This is the full text of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified, along with the other nine Amendments that make up the Bill of Rights, on December 17, 1791:
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.
Here’s how Webster’s defines the word militia:
a: a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency
b: a body of citizens organized for military service
: the whole body of able-bodied male citizens declared by law as being subject to call to military service
And now, here’s how Webster’s defines the word regulate, the adjective which modifies militia:
a: to govern or direct according to rule
b (1): to bring under the control of law or constituted authority (2) : to make regulations for or concerning
: to bring order, method, or uniformity to
: to fix or adjust the time, amount, degree, or rate of
The gun lobby in America, which oversees a $12 billion dollar annual concern, mentions the second half of this amendment at every turn, which makes sense — like every other business in a capitalist system, this one thrives by making sure their product is not just useful but necessary, and in this case, not just an integral part of the American character but a sacred belief. Yet taking the 2nd Amendment in its totality, it’s pretty clear what was intended: to bring order to and fix the amount of firearms through direct governance (regulated) in order to prepare a body of citizens to be pressed into military service in an emergency (militia).
Unless you choose to ignore the first half of this phrase, that’s the entire scope of the 2nd Amendment. And yet, even that strict interpretation doesn’t matter: the Constitution was designed by its authors to meet the needs of a changing country. Knowing her future was open-ended, the Founding Fathers decided to lay out the most basic rights first — of which owning as many weapons as possible is not listed — and then let the people decide what other rights they wanted later. This is, after all, why we have amendments in the first place. So while owning any gun you like, or as many guns as you like, is in no way protected by the Constitution of the United States, it’s not forbidden either. We, the people, collectively decide that.
You might even argue that a nation so committed to personal freedom necessitates a right to personal protection. Certainly there’s a history of that in America, especially in the places where poverty is rampant, and also the places not sufficiently populated enough to warrant constant monitoring. The arguments put forth by the gun lobby, the NRA, and a certain segment of the citizenry, therefore, should be considered, should indeed be weighed logically. Unfortunately, the same myopia in their reading of the Second Amendment often applies to their view of history, and of freedom. Here are the most commonly heard arguments as to why there should be no governmental restrictions on personal firearms ownership:
- We need guns to prevent the tyranny of a central government.
Like it or not, the history of America has never produced one example of a citizen securing his freedom from the government, or even the victory of his personal cause, by the use of firearms. Not John Brown, who attempted to start a slave revolt, not Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical anarchy, not David Koresh in his belief that he was Christ incarnate. Even the Confederate Army (half a million to two million in number; no one really knows) couldn’t hope to match the economic power of the US Federal Government of 150 years ago.
The American Revolution itself, often held up as a prime example of individual revolt, was actually accomplished by several state militias, just as described in the Second Amendment. These were later joined into a national Army — by an act of Congress! — aided and abetted by money and men from Spain and especially France, both of which were at that time world superpowers. Only three years after wresting control of the country from the British, American citizens organized the first revolt against their new government, a tax protest known as Shays’ Rebellion, led by Daniel Shays, hero of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Lexington.
It was quickly put down. With the assistance of — you guessed it — state militias. Privately funded this time. Moral: unless you have the same technology the government is able to afford, and you by definition don’t, any standoff with them is bound to end in your death. This is why America also has stronger, more effective traditions of democracy and peaceful protest; all of the last great social reforms and civil rights victories of the past century come from the combination of the two. Not from a gun.
- Stalin and Hitler instituted gun bans as a first step towards totalitarianism.
Raising the specter of two of the 20th Century’s most notorious and murderous tyrants is a good way to bolster fears about government intervention. It’s not good history, though, just good propaganda. Hitler, for example, didn’t take away the guns from Germany’s citizens — America did that, along with the French, British, and Russians, in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. The idea was to disempower the nation, not its individual citizens, so that it would be unable to rise up and wage war again. That didn’t work out so well, but it wasn’t because of gun control; when Hitler came to power, he relaxed the gun laws significantly. Except for the Jews, of course. Their lone rebellion in a Warsaw Ghetto, aided by guns, lasted all of two weeks.
Stalin, who came to power leading a revolution much like America’s, did institute gun control laws, but only after seizing and consolidating power. Those laws, it should also be noted, did not apply to members of his own political party, the Bolsheviks. His rise was due to mass purges of his perceived political enemies — including 3/5 of his standing army, soldiers who were most definitely armed.
Totalitarianism is usually achieved through such a consolidation of power: purges, dismantling of the justice system, propaganda, and the dispossession of property. That can include guns, but guns aren’t the main defining factor. Mao didn’t ban guns, because most of his subjects didn’t own them. Castro allowed personal handguns. Pol Pot didn’t ban guns, though Cambodia had already banned gun imports from Vietnam, their national enemy. Mussolini, who came to power through an armed political coup led by a militia, talked of taking guns from “subversives” but never made good on his threat. He never had to. By then, he owned the country.
- Cities like New York have strict gun laws, yet still have just as much gun crime.
Cities with strict gun laws in America don’t always see a drop in gun crime, but that just proves the point of those who argue for stricter federal gun laws — a majority of the guns used in New York and Chicago crimes, for example, come from neighboring states with much looser gun laws. Likewise, most of the guns used in the Mexican drug cartel wars come from Texas. Brazil has a gun death rate twice that of the US, even with a near-total gun ban, because they share borders with gun-friendly South American countries. Compare this to other countries and regions, including some with a very warlike history of behavior, who have strict gun control laws and little gun crime. Europe and Japan, for example, none of which are bordering countries with an excess of guns.
- Universal background checks wouldn’t have prevented any of the more recent public massacres, therefore they’re unnecessary.
The NRA and its like-minded supporters have tried to have this one both ways, portraying background checks as an unnecessary infringement of personal rights, unless a proposed ban on assault weapons is on the table, in which case it’s suddenly presented as an effective deterrent.
The bloodbaths of Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech and Newtown, as well as other recent massacres, were committed with semi-automatic firearms and large-capacity magazines. Bans on what are more properly called “semi-automatic” guns wouldn’t have prevented deaths at those locations, but it would have left most of the victims alive and well. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that the assault weapons ban that existed from 1994-2004 prevented those guns from being used in crimes.
Background checks alone, no matter how strictly enforced, even with a necessary closure of the “gun show” loophole, wouldn’t have prevented all of the shooters from getting their weapons. And yet they also work to reduce violent crime: since 1999, they’ve prevented the sale of 1.7 million firearms. If you’re wondering how many of those potential buyers were planning something illegal, consider this — in all of 2011, only 20 percent of the those denials were successfully challenged.
- “Assault” weapons are not used in most gun crimes, and many of them aren’t even assault weapons.
The term “assault weapons” has been used so often and so loosely in the media that there’s a large grey area in the definition. However, we do know that semi-automatic weapons are only used in about two percent of gun crimes. Add to that the fact that violent crime of all kinds has decreased steadily over the past two decades, and you can see why some folks would be upset over a ban on these weapons. For shooting a lot of people in a short amount of time, though, they’re quite effective — it is, after all, what they’re designed for. The overall decline in violent crime occurred, most criminologists believe, because of the sputtering out of the inner-city crack epidemic. The massacre phenomenon, on the other hand, is relatively new, suburban, and white. And, stats also prove, growing. Which is why it gets so much coverage. As Richard Pryor once said about drugs, “They call it an epidemic now. That means white folks are doing it.” Australia passed a massive ban on assault weapons in 1996, and it didn’t put much of a dent in gun homicides or murders. Massacres, however, disappeared entirely.
- If everyone had guns, everyone would be safe, because it would serve as a deterrent.
There’s no evidence that concealed-carry laws, which allow ordinary citizens to be armed in public places, have any effect either way on gun crime. In fact, since semi-autos are used in most massacres, the only other effective way to stop them would be to turn America into a prison — armed guards everywhere, proudly sporting their own huge unconcealed military-style weapons. Where the money would come from to implement this all over the nation is anyone’s guess, but an armed camp certainly doesn’t fit the definition of freedom. Especially since those guards would be under the auspices of, yep, the government. And then there’s that pesky issue of crossfire: the US Armed Forces themselves admit that 2 percent of their war casualties are caused by friendly fire, although the historical US rate actually hovers around ten percent. All caused by trained soldiers.
- Knives and other weapons can also be used to kill.
Certainly. But that’s the sort of defeatist argument that is never used about, say, terrorism prevention. The fact is that 68 percent of all murders in the US (and half of all suicides) happen with guns, because guns kill quicker and easier than any other weapon.
This is the exact same type of firearm used in the Newtown shooting. Look at it and see if it could possibly serve any other purpose than to kill a number of human beings. Quickly.
John Locke’s 1689 work Two Treatises of Government, a major influence on the Declaration of Independence, asserted a naturally existing “right to revolution” that allowed any group of people to break a social contract with their masters whenever they deemed it oppressive. Like the Second Amendment, it gets selectively quoted by gun owners as proof that they need personal firearms in order to exercise that right:
And hence it is, that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power, does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of a design upon his life… and therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it.
But once again, reading the whole document reveals a greater truth:
IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.