Still In the Crossfire
Shortly after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, I vowed to become more educated on gun issues. This is the last in a series of posts documenting my education. You can find links to all of the posts here. I chose the title because those of us taking a moderate position seem to be exactly that, caught between the rhetoric of the gun rights and gun control extremes.
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 – the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
So, five weeks into my education on gun policy, I am at the eye of the storm, the Second Amendment. Perhaps there are people who enjoy reading endless quotes and precedents and analyses of the way the amendment was phrased as a means of understanding exactly what it implies. I am not one of those people. I reached my fill quickly but will happily refer you to more detailed sources on the subject. Here, I’ll try to summarize. The website, GunCite, expresses the position of gun rights advocates succinctly:
The original intent and purpose of the Second Amendment was to preserve and guarantee, not grant, the pre-existing right of individuals to keep and bear arms. Although the amendment emphasizes the need for a militia, membership in any militia, let alone a well-regulated one, was not intended to serve as a prerequisite for exercising the right to keep arms.
The Second Amendment preserves and guarantees an individual right for a collective purpose. That does not transform the right into a collective right. The militia clause was a declaration of purpose, and preserving the people’s right to keep and bear arms was the method the framers chose to, in-part, ensure the continuation of a well-regulated militia.
Those favoring a stricter gun control policy disagree. In a post on the Huff Post Blog titled, The Second Amendment Does Not Guarantee Gun Ownership for All, Harvey Wasserman asserts (with equal certainty) that the so-called Militia Clause restricts the rights to bear arms. The second amendment, he says, starts with a monumental hyphenation: well-regulated. Why? Because to be of any value to a free state, a militia — a citizen army — must be organized. It can’t be a bunch of free-lancers running around with uncontrolled weapons, killing whomever they please. In other words, the right is both inherently regulated and collective.
Advocates on both sides take several approaches to proving their assertions. The first is the grammatical interpretation argument. I find the arguments of both sides academic and unconvincing, particularly when the New Yorker suggests second amendment is, as a whole, ungrammatical. The second approach is the what-the-founders-meant argument. While both sides claim the founders supported their position, my (admittedly limited) education leads me to agree with About.com – Civil Liberties: A clear majority of the Founding Fathers unquestionably believed in a universal right to bear arms. The most persuasive argument, in my opinion, against the what-the-founders-meant argument is one taken by the Christian Science Monitor, that the founders could not take into account the kind of weaponry available today. John Madison was thinking of muskets that had to be painstakingly reloaded, not AK-47s. Of course, starting down that road leads to another minefield … the sanctity of the Constitution as written (what the New Yorker terms originalism) vs. viewing it as living document to be interpreted according to the mores and situations of the times. Very political. The New Yorker suggests that the original interpretation of the second amendment by the Supreme Court, and the lower courts as well, was that it conferred on state militias a right to bear arms—but did not give individuals a right to own or carry a weapon. It was only in the seventies that the NRA and the Reagan administration advanced the absolute rights argument. But of course, gun rights advocates would argue that prior to the seventies, the courts were misinterpreting the intent of the founders. Interestingly, an article on The Week suggests that gun owners should want to amend the second amendment because Only a clear articulation of the law will let gun-rights advocates stop worrying about intrusive regulations. How likely is that?
So, here I sit, still caught In the Crossfire. My natural inclination is to be very cautious about screwing with the Constitution. It has served us well. We have a process for modifying it and perhaps that should be our first option. That is unlikely to happen on an issue over which we can hardly have an intelligent conversation. I find myself favoring the view that the second amendment guarantees the rights of the individual to bear arms but believe that our founding fathers could not possibly have envisioned the weaponry available to the public. I’ve never been swayed by arguments like, The Bible says it, I believe it, that’s the end of it, so I’m uninclined to take an absolutist view of the Constitution either. This country has functioned on interpretation of law , with the checks and balances of three branches of government as well as the actions of a sometimes informed electorate regulating the process. The notion of no limits on personal weaponry is ludicrous … we don’t allow a howitzer in every house or a grenade launcher in every garage. So, after a grueling education process, here’s where I am:
It’s time to outlaw possession of assault or military-style weapons meant for warfare and for high-capacity clips that make no sense as self-protection. It’s time to tighten standards for gun possession. Gun rights folk talk about only criminals having guns but crimes like Sandy Hook are more often committed by the mentally or emotionally debilitated and there certainly can be more control of access for the potentially unstable. On the other hand, I support the rights of individuals to bear arms, in spite of my personal decision not to do so. Laws should not only establish limits on what weapons are available to individuals, but define specific rights of gun owners. Sadly, I think only more extreme security measures at the schools can keep them from being a target of choice.
This is the last post in this series. The page, Guns and Sandy Hook, includes all of the In the Crossfire posts, plus additional thoughts on the tragedy and several posts on the subject by thesinglecell. I’ve added that page to my sidebar, if you are interested. I’d like to hear what you think. I will approve all comments offered respectfully and intelligently. Others will be dumped as spam.