The Second Amendment to the US Constitution states “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.” You and I can both read that as well as a Supreme Court Justice, a Federal or State Judge or a NRA lawyer. Reading isn’t the problem. Most third graders could express a unified thought and write a cohesive sentence better than what we find in the Second Amendment. Every historian and writer who has given it any thought says that the Founding Fathers’ and the Constitution’s biggest mistake was the failure to resolve the slavery issue. There are other Constitutional problems but certainly, in this day and age, the odd wording and interpretation of the Second Amendment is the biggest and most deadly constitutional flaw that we have to deal with.
The Bill of Rights, which contains the Second Amendment, was added to the already complete Constitution as part of the ratification process. Some states were reluctant to ratify the Constitution without certain amendments. The Bill of Rights was a solution to this dilemma and was largely a dialogue between the individual states and the central government. It added language and assurances that clarified what states could do or not do and how the union of states would function together as a whole.
Clearly, the amendment is intended to provide a means of raising a “well-regulated militia” in times of need. In order for that to happen, the “citizen-soldiers” needed to possess their own weapon. As a young nation we intentionally didn’t have much of an army and we relied on the citizen soldier to drop what they were doing and heed the call to arms issued for the defense of the nation.
There was an interesting history here even before the Constitution in the old Articles of Confederation. Article VI of the Articles of Confederation states:
“No vessel of war shall be kept up in time of peace by any State, except such number only, as shall be deemed necessary by the united States in congress assembled, for the defense of such State, or its trade; nor shall any body of forces be kept up by any State in time of peace, except such number only, as in the judgments of the United States, in congress assembled, shall be deemed requisite to garrison the forts necessary for the defense of such State; but every State shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores, a due number of field pieces and tents, and a proper quantity of arms, ammunition and camp equipage.” The various states had been functioning under the Articles of Confederation for several years when the Constitution was drafted and they had what they considered to be “well-regulated and disciplined” militias already established.
The ratification debates in the various states proposed many possible constitutional amendments and the Bill Of Rights included some but not all. Among other things, they felt that the new Constitution did not thoroughly address the issue of state militias, standing armies and the citizen’s right to bear arms. These issues were specifically raised in the ratification debates of at least three states. There was a lot of opposition and good reason to believe that the Constitution would not be ratified without additional assurances. The Second Amendment was, then, actually an after-thought to cover that issue and was a combination derived from several suggested amendments. Anyone who has been involved in a committee process to write a concise statement in a stressful atmosphere knows how difficult it is. We are rightfully amazed and humbled by the achievement of the Founding Fathers but sometimes a little more clarity would have helped.
Back then we were still trying to find our way as a new nation. The citizens and states were not sure how this new nation would work. Would it become tyrannical…as were other governments at the time. There was also the problem of invasion and rebellion and conflicts with Indians. The central government had demonstrated during the Revolution and at other times that it didn’t have the will or means to provide sufficient funds for the military. How could the states rely on the Federal government to protect them? The framers of the Constitution were not thinking about condoning armed resistance or rebellion against the Federal government. They were concerned about invasion or Indian uprisings and rapid response in time of local or even national emergency. This was intended as a means of keeping order through the existence of a “well-regulated militia”.
Okay. People were out there hunting for food with their flintlock or maybe a shotgun. Hunting was something very common, especially on the frontier but also in the local farmer’s woodlot. On sailing vessels there was a need to protect the ship and crew from pirates and mutinies. Nobody went out hunting squirrels with a cannon. Pistols were killing machines intended for use against other people. They were heavy and inaccurate and made a lot of smoke and noise…maybe that’s why duels were fought with pistols. There was no other real reason for a civilian to own a pistol. I own a flintlock pistol that fires a 44 caliber lead ball. It was a navy pistol from around 1800. You pull the trigger and the thing goes into motion — snap – spark – flash – bang – recoil – smoke… Then you have to reload or run like the dickens under cover of the smoke. It was an impressive show — maybe useful — 200 years ago, but not very. You would be full of arrows or bullet holes if you didn’t run for cover, plus you had to carry balls and powder and wadding to reload.
Firearms — those hand carried weapons — are descended from military weapons. The first hand-held firearms were small cannons that can be traced back to eastern Europeans or back even further to the Chinese. They were big and clumsy and got very hot. The crossbow was also a popular war time weapon and as the cannons got smaller and more numerous they were wedded to something that looked like a crossbow which improved handling and aiming. Hop on to Wikipedia if you are interested in the early history of firearms…that’s really not my point. Pistols first developed as a war weapon to be used for killing people from horseback but I can’t imagine that they were very useful unless you were within a few feet of your opponent. Pistols were easily tucked into your belt or hung on a holster from your saddle. Naval officers carried pistols on sailing warships. Sea-borne Marines generally carried muskets or rifles.
Firearms were useful for domestic, civic, and non-warlike activities such as hunting. One hunter armed with a Kentucky long rifle could feed the family and acquire furs which were popular commodities and converted to cash. If you are out on the frontier there was also a defensive issue. You could be attacked by a bear or a mountain lion. You could also be attacked by hostile people — Native Americans were often not thrilled to see you. There were others out there as well who meant you harm…outlaws and pirates. As an armed citizen of your community you were also considered as part of the local militia if you were of reasonable age and fitness. You had certain duties and obligations. You had a neighbor who was your commanding officer and you all got together at various intervals to practice and participate in drills so that you were ready if there was a defensive emergency. The concept of a “well-regulated militia” is a fundamental idea in our nation’s existence. If you were versed and accomplished with a firearm you were an asset to the community because you were a part of the militia.
In the 1780s the Second Amendment made good sense. We, as a nation, needed to have able-bodied men who would own and maintain their firearms and come to the defense of the community in time of need. The militia would be the first line of defense until the organized military could arrive on the scene. In some cases the militia would be sufficient to quell the disturbance or defend the community on its own. During peacetime they would use their firearms to put food on the table. Their choice of firearms was appropriate for the purpose and the purpose is important for this discussion.
Fast forward a couple generations…now we are embroiled in the Civil War. In Missouri, where I come from, the local militias played an important role. There was a State Guard that was created just before the Civil War as a state militia that was called out by the Governor to defend the state from what was considered, by him, to be an invasion by Federal troops. The State Guard was eventually disbanded and replaced and members went home or joined other military units. There was also a variety of Home Guard units in the communities and a number of wide ranging armed guerrilla units — essentially armed terrorists. A common (rural) citizen’s life, family and property were at risk from their neighbors if they held different allegiances. The number of citizens who died at the hands of their neighbors is unknown and but probably ran into the several hundreds. It was a lawless warfare situation and dangerous not to have a weapon. The situation in the City of St. Louis or in Kansas City was less volatile and under control of military or civil authorities so there was less of a need for armed protection. I suspect that this general scenario was repeated throughout several Border States and in parts of the South. After the war there were several years of lawlessness and we all know about the Wild West.
Somehow, in more recent decades the concept of a “well-regulated militia” has been forgotten and amendment is seen as a carte blanche authorization for willy-nilly and unbridled gun ownership. Chaotic conditions made defense a necessity back in the 19th century but less so in the 20th. Today there is no real reason to own a handgun except for the fact that other people own handguns. The only real reason and purpose for a civilian to own a handgun is to shoot another person. Perhaps there are a few people who are competitive target shooters who normally use specialized handguns designed for that purpose. People who go hunting with a handgun need to find another way to hunt because it is probably motivated by something other than the desire to put meat on the table. Certainly there are other non-civilian purposes related to official law enforcement and public safety, security officers and military. If all civilian handguns were outlawed and possession punishable by stiff fines and/or confinement it would drastically cut down on shooting deaths and injuries. I have yet to see a convincing argument for the proliferation of handguns as part of a “well-regulated militia”.
Assault weapons have no purpose other than to kill other people…plain and simple. No one running around loose in society should have access to an assault rifle unless they are part of an organized military or public safety unit…yes, a “well-regulated militia”. These weapons should only be available at a community armory, not in a person’s home. If you want to use an assault weapon you must join up with the local militia or public safety unit that is condoned and accredited and part of the local government administration. Unauthorized possession of an assault weapon should, in itself, be a crime and punishable by stiff fines and/or confinement.
If we remove assault weapons and handguns from the general population we become a safer society. I would also propose that firearms be titled and registered like automobiles and the owner would have to show proof of insurance. The sale of firearms and amunit6ion should be more strictly regulated and illegal unless sold through a government run service. There are states which operate government run liquor stores. Why not have all firearm sales and transfers accomplished through a government run vendor. If you want to purchase a hunting rifle or shotgun you would do so through the official government run gun shop. If you own a gun and you want to sell it you would sell it to (or through) the government run gun shop and any other private sale would be illegal. If you are a gun collector or if you want to do a private sale or transfer to a specific person it would be a three-way transaction between the owner and the buyer and the government run gun shop. We are entering the age of 3D printing and there are already printable guns being produced in that manner. These should be outlawed. There should also be no mail order or internet sales of firearms. Transfer or sale of firearms as part of a deceased person’s estate would be managed through the government run enterprise.
The Second amendment is part of the genetic make-up of the United States. It is in the national DNA and it would be difficult or maybe impossible to repeal the Second Amendment even if we wanted to do so. We have a gun culture in this country and many people enjoy hunting for food or sport. Slavery was also in the genetic make-up of the United States but that was overturned at great sacrifice and bloodshed and continued conflict and injustice that has not entirely vanished. It would be easier to amend or revise the Second Amendment than repeal it.
So what becomes of the Second Amendment? I don’t see a conflict. Today, the Second Amendment as perceived and promoted by the NRA and other gun advocates is simply a conscious decision and justification to kill each other — our neighbors, our parents and children, our schoolmates, someone who cuts us off on the highway, someone who doesn’t agree with us or a boss that we have a problem with. There is no justification for a citizen carrying a concealed handgun or for open carrying of a handgun if no one else is allowed to own or possess a handgun. Personal safety is often an issue resolved by decision making – don’t put yourself into a high risk situation. Don’t go someplace where you think you are at risk and don’t associate with people who you do not trust. Carrying a handgun does not make you smarter.
There would still be legitimate gun collectors but the collections would be documented and registered and the guns rendered inoperable. Once rendered completely and permanently inoperable they would simply be a piece of industrial art or craftsmanship.
Gun ownership should be allowed for limited recreational purposes such as target shooting and for hunting purposes. There certainly needs to be some regulation of the type of rifle and shotgun used in hunting. There would be only approved hunting firearms sold at the government run gun shops. The same is true for target shooting.
Concealed or open carry laws should be repealed. Packing a pistol is not a permit for stupidity. I was especially bothered by the recent news story coming out after the San Bernardino mass shootings. An office worker across the street from the site of the shooting saw the disturbance and strapped on his “sidearm” and holster and went out into the street during the chaos. He saw people who he believed were the perpetrators come out of the building, drew his sidearm and had the shooters in his sights and was in range but (wisely) did not shoot. This man was not a witness and had absolutely no idea what had taken place in the building. The shooters got into a SUV and drove away leaving him as the only person on site with a gun in his hand as the police arrive in a frantic search for someone with a weapon. In the chaos he could have been shot. He seemed to consider himself as some sort of hero and was interviewed on camera. I see very little difference between this guy and mindset of people like George Zimmerman.
These are serious changes and it would take some time for this to all fall into place…several years of transition. There should be a government buy-back program for handguns and assault weapons with an expiration date after which possession would be a crime. The government run gun shops would purchase any and all firearms brought in for sale.
People will complain that this just creates a ponderous government bureaucracy – some sort of red tape monster. Well, we have created a monster already in the form of unwarranted firearms ownership well beyond the limits of a sane society or the intentions of the Second Amendment. We are killing each other at an alarming rate. There are thousands of guns unaccounted for and millions in private hands or in circulation.
We think about terrorists and wring our hands about the casualties in war-torn countries. During the Second Intifada uprising in Israel and Palestine that ran from September 28, 2000 – February 8, 2005, there were around 4,500 people killed…a horrific number of deaths. We heard about it on the news almost every day. During the First Intifada (1987 – 1993) there were around 1,400 killed and we were equally concerned. During the entire time of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beginning in 1948 there have been around 24,000 killed. In Afghanistan, during roughly the same time frame as the Second Intifada in Israel/Palestine, there were somewhere around 5,300 civilian casualties. During the same time as the Second Intifada, in the US there were about 144,000 people who died from firearms. There were around 340,000 American gunshot survivors – wounded but living – during the same period.
The NRA is directly responsible for most of the crazy “gun love” in this country and is responsible for skyrocketing gun sales and ever increasing ownership. It is supporting the terrorist mindset that constantly calls for concealed and open carry laws and the elimination of gun-free zones. It is providing aid and support to our enemies – those that would not think twice about shooting someone over the slightest reason. They are supporting our own intifada of crazies who would eliminate people who look differently, worship differently and believe or behave differently. The NRA owns more congressmen than Monsanto or other major corporations and effectively has veto power over gun control bills offered in Congress. The NRA was able to get congress to refuse funding for gun violence research by the Center for Disease Control and NIH. Here is a link to a recent Newsweek overview of the gun violence research ban: (http://www.newsweek.com/why-there-lack-gun-violence-research-unites-states-400912)
There is no greater public health risk in the US than the NRA.