As the US reels from yet ANOTHER mass shooting, the call for fewer weapons, more weapons, better mental healthcare, more religion, etc goes on and on, and the harrowing knowledge that, once again, nothing will significantly change – because bad things happen. And I try, again, to wrap my head around the notion that we’ve become this collectively stupid. I’ve seen some very silly statements being made, including an attempt to blame an increased number of mass shootings on our President, and a cry for more guns everywhere as an antidote to gun violence, in spite of statistics showing otherwise. Yes, our inability to adequately deal with mental illness plays a significant role, but to pretend that easy access to guns does not is, at best, disingenuous, and is further proof of the cognitive dissonance that has gripped so many in our highly divisive age.
The second amendment to the US constitution, which some people very seriously seem to think is more important that the other 26 – part of a frenzy fortified by the National Rifle Association (more on them shortly) – is a very short, very simple declaration. A mere 27 words, and 3 critical commas, in its entirety, it states this:
“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.”
Oh, if only the founders could have realized how that would devolve through time. But damn those commas. There are two very different ways to read this. One is that the amendment was referring to individuals having a right to bear arms. Period. No exceptions. No restrictions. And it makes no difference what else the amendment says because of those pesky commas. This view is generally referred to a the ‘individual rights theory’. There is a fringe extension of this view, that feels that, again courtesy of the commas, that the individual rights are explicitly to offer protection from the state (which is mostly fueled by paranoia, not the law). The other view is generally known as the ‘collective rights theory’, and is based on the ‘well regulated militia’ opening. The opening clauses are seen as an indication that the true intent of the framers was to prevent congress from interfering with the states’ rights to self-defense. Under this view, the states do have the ability to regulate arms, and the individual use and ownership of them.
Until relatively recently, regardless of what some choose to believe, the courts have generally followed the ‘collective rights’ interpretive path in most decisions. The tide began to turn in 2008, though, when the courts ruled that Washington, DC’s highly restrictive gun laws were unconstitutional. Yes, it is really true – a mere 7 years ago marked the very first time that the Supreme Court ruled that a municipality did not have the right to restrict the possession of firearms in the home.
In order to see what happened, a brief history lesson might be a good place to start.
Historically, the collective rights theory partially would include an individual rights view, in so far as individual ownership enabled the states to call upon its citizenry to defend the state, at a time when the state was unable to supply the weaponry. Each of the original 13 States had their own militias, service was mandatory, and you were expected to supply your own weaponry. Therefore, you needed to have a gun so that you could use it in the service of the state. In reality, at that time, you probably had one anyway for hunting your meals. Over time the militias were dissolved, the guns remained, and so did the local and state ordinances that regulated them. The Supreme Court fairly consistently ruled in favor of state control, and in fact, ‘bearing arms’, was considered to be military terminology, and was not generic to owning or carrying a gun for personal use. In fact, in 1840, the Tennessee State Supreme Court, in Aymette v State, specifically stated that the phrase bearing arms “have reference to their military use, and were not employed to mean wearing them about the person as part of the dress. As the object for which the right to keep and bear arms is secured, is of general and public nature, to be exercised by the people in a body, for their common defence, so the arms, the right to keep which is secured, are such as are usually employed in civilized warfare, and that constitute the ordinary military equipment.” They also noted that the state’s statute was in line with the Federal Constitution’s Second Amendment.
Enter the National Rifle Association. Founded in New York in 1871 by a committed group of retired army officers, and National Guard members, who were disturbed by the poor marksmanship that they witnessed during the Civil War, the group started out, and indeed spent the next century, as a civic-minded group that promoted the development of marksmanship skills, gun safety knowledge, hunting, and sensible regulation – including the banning in 1934 of the machine guns that were being heavily used by the high-profile bank robbers of the day. But then times started to change, and so did the NRA. Civil unrest and political assassinations in the 1960’s and 1970’s gave birth to a new view – especially after the creation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Then, as now, there were conspiracy theorists claiming that the assassinations were part of a concerted effort to disarm the citizenry. And by the late 1970’s the NRA had changed focus – from community and hunting to politics and funding from weapons manufacturers. And the Republican party, in a show of just how powerful the NRA had become, charged from supporting handgun control in 1972 to adding a clause opposing federal gun registration efforts to their 1980 platform. It took the NRA nearly 40 years to accomplish, but by 2008 they had successfully swayed public perception enough that they had garnered the political support, and therefore the sympathetic ears they needed on the courts, to begin to see the second amendment reinterpreted. In a somewhat ironic turn – a constitutional coup was accomplished without firing a shot.
And yet, every shot that is fired seems to benefit the NRA – its membership numbers increase after every mass shooting. Why? Because they are quick to make sure that the first message heard is of the coming disarmament. In reality, no one is calling for disarmament. What is being called for a sanity check on our current gun laws, or lack thereof. Even the NRA occasionally deigns to agree that mentally unstable people probably shouldn’t have guns, but well, we can’t be too hasty. So domestic abusers with legally obtained guns murder their spouses and children – but you can’t take man’s gun away simply because he’s threatened his wife. So anti-government crazies can kill police officers in Nevada with minimal publicity, so George Zimmerman can shoot, or threaten, I’ve lost track of how many people because it is his God-given right to own a gun. Where was the 10 Commandments on guns, anyway? And I’m sure Jesus would have open-carried if he wasn’t pre-ordained to be killed by the state.
Yeah, I’m pissed off. And I’m tired. I do not understand how in such a relatively short period of time the world can turn so upside down, and my own contemporaries can so easily forget what reality was. Or so completely disregard US history. Will someone with an individual rights view please explain the rest of the second amendment to me, if “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is the only section that matters? And what the historical perspective for that view is – besides some quotes misattributed to our founding fathers? I do not understand how anyone can continue to listen to the distorted statistics about gun violence in this country, and not bother to check the facts for themselves. I do not understand the sheer absurdity of repeating “I’ll give up my gun when the Secret Service gives up theirs”. WTF are we talking about? If paranoia about the government, or about immigrants, or about the poor, or your neighbors leads you think you need a gun, you have underlying issues that need to be addressed, and perhaps shouldn’t have access to firearms.
“As gun owners, my husband and I understand that the Second Amendment is most at risk when a criminal or deranged person commits a gun crime. These acts only embolden those who oppose gun ownership. Promoting responsible gun laws protects the Second Amendment and reduces lives lost from guns.
— Gabrielle Giffords