Friday, January 18, 2013

The Second Amendment

Recent mass-shootings have once again stirred up public debate about the constitutional rights of American citizens to own weapons, whether there should be any limitations or regulations regarding this, if some weapons should be banned or if people who want to buy and own them should pass a background check, etc...

I grew up around guns.  I owned a .22 caliber rifle as a kid, and later a Schmitt-Reuben 7.62 Olympic match rifle and a 20 gauge shotgun.  I got my rifle and shotgun merit badge as a boy scout. I've been hunting with my father, and was a member of the NRA and an avid target shooter in my youth.  I understand the cultural aspects of gun ownership.

But what always seems to be missing in the argument, especially from the political right, is the actual second amendment itself.  They cite "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."  That's only part of it.

Here is the whole thing:
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'll note it is not terribly long.  Most of the constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, is not very wordy.  The founding fathers tended to craft these things without a lot of persiflage or extraneous language.  The NRA interprets the amendment as essentially saying "the rights of individual citizens to own weaponry shall not be limited" but that's not what the amendment says.  If that's what the founding fathers had wanted to say, I submit they would have said exactly that.

Let's look at the whole thing, piece by piece:

A well regulated militia

What is meant here?  Consider the context of the writing: this amendment was passed in 1791, not all that long after the revolutionary war.  A big part of that war, especially in the early days, was conducted by citizen soldiers (the minutemen, and others) who were very well organized and pretty darn effective.  I submit they were what the founders were thinking about; the value of our citizens being an organized militia when needed.  And why is this necessary?  They tell us why.

being necessary to the security of a free state

The purpose is the security of the state.  That is plainly stated.  It is not, as many have suggested, so that we can fight off the ATF or the FBI when they storm our mountain bunkers.  It is so we can defend the state from a foreign invasion.  At the time the amendment was written, this was no trivial concern.  We had been invaded, and would be again (the war of 1812).

the right of the people

Note "the people" is used here, not "individual persons."   In other places in the constitution, for example in the language that mandates the census (article 1, section 2, clause 3) they refer to "the whole Number of free Persons" when referring to individuals, not "the people".  What was meant by "the people" at that time?

Consider the declaration of independence... it begins "We the People."  This refers to the nation as a whole, not individuals.  Thomas Jefferson was not declaring his personal independence from England... we were, as a collective, declaring that independence.  Also, note that Abraham Lincoln referred to our government as being "of the people, by the people, and for the people."  "The people" means the country, all of us, including the government.

So, I submit that they are talking here about a people's militia, and how needed it is to keep the country safe from invasion.  The closest analog I can think of in the modern world is the National Guard.

to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Note "arms."  At the time, "weapons" were considered to be arms and armaments.  Armaments would include cannon, mortar, and other large-scale military weapons that are used to attack large groups of people at once.  The founders did not include armaments in this right, only arms, which to them would mean side arms and along arms: pistols and muskets, and things like swords and muskatoons.

A key question to ask is this:  what would they consider an assault rifle, capable of rapid fire, and sporting a magazine that holds, say, 50 rounds, to be?  An arm?  Or an armament?  Or, had they known of such things, would they have created another category or term?  What would they think of VX gas and nuclear bombs?  We cannot know the answer to this, of course, but even the most staunch NRA booster would not, I hope, say that individual citizens should be allowed to posses nuclear weapons and nerve gas.  So everyone draws a line somewhere, it's only a question of where the line is drawn.

Given all of this, I submit that the constitution does not provide an unlimited right for each citizen to own any sort of weaponry they like, without any regulation whatsoever.

If you believe we should have such a right, then make your argument based on why you think this is the right thing for our country.  But don't distort the second amendment to suit you.  In my book, doing so simply means you don't feel you can make a strong enough argument based on the merits of your beliefs themselves.

I'll close with this:  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams made it clear that they did not consider the constitution to be holy writ.  Their expectation was that we would revisit it every ten years or so, because they were smart enough to know that the world would change, and that the constitution would have to be updated and modified regularly.  Practically the first thing they did to the constitution was to amend it. Would they have put in a literal right to privacy if there had been mass communication at the time?  What would they think of the internet?  Warrant-less wire taps?  Terrorists flying planes into buildings?  Torture?

Our country is ours.  We have to ask ourselves. regularly, what kind of country we want it to be, and take responsibility for what it is and what it does in the world.

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