

Amen to all that.

The big problem, however, is also found in the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of majority opinion, many gun fetishists are single-issue voters disproportionately concentrated in small, rural states that hold outsized power in the U.S. Senate. Asked recently how his North Dakota constituents would react if he supported any significant gun control bill, Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer put it bluntly: “Most would probably throw me out of office.”

Indeed, they would. Here in darkest red Arkansas, every Republican candidate for statewide office in May’s primary election ran TV commercials depicting them handling guns. The power of rural states in the Senate, combined with the filibuster rule that prevents any law from passing that offends an impassioned minority, have made real gun reforms impossible.

Brownstein: “The hard truth is that there’s no way to confront America’s accelerating epidemic of gun violence without first addressing its systemic erosion of majority rule.” The temptation is to despair of meaningful change, to conclude that American democracy is broken beyond repair.

If the United States could hold a national referendum on Second Amendment rights similar to the one that a smaller nation like Ireland held on abortion, there’s little doubt we’d end up with universal background checks for gun purchases, an assault weapons ban and more sensible laws generally.

The great majority nationwide are sickened by these recurring mass shooting atrocities and want something done. We’re also fed up with the posturing of the National Rifle Association and the politicians who take its money and its orders. A society that can’t act to protect itself from outrages like Uvalde is no longer a democracy in any meaningful sense.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com

Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”

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