Calling to mind the 2nd Amendment’s original purpose broadens the gun rights debate to include the societal benefit of widespread gun ownership.
Type A – Scenario 1
A family with a 4 year old toddler pays a visit to friends. The child wanders into the bedroom and finds a loaded pistol in the end stand drawer. After a short time, he pulls the trigger and is killed.
Type B – Scenario 1
A mother who always picks up her 9 month old from day care in the late afternoon has a rare travel day at work and won’t be home until later in the evening. Her husband makes arrangements to pick up the baby. It’s late July and the baby falls asleep on the way home in the air conditioned car. The husband, anxious and focused on a late afternoon business call he needs to make from home, forgets the baby in the back seat of the car parked in the driveway. The baby is discovered two hours later but dies from heat exposure in the summer heat.
Type A – Scenario 2
A 45 year old man commits suicide with a shotgun.
Type B – Scenario 2
A 45 year old woman commits suicide with an overdose of prescription medication.
Type A – Scenario 3
An 18 year old man with a .45 caliber pistol sneaks into a school and kills 6 students before turning the gun on himself.
Type B – Scenario 3
An 18 year old man gets drunk at a party and, driving his new sports car at approximately 110 miles per hour, loses control in a turn and collides with an oncoming car occupied by 6 high school age students in a small SUV on the way to back from a ball game. All occupants of both vehicles are killed.
Type A – Scenario 4
An isolated gunman perched in a hotel room above an outdoor concert in Las Vegas shoots and kills 58 people and injures hundreds more.
Type B – Scenario 4
Terrorists hijack two airplanes and crash them into New York City skyscrapers killing over 2600 people and injuring thousands more.
The public response to these two types of scenarios is different. Type A scenarios, involving guns, meet with criticism and debate over gun policy and the value of certain types of guns for uses considered to be legitimate in contemporary political discussions. Type B scenarios, involving automobiles, prescription medications, alcohol, cars specifically designed to attain speeds far in excess of any legal speed limit, and airplanes do not meet with any similar criticisms or debates about public policies addressing those instrumentalities or their value to society at large.
Discussions involving gun rights almost always focus on the value that individuals place on guns whereas the value of automobiles, airplanes, medications and even alcohol to society at large are not questioned. Thus, when guns are instruments of human suffering, those who do not appreciate the right to keep and bear arms critique the ‘need’ for guns for individual purposes such as hunting and self-protection. In contrast, because cars, planes, medicines and alcohol have achieved a broader recognition as being valuable to society at large, they are accepted as a fact of modern life as are the pain and suffering their use sometimes brings about. The value of those devices to individuals is not subjected to the same scrutiny as guns. Rarely, if ever, do we hear anyone question an individual’s ‘need’ to drink alcohol or drive many miles per hour in excess of the speed limit as part of a larger discussion related to alcohol or automobile deaths.
This is unfortunate. The Second Amendment, like most of the Bill of Rights, was ratified because it was deemed necessary to society at large as a mechanism to preserve liberty. The First Amendment right of a free press was ratified not to arbitrarily institutionalize the rights of newspapers, but because a free press was deemed necessary to preserving liberty. Thus, the founders understood that a free press was a value to society as a whole. The right against unreasonable searches and seizures wasn’t ratified to protect the rights of individuals to conduct criminal enterprises in their homes, it was ratified because arbitrary acts by government against its citizens cannot be condoned in any free society. Barring unreasonable searches and seizures was understood to provide a benefit to society as a whole.
Somehow the debate over the Second Amendment has almost completely ignored its original “constitutional” purpose. That purpose should be reintroduced into the debate. Doing so will illustrate that the right to keep and bear arms is on par with the rest of the Bill of Rights as having been ratified because the founders recognized its value to society as a whole. The right to keep and bear arms has at least as much societal utility as other common instrumentalities of death and severe injury such as cars, planes, medicines, and alcohol.
Like many highly intense political debates, the gun debate has often tended toward hyperbole, emotion, intellectual dishonesty and fallacious argument. This might be even more the case with guns since the right to keep and bear arms is presently exercised and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of citizens for uses that are not directly related to the initial purpose for which the Second Amendment was constitutionally preserved. The debate is made even more convoluted because the initial response to atrocities involving guns is almost always emotional rather than well-reasoned, and always amplified by the national media who seek to capitalize on that emotional response to trigger the policy response they desire – severe restrictions on gun capabilities and on gun ownership. Perhaps that’s why so little of the discussion ever finds its way to a primary focus on the actual reason the Second Amendment was adopted and ratified. I hope a discussion of those issues will bring clarity and reason to the topic. We need to start by being perfectly honest about what the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms is all about.
The Second Amendment was ratified so that the people could have the means to defend against any effort to defeat their new constitutional republic.
“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 wasn’t adopted and ratified to protect individual uses such as hunting, sportsmanship or even personal defense. It was ratified because the right of the people to keep and bear arms was deemed “necessary to the security of a free state” – to ensure that the populace remained armed in order to secure freedom in America. It was ratified by the founding generation out of a sense of vigilance to defend against tyranny from any source, including from within our own new government.
Therefore, those who argue that a particular firearm isn’t necessary or useful for hunting, shooting sports, or personal protection are arguing against a false premise. Their argument implies that the reason for the right to keep and bear arms relates to one or more of those uses. Though these are understandably the reasons many contemporary citizens now so strongly support the Second Amendment, they primarily benefit individuals. Hunting benefits the hunter and his family. Shooting sports provide fun and healthy activity for the participants. And personal defense benefits primarily the gun user and his or her family.
Couching the debate in terms of hunting, shooting sports or even personal protection diminishes the societal importance of the right, making it seem to be about individual prerogative, personal preference and individual freedom to partake in fun or personally useful activities. This in turn slants the argument. It’s relatively easier for Second Amendment opponents to make a case against gun rights if those rights are founded upon individually beneficial uses rather than upon the broader societal benefit of defending liberty itself. In the ability of a free people to defend their freedom, the founders recognized that widespread gun ownership would benefit society at large. Any contemporary debate regarding the Second Amendment should start with an analysis of its constitutional, socially beneficial purpose.
Keeping and bearing arms is a right of “the people”, not the militia.
Some argue that the language of the amendment implies that only members of a “militia” have the right to keep and bear arms. This is a silly argument demonstrating either a willful attempt to confuse the question or a lack of knowledge of history combined with poor reading comprehension. By the clear meaning of its plain text, the Second Amendment doesn’t bar the government from infringing on the rights of militia members to keep and bear arms. Rather, it bars the government from infringing on the right of “the people” to keep and bear arms, which makes perfect sense, because…
Everyone was “the militia”.
The militia was generally understood throughout colonial times up to and including the ratification of the Bill of Rights to include all citizens. James Madison drafted the Second Amendment. His initial proposed language was referred to a committee for review and revision. That committee’s notes confirm this understanding of what constituted the militia. “A well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, being the best security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed…” Any seeming inconsistency within the text of the Second Amendment arising from the apparent juxtaposition of the terms “militia” and “the people” evaporates once it is understood that the term “militia” referred to the whole of the people. The founders sought to preserve the people’s right to keep and bear arms because it was the entire people who would naturally constitute any militia needed to defend their liberty from tyrannical threats. Thus, it was “the people” who needed to be armed in order to defend freedom.
Having come to an understanding of what the right to keep and bear arms is really all about and why it was important enough to be included in the Bill of Rights all those years ago, we next need to examine and evaluate the right of the people to keep and bear arms in a modern context. There are two questions that should be addressed before all others in any debate over the Second Amendment and what limitations might be placed upon it.
- Is the widespread ownership of firearms by citizens still an effective defense or deterrent against tyranny, and
- If so, what arms would be necessary, useful or potentially helpful to an armed citizenry pitted against unforeseeable tyrannical forces seeking to destroy their constitutional republic?
The right of the people to keep and bear arms remains an effective mechanism for achieving the goal of securing our freedom.
Simple common sense should be enough to convince any open minded person that an armed people are less vulnerable to tyranny – from within or from without – than an unarmed people. By definition, millions of firearms in the possession of millions of citizens renders a nation more capable of defending itself against tyranny – and a much less appealing target – than a nation defended only by its standing army. Moreover, should tyranny arise from within, a standing army might prove unpredictable, possibly even becoming an instrument of tyranny, rather than a defender of liberty.
Widespread gun ownership provides us with two simultaneous protections which we unfortunately don’t think about or recognize often enough. First it provides the people their own independent defensive capacity in the event it is ever needed. Second, that capability naturally constitutes a silent disincentive to anyone considering efforts toward imposing a tyranny between our shores. Just as a large standing army with effective and modern equipment and weaponry is an effective deterrent to any potential foreign invader, widespread gun ownership in the hands of our citizens constitutes an effective deterrent to anyone scheming to divorce us from our constitutionally preserved liberties.
Detractors argue that an armed but largely untrained citizenry couldn’t hope to withstand the onslaught of a well-armed military force. This argument exhibits a contemporary normalcy bias. Who’s to say when a threat to American liberty will come and in what form? Are we so arrogant as to think that in fifty or a hundred and fifty years we will still have the most powerful military forces on earth? Do we assume that history will not march forward, changing societies as it has always done? We cannot know the future. It could unfold in many ways which would leave a well-armed population very well prepared to defend itself and thankful for the ability to do so.
Even if we were to assume a modern day effort by our own government to usurp the Constitution and impose a tyranny, why would we assume that the entire military would support such an effort? Isn’t it more likely that many, if not most military personnel would join ranks with the people? Assuming the unlikely worst case scenario – a modern day government usurpation completely supported by the military – is it not likely that they would be dissuaded from their effort by the widespread ownership of guns across the nation? How might the fact that the people are well armed affect the decision making processes of a would be tyrant and what he thinks he can accomplish? And if this contingency were to occur, are there really those among us who are such sheep that they wouldn’t prefer to be armed?
An armed population is obviously less vulnerable to tyranny. The real question is how much we should value this protection. Certainly there are many who don’t understand or appreciate the potential to the same degree as others. If we were to have a national debate, those people could be expected to argue that the relative value of this protection as compared to the value of disarming the public in an effort to reduce incidents of mass shootings comes out in favor of disarmament. This would be an honest debate, pitting the Constitution’s purpose and usefulness of the Second Amendment against modern eventualities that didn’t exist at the time the Second Amendment was ratified. Upon examination, the anti-Second Amendment argument doesn’t hold up.
The societal costs of the right to keep and bear arms are substantially outweighed by the societal benefits that right provides.
The advent of mass shootings in schools is obviously big problem. It is one indication that the societal costs of maintaining a widespread right to keep and bear arms is significant and seems to be growing. Another is the ever increasing incidents of inner-city gun violence. The reasons for the advent of this increased gun violence are often debated but for purposes of this discussion, not important. The key point is that, for whatever reason, we have arrived at a point in society where what were once almost unimaginable atrocities involving guns are becoming more common at an alarming rate. It’s therefore no surprise that those who don’t recognize a substantial value in the societal benefit of widespread gun ownership would favor restricting or eliminating gun rights. But when that value is recognized and truly appreciated, it outweighs the suffering caused by accidental and intentional misuse of firearms. That may seem harsh but it’s no different than the calculations we subconsciously make with respect to many tools and devices we use on a day to day basis and which are often instruments of death or injury.
There are many things that bring great convenience and benefit to society but are often instruments in human suffering or the loss of human lives. Automobile accidents kill thousands annually. Misuse of modern medicines results in hundreds of deaths and untold human suffering. Plane crashes kill many dozens at a time and many hundreds over the course of a few years. Modern machinery and equipment for work, home use and recreation maim and kill hundreds of people every year. Yet no one suggests that automobiles, modern medicines, airplanes or modern mechanical equipment should be eliminated or even seriously restricted. We intuitively understand that the value of these things is worth the pain and suffering their use sometimes brings about.
Moreover, the pain and suffering they help to avoid, though not seen, is generally understood. We know that modern equipment makes work easier, helping workers to avoid repetitive injuries and wear and tear on their bodies. We know that motor vehicles and airplanes make it possible to transport sick and injured people to hospitals quickly, distribute medicines all around the world efficiently and deliver food so regularly and timely we rarely even think about how we would function if we didn’t have them. We know that the benefits of modern medicine outweigh the pain and suffering that results from their accidental or intentional misuse
Because we recognize this value, no one seriously suggests these devices should be banned or their ownership or use seriously curtailed. Instead, we focus on training people to use such devices as properly and safely as reasonably possible and to continuously improve the safety of the devices themselves. Unlike the argument against certain calibers of guns or large magazine capacities, no one argues that cars should be made safer by limiting their ability to travel faster than say, 25 miles per hour or by making them bigger and heavier so that they become far more expensive to produce and to operate. Indeed, our governments often take the opposite approach requiring smaller and relatively less safe vehicles in order to save energy or limit carbon emissions.
In contrast, the value of widespread gun ownership in protecting a nation against tyranny is difficult to see and not so intuitive. How we might ultimately fair as a free society without an armed citizenry isn’t so obvious, especially when most of us never bother to think about it at all. The liberty preserving benefits of widespread gun ownership are largely invisible to us unless we make a conscious effort to think about it, teach it to our children, and appreciate it.
The right to keep and bear arms works its primary value to society somewhat like an insurance policy. Once purchased, we don’t need to think about it much. We can take it for granted, knowing that it’s there and will do what it was designed to do if we ever need it. Similarly, a commitment to maintain the right to keep and bear arms, enables us to take for granted that we will have a built in force to defend our liberty if ever needed. If we allow ourselves to forget about the importance of that benefit, it becomes far easier to discount the value of gun ownership in the face of gun atrocities.
The consideration of only individually beneficial uses such as hunting, shooting sports and personal protection makes the argument for Second Amendment opponents relatively easier. Imagine how we might react to a plane crash killing dozens of people if we allowed ourselves to forget or ignore the broad societal benefits of air travel. Anyone who values the role of the right to keep and bear arms for potential defense of liberty should try to force themselves to remember and appreciate that role whenever faced with the question of whether we should do something to restrict firearms in an effort to stem the tide of gun related violence.
Finally, it’s important to remember that those who want to eliminate or restrict the right to keep and bear arms don’t often make supportable arguments for their suggested restrictions. We have every reason to be suspicious about their ultimate goals.
The concern that “common sense” gun reforms will set the right to keep and bear arms on a slippery slope is legitimate.
Second Amendment proponents fear that every move to effectuate new regulations or restrictions is only the first of many to come. That fear is demonstrably justified. Those who favor state power over individual liberty are nothing if not patient. Incrementalism is a favored tool of the left and they wield it with expertise.
Statists wanted more government intervention in health care for decades. They tried many times. They were patient. They never gave up. With the Affordable Care Act, they finally got what they wanted. What happened next? The ink was barely dry on President Obama’s signature when the ACA’s inherent problems started to reveal themselves. That was enough to trigger immediate calls from the left for a single payer system. Those calls grow louder every day. You can be sure single payer will be their focus for months and years to come.
As recently as a couple of decades ago, the gay rights movement was primarily about eliminating laws that were perceived to inhibit homosexuals’ ability to conduct themselves and live normal lives without interference from government. The movement was focused on eliminating government imposed limitations or impediments in their lives. In a relatively short period of time, it has completely morphed and is now focused on using the force of law to coerce others to act against their will at the risk of losing their livelihoods. In just a handful of years, the focus of the movement went from eliminating laws that imposed unfair impositions on homosexuals to passing laws placing impositions on everyone else.
The well justified concern over a potential incremental chipping away at the right to keep and bear arms is redoubled when Second Amendment detractors are seen to so quickly pick up the banner of “SOMETHING MUST BE DONE” in the aftermath of every atrocity. “Something must be done” almost always implies some form of rights restricting legislation with no clear affect on the atrocities sought to be addressed. Shouting out in a knee jerk fashion for government restrictions on constitutional rights is no way to engender confidence that the measures being suggested are deeply considered, as minimally restrictive as possible and, perhaps most important, well-tailored to address the problem. There is often no basis in reason or experience for the new restrictions they suggest. Such thoughtless responses give Second Amendment proponents every reason to distrust those who urge the passage of restrictions which, on their face, would do nothing to ensure any reduction whatsoever in the number or severity of these atrocities.
Apparently President Trump has unfortunately embraced just such a response in advocating that persons under the age of 21 not be permitted to purchase rifles. It’s difficult to imagine a better example of an emotional, “just do something” response which is as unlikely to have any recognizable effect whatsoever on the number or severity of gun crimes. The personal characteristics of the most recent violent perpetrator cannot be the basis for the next restriction to be imposed. Stripping all adults under the age of 21 of their Second Amendment right to purchase a rifle merely because the most recent perpetrator was under 21 and used a rifle is a response completely divorced from reason. If this time we cede the rights of those under 21, who will be next? Postal workers? People who wear baseball hats? The left handed?
The emotional, knee jerk reaction to strip adults under the age of 21 of a constitutional right merely because one of their number has committed a gun atrocity perfectly illustrates why every Second Amendment supporter should be wary that any new restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms are just the first of many to follow. What reason is there to conclude otherwise?
Because we can’t know what atrocities have been avoided by existing legal restrictions, the focus is always on the atrocities that still do happen. Were we to implement the restrictions often suggested in response to these atrocities such as eliminating under 21 purchases, AR-15’s and magazine capacities over 7, there would still likely one day be a scenario were a person over the age of 21 commits an atrocity with 3 or 4 concealed pistols and a dozen or so preloaded 7 round magazines. He would have access to dozens of rounds and could kill or injure dozens of people. Such an event will be followed by calls for further restrictions on magazine sizes and/or the number of pistols one individual can own. This process of incrementally restricting gun rights would lead ultimately to the death of the Second Amendment by a thousand cuts, rendering firearms difficult to obtain, prohibitively expensive and/or of substantially reduced utility.
To be effective for its constitutional purpose, the Second Amendment must protect the rights of citizens to keep and bear high capacity arms and to do so without intrusion and substantial oversight by the government.
In any defense against modern armaments, slingshots are better than throwing stones, .22 caliber single shot rifles are better than slingshots, a lever action 30-30 with a six cartridge capacity is better than a .22, and an AR-15 with a 30 round magazine is better than the 30-30. Depending on the threat, other guns with varying capacities and capabilities may be the best suited tool for the job. Because of advancements in armament technology a responsible citizen with the means might want to acquire sniper rifles and fully automatic weapons as well. The constitutional purpose of the Second Amendment can only be weakened with each move to limit the types and capacities of firearms the law abiding public can obtain.
Gun atrocities justifiably give rise to a call for action. But the answer isn’t to yield more of our liberty to the government by giving up or weakening the right to keep and bear arms. We need the advantage that widespread gun ownership has always given us in remaining a free people, not to mention the added value of protecting ourselves and our families as needed.
Rather than yield our right to keep and bear arms, we should unleash American ingenuity and can-do spirit to protect potential victims and known targets of those who wish to perpetrate mass violence. We should virtually eliminate “gun free zones”. We should harden our schools including, as necessary, new building design to eliminate or minimize the opportunity for outsiders to gain access without vetting, metal detectors, permanently stationed officers and/or well-trained and armed teachers, custodians and administrators.
For whatever reason, times have changed. What were once unimaginable atrocities are now our unfortunate reality. Rather than arbitrarily and senselessly eliminating the constitutional rights of those under 21 to keep and bear arms, we should implement strategies and protocols which have a rational basis in preventing these atrocities or enabling them to be addressed more immediately when they do happen. We have no hesitation in implementing such strategies for the protection of many other government owned buildings that have no similar history of being targeted by evil forces hell-bent on death and destruction. At a minimum, those same measures should be employed in schools.
Finally, the primary constitutional utility of the right to keep and bear arms is the preservation of liberty. Second Amendment supporters should boldly embrace that original purpose and advocate widespread gun ownership as a protection against tyranny. Only when the debate over the Second Amendment includes the original constitutional purpose of the Second Amendment will the broader public begin to consider that the right to keep and bear arms provides benefits to society at large far beyond the individual benefits it provides to those who own guns primarily for their personal defense and enjoyment.