Last July, in the wake of the Aurora theater massacre, I contended that the uproar over gun rights it had provoked was misplaced and that the important national conversation should be about mental health care. While that truly is an important national conversation, the events in Newtown, Connecticut have served to sharpen the focus on a discussion over gun rights which is overdue and sorely needed.
The President immediately engaged this issue, culminating in his signing a myriad of executive orders proposed by his blue-ribbon gun control panel. Now, action on those orders and “legislative suggestions” will be hotly debated in Congress over opposition from the gunmakers lobby (in the guise of the NRA) and a debate over the second amendment.
The Second Amendment
The second amendment to the constitution states:
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.
Any reading of this text must be enjoined with a sense of historical perspective. This amendment was written for a fledgling nation with no standing army whose peoples had just succeeded in armed insurrection against their government. In that situation, to disarm the people would have been akin to disarming the state, leaving it totally defenseless.
Today, in the face of history’s largest professional standing army and state controlled national guard troops, this point is moot. For those who are so distrustful of our government that they would like to reserve the right of armed insurrection, I would remind them that it is no longer the romantic ideal it was in post-colonial America. Today, we simply refer to it as treason.
But there is a clearer and more important point here that overshadows the others. The first three words of the second amendment read “A well regulated…” Even our founding fathers realized that if we are to codify a right to bear arms into our constitution we must allow and even mandate the regulation of these firearms. Even for those who oppose gun control legislation on the basis of literal interpretation of the bill of rights, and persist in the near diefication of our founding fathers and consecration of our constitution, the need for firearm regulation could not be more plainly spelled out.
Another argument against gun control legislation stems from the fear that such regulation would start us down a slippery slope towards the prohibition of privately owned firearms. However, I believe this argument is short sighted.
If the goal is safe and legal gun ownership (as it should be) there is no better tool to achieve this than regulation of gun ownership. Licensure and background checking, biometric devices and trigger locks do not infringe on an individual’s right to keep or bear arms—they enhance those rights. By weeding out criminals as well as those without requisite training in gun safety, such regulation would remove any remaining social stigmata towards legal gun ownership and allow law enforcement to better track and confiscate those weapons likely to be used to harm others.
In my state of California, we require drivers safety courses, licensure, and insurance before someone can operate a motor vehicle—a tool designed to transport but with the ability to kill. Yet, none of these things are required for ownership of a gun—a tool designed with the express intent to kill.
Slippery slopes can also slant both ways. Many opposed to gun control legislation advocate for arming teachers as a tactic to combat school shootings. Such fortification of our schools would simply shunt our societal vulnerabilities to other venues such as malls, movie theaters, and even churches. Eventually, we will end up in a heavily armed society, where each citizen will be virtually expected to carry a firearm simply to avoid victimization. Such a society would make us no safer, and would simply serve to verify the adage that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. That is a slope I am deathly afraid of sliding down.
Rights and Regulation
The existence of a right does not preclude its regulation. Freedom of speech is regulated to exclude libel, slander, and speech inciting public harm or violence. Freedom of expression does not allow for violence towards others, and freedom of religion does not tolerate human sacrifice.
Guns are designed expressly to kill. Though they are (and should forever remain) legal, this plain truth demands that they be regulated with a commensurate degree of severity. Certain fundamental protections must be put in place as the violence in our society escalates. Licensure for gun ownership must exist and be requisite on gun safety training and background checks. When a gun license is administered to an address where a child resides, there must be a stipulation for a locked ammunition cabinet and a separate trigger lock. Consideration should be given to requiring gun owners to show proof of insurance in order to provide a financial disincentive to irresponsible use. And finally, those firearm accessories designed specifically to promote the indiscriminate killing of human beings, such as armor piercing bullets and high capacity magazines, should be banned except by an exceptional licensure mechanism.
Since the horrendous attacks of 9/11, our nation has struggled with a fundamental balance of civil liberties and societal security. The current discussion is merely an extension of the same question. None of these measures as I described would infringe on a law abiding citizen’s ability to keep or bear arms. Critics will also argue that none of these would have prevented Columbine, Aurora, or Newtown. But I’m not interested in how we could have prevented the last massacre. I’m interested in preventing the next one.