In my earlier piece about the 2nd Amendment, I looked at commenter Toad’s points about gun control and how they differ from other restrictions on Constitutional freedoms. In this piece, I’m going to examine the 2nd Amendment itself and try to parse exactly what I think it means.
First, though, a personal note. Several readers have commented on occasion that I am a rather odd person, and this will illustrate just how odd I can be. There are several very important issues that I simply don’t have a passionate interest in. I have a certain intellectual curiosity about them, and don’t find them boring or irrelevant, but simply don’t get as emotionally involved in as I do about the War on Terror or border security, for example. Gun control is one of those issues, along with abortion and capital punishment. So this is an interesting piece for me to write: I can look at it calmly and rationally and logically, without worrying if my own feelings will taint my reasoning. You may disagree with that, but I feel pretty comfortable saying it.
Let’s start off by actually going to the source material — the 2nd Amendment itself:
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.
It’s time to take out the rhetorical scalpel and microscope, and start dissecting that bugger, phrase by phrase, word by word if necessary.
“A well regulated Militia” — there are two schools of argument here. Gun-control advocates say this refers to the National Guard, not individuals. Gun-rights advocates say that at that time, a “Militia” was “every able-bodied male.” It’s an arguable point, so I’ll leave that alone for now.
“being necessary to the security of a free State” — this is a truly oddball phrase that sticks out of the Bill Of Rights like a sore thumb. It’s purely an exhortatory and explanatory phrase. No other Amendment bothers to explain WHY such a right is acknowledged — they are presumed to be, to coin a phrase, “self-evident.” Only in the 2nd Amendment did the Founding Fathers feel it necessary to give a rationale for a Right. I am curious why they felt the need to do so here and only here, but the only Law is the Constitution itself — other documents can provide guidance, but they have no legal weight.
“the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
This would be perfectly cut and dry if this was the extent of the 2nd Amendment. The form would follow the 1st Amendment, and it would be abundantly clear: the people can keep and bear arms, and the government can’t do a damned thing about it until that right is abused — just like with the 1st Amendment rights.
The argument in favor of gun control seems to revolve around that first clause, saying that the right to keep and bear arms is a “collective” and not an “individual” right. I find this a bit of a stretch, because the only other place in the Bill of Rights where a right could be considered “collective” is the 9th. In every other case, it’s indisputable that the rights belong to individuals.
But I think the key phrase is in the final clause: “to keep and bear Arms.” If the Founding Fathers really intended the National Guard to embody the spirit of this Amendment, they would simply say “bear arms.” The arms could be held in a central, government-controlled location (such as National Guard armories) and the people could simply show up and take them as needed.
But that’s not what they said. They wrote “keep and bear Arms” (emphasis added). To me, that means that they intended the weapons to be the personal property of the citizens, to be kept in and cared for in their homes, safe from “unreasonable searches and seizures” (to steal a phrase from the 4th Amendment), and borne when the citizens felt it necessary.
With that interpretation, I think that the most Constitutional policy would be to change the default position that says you cannot possess a firearm without the prior permission of local officials. Those officials would be required to grant permits unless they can present compelling evidence that doing so would pose an imminent danger to others or themselves.
Now, just like other rights, the government can and should impose certain restrictions on the exercise of the 2nd Amendment. They can restrict certain arms (such as fully automatic weapons, for example). They can set certain places and areas as “off-limits” to those bearing arms — I think schools, bars, and government offices are certainly reasonable starting points. And they can impose harsh penalties on those who violate the laws.
Robert Heinlein put it best: “an armed society is a polite society.” I think it is absolutely no coincidence that the places with the highest murder rates are those with the toughest anti-gun laws. Conversely, those areas with “liberal” gun laws tend to have much lower crime rates. I don’t have the statistics at hand, but I’d be willing to wager that the per-capita murder rate of New Hampshire is considerably lower than in major cities such as Boston, New York, or Washington, DC.
I know it’s a cliche’ to say that “when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” but it’s a cliche’ because it’s true. Those laws only keep those who respect the law from owning weapons. Criminals, by definition, don’t respect the law, so they find their own ways of getting guns. And they are emboldened in their crimes because they know that their intended victims will most likely not be armed and equipped to fight back.
It all boils down to a simple question: do you trust the average citizen to act responsibly? Or do you think the mere presence of a gun in a home will drive them into a crazed homicidal rage? In questions like this, I always come down on presuming an individual will do the right thing and obey the laws until proven otherwise.
Because to take the other side is to believe that all Americans are latent killers and psychos and thieves, and desperately need to be protected from themselves. It’s the “Nanny State” all over again, and in the Nanny State, citizens are never allowed to become grownups.
I, for one, outgrew the crib years ago. I’m ready to be an adult, to enjoy all the freedoms thereof and accept the concurrent responsibilities. How about you?