“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.”
What is it with those Founding Fathers? Once again, we have a set of words and clauses that obscure as much as they illuminate. I know, I know, some people look at this and say that it’s perfectly clear what it means. Unfortunately, I’ve had as many people tell me it clearly means one thing as I have had tell me it clearly means something diametrically opposed that the only thing I can say with certainty is that there is no “clear” meaning.
So here’s what I think this means, and I know this is not the most popular definition, but I’m going to put it out there: people have a right to defend themselves, from any and all comers. This includes state actors, foreign and domestic. Keep in mind that it was not so long before the drafting of the Constitution that a war was fought by the people, using their own weapons, to fend off an oppressive government. As the old saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, national rebellion.”
For those who believe the purpose of this amendment was to establish a militia for national defense, and we don’t need that since we have a standing army or the National Guard or whatever else, allow me to point out that at the time this was written the people of this country already had plenty of experience with their government having a standing army. If you don’t believe me, check the Third Amendment. It exists specifically because of past experiences with the British army back when they were British citizens. However, we don’t need to restrict ourselves to the intent of the past; we can look to the present to consider what our best course of action is.
Consider the Arab Spring that so much has been made of, and Egypt in particular. So many people were elated when Hosni Mubarak was deposed, and they anticipated the rise of democracy. But a funny thing happened rather quickly. Turned out that it wasn’t really Mubarak who was in charge after all, it was the military. The guys with the guns. And they aren’t giving up so easily. The protesters might have won a major battle, but there’s a long war left to go.
This isn’t to say that the U.S. is the same as Egypt, not even close. But there were a lot of people who got very upset at the Patriot Act, and that’s not the only restriction on freedom we’ve seen in the last twenty years. What happens if this trend continues for another twenty years? What about if the protesters who occupied parks across the country feel they aren’t being listened to? What if they start to riot and get thrown in jail, and emergency powers are enacted to deal with the problem?
These aren’t likely scenarios, but they are possible ones, and they aren’t the only ones. They are simply a few of the ways that a government that has nothing to fear from the people can start to tighten its grip on the people it is supposed to protect, often with the best of intentions (and we all know everyone in government has the best of intentions, don’t we Messrs. McCarthy and Nixon?) And governments should be afraid of their people. Every day, in every way, governments should rule with a very light hand because they understand the price of choosing wrong.
Gun control advocates will try to claim there is a public interest in limiting the number and availability of guns, but why? How does that help? This is like any other sort of prohibition, in that the more you do it the more you drive the market underground, and the more you give profits to criminals.
The worst part is when good people start to use the exact rhetoric for gun control their opponents use in other circumstances without even batting an eyelash at the irony: “Register your guns; if you’re innocent you have nothing to worry about.” Sure. While we’re at it, let’s just go ahead and get fingerprints and DNA from everyone in the country as well. Same logic applies, right? Makes it easier to find the bad guy when a crime is committed. More accurately, too.
I’m not going to say something silly like “guns don’t kill people.” Of course guns can kill people. So can cars, knives, rocks, televisions, glass bottles, and (if you eat enough of it) my mother’s cooking. That doesn’t mean we try to ban those other things (although if anyone wants to try to ban mom’s cooking, sign me up.) We acknowledge the risks, and we do what we do in any situation: we enforce the laws we already have. If you hurt someone with a gun, you committed a crime and you should go to jail. Simple. That doesn’t mean that owning a gun should be a crime all by itself.
ADDENDUM: I originally wrote this post before the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. First, I would like to say my heart goes out to those who lost friends and family that day. To those who wonder if this changes my position on gun ownership, I regretfully have to answer no. This is a black swan event. I do not believe that extreme cases such as this make a good and justifiable case for any sort of gun control, as they are an example of the sort of individual I spoke of above who will find a way to hurt other no matter what, and punishing the vast majority of law-abiding citizens in an unreasoning attempt to protect us is specious and wrong-headed. However, in the name of fairness, I would like to direct anyone who is interested to this post by Jason Alexander, which represents the opposing view (h/t to R.L. Mirabal). While I do not agree with everything he has to say, I do believe he has some salient points to make and his post is well worth reading. If nothing else, he at least seems open to rational discussion, rather than simple finger-pointing and blindly clinging to one position. In times like these, more rationality and less blind ideology would be a nice change of pace from all of us.