This post is about gun control.
The Washington Post just reported that so far this year the U.S. has averaged more than one mass shooting per day.
So we need to talk seriously about gun control regulations. There is no getting around the fact that gun control is a political issue, so it needs to be dealt with politically. Let’s start with the ground rules about gun ownership in the United States: the Second Amendment. I want to say first that I am fully in support of the Second Amendment and of gun ownership.
What I would like, however, is for guns to be regulated like cars. To own and use a gun, you need training, licensure, registration, and insurance.
So back to the Second Amendment: “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 logic of the amendment is very clear.
1. We need a well-regulated militia to keep the United States secure
2. People need to own guns.
The most strictly limited reading of this law is that anyone who wants to own a gun should be serving in a militia. U.S. legal history is more complicated than that, of course. The Wikipedia article on the subject is probably as good a place as any to start. If you don’t trust Wikipedia, just follow its links and footnotes. There are 256 footnotes to this article supported by additional external links.
At any rate, I don’t intend to repeat what is already out there in better form. What I want to do is draw out further implications of the Second Amendment.
1. The founding fathers assumed that gun ownership would be accompanied by training and discipline. That is what the words “well-regulated” means: that everyone who owns a gun gets something like military training in their use and maintenance. That is what they assumed. If we don’t have a requirement for training, we’re not anywhere close to following the spirit of the Second Amendment, much less the letter.
The fact is, anyone who has ever received gun training has been taught just how dangerous they are, and any gun owner with any intelligence wants all gun owners to be trained, because they know just how dangerous it is for untrained people to be walking around with guns.
I found this out when I received gun training at age 12. I took a Jaycees class that practiced using BB guns. We watched films, just like we did in driver’s training, and we practiced with less dangerous versions of real guns, just like we did in driver’s training, and we learned just how dangerous guns were, just like we learned that cars were dangerous in driver’s training.
It might help to understand, too, the whole connection between a “well-regulated militia” and private gun ownership. Think of the movies Gladiator and Braveheart. These movies depict a bunch of armed farmers banding together to fight in wars. That is nothing more or less than the feudal system, under which most of Europe labored until the nineteenth century.
Under the feudal system, very large estates were governed by noblemen and farmed by serfs who worked the land. Estates were usually divided up into strips of land that people took turns farming, with some common areas allowing farm hands to plant their own crops and feed themselves. Generally, if you were a serf, you were bound to the land. You weren’t allowed to leave it. This situation created complexities in land ownership. While the nobleman technically owned the land and its profits, serfs owned the right to farm the land, and without their labor, the land had no value — so they could claim rights for themselves too. Hegel discusses the implications of this system in “The Master-Slave Dialectic,” a section of his Phenomenology of Spirit.
At any rate, under this system, when noblemen banded together to form a nation, their agreement with the King was to provide x number of fighters on horseback (knights or chevaliers), x number of fighters on foot, x number of people who could shoot a bow, so many swords and pikes, etc. Each individual kept their own weapons and understood that they were ready to go out and fight when needed. That is what Gibson’s character did in Braveheart, so that when he was finished with the Crusades he came back to his home to farm the land and start a family.
That is also the system that the U.S. founding fathers had in mind when they linked private gun ownership to maintaining a well-regulated militia: they were picturing farmers working under something like a feudal system who were prepared to fight as soldiers when necessary. The fact is, a standing army is a relatively recent invention, and the English especially didn’t like it. They saw the maintenance of a standing army during peacetime as a threat to individual freedom because soldiers lolling around without a war to fight were either troublemakers at home or, which is far worse, instruments of oppression for the local government. On top of that, maintaining a military is very expensive, so keeping one meant (and still means) increased taxes.
The people who founded the United States thought this way too, so they expected private citizens to keep guns rather than expecting the government to continually maintain a standing army. It’s not like early Americans had any problems at all with British soldiers, right? Most importantly, when people do argue for the repeal of the Second Amendment, this history is what they have in mind. We no longer have a feudal system. We aren’t farmers who are taught how to use guns as a matter of course (the way we now all take driver’s ed in high school). We do in fact have a standing army, and it costs us a lot of money. A lot. I’m not arguing here for the repeal of the Second Amendment, and I’m not comfortable with us doing so. I do want us to understand the reasons why some people do, though. It really is a holdover from a world that no longer exists.
2. The founding fathers asserted in the Second Amendment that “the right of people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Do you know what that means?
They can regulate your guns, but they can’t take your guns away.
Do you get that?
The Second Amendment means that they can’t take your guns away, so you don’t have to worry about reasonable gun control legislation leading to disarmament. So all of this talk about the government coming to take your guns away is absolute nonsense.
Because of the Second Amendment, they can’t take your guns away.
The problem we’ve had with the gun control debate in this country is that when people say, “Let’s regulate guns,” all other people hear is, “Let’s disarm the populace.” Even when people don’t say, “take people’s guns away,” all that some people can hear is, “they want to take people’s guns away.” When anyone proposes limited and reasonable gun control measures, people think they’ll be taking guns away from “law abiding citizens so that only criminals will have guns.” But, no one is proposing legislation to take guns away from law abiding citizens. These responses are crazy.
We don’t have to worry about guns being taken away from law abiding citizens because of the Second Amendment. Because of the Second Amendment, the U.S. populace cannot be disarmed. You won’t have to worry about disarmament until someone wants to repeal the Second Amendment. I’m sure there are people in the U.S. who do want to repeal it, but there is no legislation for its repeal under consideration right now, and no one has proposed any recently, and Obama never has. I don’t see a repeal of the Second Amendment happening any time soon.
3. One last idea: there’s no such thing as unlimited or unrestricted rights. Let’s take the First Amendment as an example:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The part of this amendment that I’d like to focus on here is freedom of speech. The language of the amendment is clear: “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech.”
Does that mean that you can say anything that you want, any time you want, in any circumstances that you want?
Of course not. There are penalties for perjury (lying in court), and you can be sued for defamation, which means telling an injurious lie about someone. Defamation can take two forms: slander, which is spoken, and libel, which is written. Either way, you can be sued for damages if damages can be established.
Furthermore, threatening the President of the United States is a felony in the U.S., the United States has laws against hate speech, and incitement to riot is a punishable offense too, but those laws vary by state.
So while it’s true that “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech,” we already have quite a few exceptions on the books: perjury, defamation, threatening the President of the United States, hate speech, and incitement to riot. None of these are seen as meaningful infringements on our right to freedom of speech because they are not forms of speech necessary for the preservation of a democracy.
Similarly, gun ownership can be regulated without violating the principle of the right to bear arms. In fact, some kind of regulation was assumed from the very beginning, at least in the form of militia training.
And the fact is, for most of us, car ownership and use is a lot more important to our everyday lives than gun ownership. Most of us could not get to work or buy groceries without a car, and very few of us ever fire a gun even once a year, and most of us fire guns far less often than we drive a car. Very few of us are actually made safer by our own gun ownership. But we still put up with training, licensure, registration, and insurance for our cars, because we know how dangerous cars are.
Why is it so hard to think the same way about guns?
We need gun owners to drop the NRA, because the NRA no longer supports reasonable gun control regulation, and form a new gun rights group, one that focuses on gun safety — like the NRA did until the late 1970s — rather than only on gun manufacturer profits at the cost of human life.
If you think the real solution is more guns, the United States already has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, which is one of the reasons why we have more than one mass shooting per day. Yes, I know people will be criminals no matter what. I also know that many pro-gun people are also anti-abortion, but they somehow think anti-abortion laws will reduce abortions, so they support them.
That is because we all know that you can at least reduce, if not eliminate, crime by making it harder. That’s why we have locks on our doors. A thief can still get in to a house with a locked door, but the lock just makes it a little harder, and it’s usually all that we need most of the time to protect our homes. It’s also why we have laws against drunk driving and other traffic laws. In fact, whenever we have laws about anything, it’s because laws always help, even if they never work perfectly.
Laws may not initiate a utopia in which no one drives drunk, there are no car accidents, and there is no theft, rape, and murder, but we’re not taking these laws off the books any time soon, because laws always help.
If you want to argue with me on this point, take the locks off your doors first.
Check out the graphic for more information about the extent of gun ownership in the U.S.