Those of us old enough to remember a High School course named “Civics” no doubt read, studied, and discussed in class the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Adopted along with the rest of the Bill of Rights in 1791, it is short enough to quote 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.” Many have been the court cases arguing what, exactly, those 27 words mean. Is the entire meaning wrapped up in that part about “the right … shall not be infringed”? Or does that first part, regarding a Militia (what was then called a State Militia is now called a State National Guard) affect to whom that last part pertains? And what are “Arms”? Does this apply equally to weapons of the types envisioned, touched, and actually carried by those who wrote those words shortly after the Revolutionary War, and to weapons they could not possibly have envisioned: semi-automatic rifles, machine guns, and hand-held anti-aircraft missiles among them?
Maybe it only pertains to guns easily carried and used by one person, to pistols and rifles and their semi- or even fully-automatic variants, and not to weapons capable of shooting down a passenger airplane (they didn’t have those in 1791). Do we as a society accept that the Second Amendment, as written, means that anybody and everybody in “the people” cannot have the government “infringe” their right to purchase, to carry, and (if need be) to use any type of gun?
Well, maybe some of “the people” who are fully qualified to vote should not be fully qualified to own, say, a semi-automatic weapon that can kill everybody in the first two rows of a movie theater in 30 seconds, if they have been under counseling for mental instability. Is that okay under a normal reading of that Second Amendment, or would that member of “the people” have his or her rights “infringed” in a forbidden way?
But that’s why, it might be argued, we have Legislatures (both state and national) and why we have Courts: to decide via a rational reading of such documents as the Constitution’s Second Amendment what they really mean, or really ought to mean, given today’s society. This is no longer 1791, and the weapons of today are entirely different and much more lethal than were weapons back then.
This week, tragically not too different from many other weeks, saw a deranged man kill two reporters on live television. He had been in counseling for troubled actions resulting from having lost his job at that station, but he could still vote – and, it seems, legally purchase the weapons he carried and used. And it saw a college student shot dead presumably by another college student on a public university campus in Georgia, after an argument. I say presumably because, as of this writing, the authorities are not sure who was the shooter; there was no reason to suspect, though, that the weapon was purchased unlawfully. And there was the case in Houston that a man angry with police in general walked up to a uniformed policeman whom he had never met, and shot and killed him. Again, there is no indication that the weapon was not purchased legally.
Here are some ideas and questions we all need to think more about.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, there are about 300 million guns in the United States. There are about 325 million people in the United States, including children. How many of them are “the people” whose gun rights cannot legally be “infringed”?
And what connection with that “well regulated Militia” should inform the logic of who is allowed to own a gun, a semi-automatic rifle, or even several of them not in 1791, but in 2015?