A “death gratuity” for shooting victims

By Prof. Jonathan Karp

Among the victims of the July 4 Hyde Park mass shooting were Irina McCarthy, 35, and Kevin McCarthy, 37, the parents of a 2-year-old, Aiden. Although with them at that fatal July 4 parade, miraculously, Aiden was not struck by the gunfire that slaughtered his mother and father. In fact, he was pulled from underneath his father’s bloodied, lifeless body by a survivor, and is now in the care of his grandparents. As of this writing, a GoFundMe page has raised over $1 million on Aiden’s behalf.

This spirit of compassion and generosity is admirable. But why should the families of shooting victims have to rely on charitable contributions? This presumes that those murdered by guns are innocents whose lives have been terminated for senseless, mysterious reasons and that society has no obligation to them. While surely innocent, their deaths are not at all senseless – at least, not in the minds of those who believe the Second Amendment is to be understood as making gun ownership a veritable birthright for Americans.

The recent Supreme Court decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas determined that states like New York cannot prohibit the sale of guns to individuals who meet certain very basic criteria, which may (or may not) include background checks, allowing them to carry a weapon outside of their homes. This expansive ruling effectively legalizes “concealed,” or even “open carry,” practices, which means that individuals can bring guns into most public places (a supermarket, a movie theater, an Independence Day parade). While no one on the Court believes that gun rights are limitless, the clear inference is that many gun tragedies could not have been prevented by what the court deems to be legitimate restrictions on gun sales and ownership. In other words, some of these killings are the unfortunate, but also inevitable, consequence of our Second Amendment rights.

Put bluntly, shootings are the price we pay for the Second Amendment, as interpreted by today’s Supreme Court. But who exactly is paying the price? Last year the number of those killed by guns, not including cases of self-defense or suicide, was just under 20,000. This means that the overwhelming majority of Americans are free to enjoy the benefits of the Second Amendment, while only a tiny minority pay the ultimate price. But this hardly seems just. That is why it is time to legislate federal and state compensation to the families of shooting victims.

There is ample model and precedent for this in our own military. The U.S. government has something called the Death Gratuity, an immediate payment of $100,000 to the families of members of the military personnel killed while on active duty (though not necessarily in combat). The Death Gratuity does not imply their deaths are gratuitous; on the contrary, it acknowledges their sacrifice. Members of the armed forces take an oath to defend the Constitution. They understand that there is a chance they may lose their lives in service to their country. One could likewise say that death at the hands of crazed and criminal shooters is the price the few must pay for our common enjoyment of what are deemed to be our constitutional gun rights.

It seems only right, then, for our government to pay the families of these victims of Second Amendment violence. The victims should be entitled to a Death Gratuity. And perhaps the money should come not only from the federal government, but also from individual states, in proportion, that is, to the degree that their laws permit more citizens to enjoy this privilege more abundantly — to own an AR-15 or AK-47, for instance. 

If we truly value the Second Amendment, and refuse to reinterpret it in a sane manner, then it’s high time we all paid for it. Instead of a GoFundMe page for poor Aiden and his grandparents, let the taxpayers feel the price of gun freedom in the pocketbooks.

Jonathan Karp is a professor in the History and Judaic Studies Departments at Binghamton University. He is also the undergraduate director of Judaic studies at the university.