On Guns – Part 1: What’s All the Fuss About?

RevolverThe Second Amendment to the Constitution, written in1791 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’.  I am aware of no other sentence that is so controversial, and so open to interpretation as this one. I will briefly present all the interesting interpretations that I am aware of.

INTERPRETATION 1 – A Well Regulated Militia: many people read the first clause as being the most important. They believe that purpose of guns was solely for the military. They do not believe that citizens have a right to have weapons outside of military or police service.

The believers in this position make 3 very practical points:

  1. No society, free, or otherwise, wants gang-bangers, white-supremacists, radicals, cults, environmental extremists, etc. to be armed at all.
  2. The storage of arms and ammunition inevitably leads to accidents ranging from un-knowing toddlers shooting each other with their parents’ guns to accidents at defunct Soviet-era military ammo dumps blowing up entire neighboring small towns in Eastern Europe every few years.
  3. Few things are as devastating as the loss of a friend or a loved one, most especially to a senseless gun-related accident or homicide. No one wants to suffer this loss or to die this way himself.

INTERPRETATION 2 – The Right To Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed: Some say, the clauses are just preamble and that the final clause can and should stand alone and say it all. This interpretation argues that any citizen should be able to own any arms and ammunition that he can acquire for himself, without any restriction on type, firepower, or registration requirement.

The believers in this position also raise some very important points:

  1. It is in plain writing, and the courts have upheld this view, with, occasionally, various exceptions for public safety, etc – such as banning sawed off shotguns – but never banning the right to some kind of a gun.
  2. This country has an important tradition of bearing small arms for hunting, skeet shooting and other sporting uses.
  3. This country has an important tradition of private citizenry owning military style weapons too. Recall that the opening battles of our revolution (Lexington and Concord) were fought when the British army tried to seize the colonists’ privately owned cannons. In the civil war, many well-armed private citizens and militia companies joined both the Union and Confederate armies, bringing their own muskets, artillery and so on. By the standards of 1861, these citizens were armed to the teeth with the latest and greatest weaponry.
  4. In more recent times, it is important to have weapons to avoid being a victim of crime. Justice Scalia noted this in striking down the Washington DC handgun ban when he spoke of the usefulness of having a handgun ‘in one hand while the other hand dials 9-1-1.’
  5. The nation needs a robust defense, against external foes, as provided by a citizenry that knows how to use guns, and has immediate unfettered access to them at all times. Recall Admiral Yammamato said before World War II ‘the US cannot be successfully invaded; there would be a rifle behind every blade of grass’. This was especially important, pre-1940, when this country maintained an extremely small standing army.

INTERPRETATION 3 – … The Security of a Free State…: Read the amendment starting at the second clause: ‘being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’ Recall in the 4th amendment the language about the right of the people to be ‘…secure in their person, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures …’. They didn’t mean ‘security’ the way we mean security today as being in-your-face, pat-you-down ‘Homeland Security’. They meant security in the sense of being ‘unmolested by __’ This interpretation of the language is talking about the preservation of democracy and freedom from any excessive accumulation of power by any individual, group or our government. This interpretation intends gun ownership to be both a right that protects both the individual and the state.

The believers in this position also raise some very important points:

  1. When reading the Constitution and amendments as a whole, notice the placement of the 2nd amendment. The Constitution provides a specific architecture and ground rules for operation of the country and its government. The 1st 10 amendments, called the Bill of Rights, are intended as limitations on the government in the interest of preserving individual liberty for both the majority and the minorities. (The Constitution could only receive enough votes to be enacted on condition that the Bill of Rights be passed at the next available opportunity.) These amendments provide freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion (1st), right to bear arms (2nd), freedom from having soldiers quartered in your home (3rd) freedom from unreasonable search and seizure (4th), right to not be forced to testify against one’s self (5th) the right to a fair and speedy trial (6th) and so on… Read this way, one could claim that it is the Freedom and Justice for the citizens living in the State itself that is being protected by the amendment.
  2. This is what the Federalist Papers were talking about when they talked about curbing mobs’ power and checks and balances among the various parts of the government. This interpretation agrees with Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that we should have a revolution every few generations to preserve our freedom over time. This is not an incitement to revolt or violence; rather this is a method of making sure people have options. Being well-armed, but not without limit, gives the Capital P People options to check the government if it is needed to be done.
  3. Maintaining a ridiculously small standing army and a large and ready militia of broad composition was a means of achieving security in both senses: security from foreign powers, and security from being molested by ___. To make this work, a well armed citizenry was of paramount importance. They contend that this clause ties the whole amendment together and makes it work.

Did I miss any important interpretation or argument?  What do you think?

In my next post I will try to take the best of the above points to suggest a compromise that a center-based majority could live with.

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