I wrote most of a perfectly good post last week, and then set it aside for some finishing touches. Before I could get to those, however, Las Vegas happened. This past week has seen the usual outpouring of articles on gun violence in America. “The usual…”. How it pains and disgusts me to write those words on this topic! Each time one of these senseless tragedies occurs, the Republicans line up to do the bidding of the gun lobby with the ritual parroting of the same tired excuses for why there is nothing to be done, and each time I make the same observation: if he had only been armed with a knife, a lot of lives would not have been wasted, and a lot of people would not have been injured. So let’s talk about the Second Amendment.
The mad disciples of Wayne LaPierre love to misquote it as:
“The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”They even got the Supreme Court to accept this text as the true one in the Heller decision in 2008. But the actual text in full 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.”It makes a big difference, but it also scans for the modern reader as so much gobbledygook. The placement of the commas is particularly bizarre. But the extra words and clauses are important to our understanding of what was intended. So is the study of the history of the period in which it was written.
The founding fathers did not intend to establish any individual right to own weapons, and certainly not stockpiles of the types of military weapons we find in too many cases today. The right to bear arms was deliberately limited to the context of “a well regulated militia”. The clause about “a free state” tells us more. The Constitution was born in a highly contentious meeting, and ratification was only possible because an agreement was made that several points of conflict would be resolved later. That later resolution became the Bill of Rights. Keep in mind that the whole point of the Constitution was to establish a single nation from what had been thirteen semi-autonomous colonies under British rule. The new states did not want to give up that autonomy, so the Constitution devotes a lot of attention to the rights of the individual states. The Second Amendment is a continuation of that theme. In historical context, it established that there would be no national army in peacetime; instead, each state would maintain “a well regulated militia”, and these state militias would be welded together into a national army only when the entire nation was threatened with war. To the modern mind, this is a bizarre and unworkable arrangement, but to the founding fathers, it meant that the national government could not impose its will on the individual states by military means. That was vital to obtaining the cooperation of the new southern states, who feared that a national army would be used to impose an end to slavery.
Technology has rendered all of this obsolete. The weaponry we need today to pose a credible threat to other nations can only be built and managed on a national scale. Even the most avid gun rights supporter is not calling for the individual states to have tanks and military aircraft, and certainly not nuclear weapons. And just as certainly, no one has said that the Second Amendment guarantees any personal right to such an arsenal. In fact, a national army did impose the end of slavery 150 years ago. So I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the Second Amendment should be repealed. Politically, that would be impossible without a replacement that makes individual gun ownership a right, but that is the conversation we should be having, instead of how to twist the founding father's intentions to fit a twenty-first century agenda.
Let’s start by agreeing that state militias with the military technology necessary to defy the national government are not the goal. Let’s also remind ourselves that we all understand that cars are dangerous. For that reason, we have enshrined in our laws that owning and operating a car is a privilege that comes with legal responsibilities. State laws vary, but broadly we expect and accept that a person must demonstrate that they understand the laws that govern the use of a car, that they have completed training that allows them to operate it safely, and that they maintain it in a safe working condition. We also assign legal responsibility for any harm that comes from operating a car. And we assume that a person must be mature enough to operate a car. In our laws governing alcohol, we further assign liability to an adult who allows or encourages the use of alcohol by a minor. All of this should apply to guns as well.
Then there is the question of which guns to allow, and how many. I personally do not feel comfortable with the idea of owning any guns, but that is my personal decision. It is also a reflection of what might be called rural privilege: I live in a small town where I feel safe, and I do not feel that I need to defend myself. It seems to me that self defense is the key. Any provision that allows a person to arm themselves with weapons that suffice for their personal defense and the defense of their loved ones should also be sufficient for hunting. So the question then becomes, defend themselves from what? If you believe that you will have to personally fight off a horde of well armed and trained terrorists, or a raid from US government agents, you need much more powerful weaponry than if you believe the greatest threat you face is a group of three armed intruders in your home. But the terrorist and government agent scenarios are simply fantasies promoted in our popular media. In Las Vegas, there were plenty of “good guys with guns” among the bands performing, but they realized that drawing their weapons in that situation would have only increased the confusion of the situation, thereby making it more dangerous rather than less. Even in a war, highly trained soldiers can miss and inadvertently claim the lives of innocent civilians, so no one can assume that they would only hit their intended target in the heat of the moment.
From all of this, we can formulate a new Second Amendment that would modernize and clarify the rights and limits of gun ownership. It might read something like this:
The right of individuals to own and bear arms shall be recognized, but Congress and the states shall have the responsibility to regulate their nature and use in the name of public safety and the greater good.The final language would be worked out by constitutional lawyers, but it must strike this balance. People should be allowed to have their guns, but government bodies should have the obligation to regulate them in sensible ways. Balance is something that has been hard to find in discussions about guns, but we will not make progress without it.
Let me leave you with some questions that may help someone who believes in gun regulation have a calm conversation with someone who owns guns. What kind of gun do you own? How did you learn to use it? If you have it for self defense, what kinds of threats do you believe you might need it for? I am not opposed to self defense. I think we should work to end rape culture, but until that happens, I would support any girl who wants to learn karate, for example. I believe that a majority of gun owners would like to have a national conversation about gun control, but they must feel that we are not judging them when we bring up the subject. I hope some of the ideas I have discussed here can help us have that conversation.
I could have chosen any number of songs that relate to guns this week. Some of those would be in poor taste in light of the Las Vegas tragedy. Others present a strong opinion, and would serve to block conversation, rather than encourage it. So I have chosen instead a song about conversational gambits to avoid: