In the midst of even more tragic massacres of human life, debates about gun control always return to the forefront. So today, I’d like to take a look at the Second Amendment and consider how its text lines up with the arguments facing our culture.
“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.”
Aside from some strange comma and capitalization use (by our modern writing standards), these 27 words form two pretty simple statements. First, a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state. Second, because of the first statement, the people’s right to bear arms shall not be infringed.
So we have two statements, with the second dependent on the first. But here’s our problem today: we no longer operate in our country with a well-regulated militia. The founding fathers saw permanent military structures as tools of corrupt governments. Since military is only necessary in times of war, the nation should have a well-regulated militia made up of the citizens who will come together when needed to fight wars on behalf of the nation. In times of peace, the militia disbands and people go home.
That’s how the continental army formed for the Revolutionary War; we won our independence from England using militia (and the help of the French). But we don’t do that anymore. Now in an interconnected world of constant conflict, we have the largest military force on the planet operating 24/7. This presents two problems for the Second Amendment and its intent.
First, there is no longer a well-regulated militia. It’s just not a thing anymore. So that already undermines the premise. But second, part of their purpose with the well-regulated militia approach to military might was to avoid government corruption and keep power in the hands of the people in case they needed to overthrow what became a tyrannical government. This possibility was fresh in their minds since that was exactly what they’d done a decade earlier. However, that’s simply not possible anymore.
I already mentioned that the United States has the largest military force on the planet. The weapons our military has could decimate all of humanity in seconds. Even if we still had a well-regulated militia and determined the government had reached such tyrannical levels that it must be overthrown, it’s not happening.
So that presents a new question. The big focus of gun rights advocates is on the Second Amendment protecting their right to guns and not allowing for any limitations to that right. But why are they thinking so small? Shouldn’t they be arguing for the right to own tanks, missile launchers, and atomic bombs?
The Second Amendment gives the people the right to bear Arms. It does not limit that to guns, and even the odd capitalization of the word “Arms” makes it seem even more potent. Why have we been limited from possessing any weapon? Isn’t that a violation of the Second Amendment?
The founding fathers lived in a very different world than the one we face today, and the most advanced weapons of the respective eras prove that. It is obviously nonsense for me to suggest that everyone should have the right (assuming they have enough money) to purchase a tank or an atomic bomb. But why don’t we see those restrictions as infringing on our Second Amendment rights?
I think this is the fundamental issue: as technology advanced, weapons became more and more powerful. We’ve acknowledged that and established restrictions on ownership of many of those weapons over the years. We’ve already undermined the second statement of the Second Amendment. But in fairness, that statement is dependent on the first, and we’ve long abandoned the well-regulated militia.
The Second Amendment no longer serves any actual purpose in the protection of our country, and it hasn’t since we switched from a militia system to a full-time military system. The founding fathers did not dictate that people had unlimited rights to bear arms just for the sake of it; that right was contingent on, and as a response to, what they saw as a national security need. That need no longer exists.
However, I’m not here to try to argue for the abolishment of the Second Amendment. I instead want to discuss the point that we’ve already undermined its claim that the right to bear arms shall not be infringed by preventing people from owning military-grade weapons of all kinds.
We’ve seen the need to limit access to weapons of war, and we’ve done so. We’ve also balanced the desire to maintain people’s access to tools for hunting and self-defense. However, as technology continues to advance, greater firepower becomes available for use. Firepower that was always intended for war purposes: inflicting as much damage and casualties as possible in the smallest amount of time possible. These weapons aren’t tools for hunting – in fact they destroy any level of sport or challenge in hunting. They also are very much not about self-defense. They’re about destruction, pure and simple. Any weapon that has the word “assault” in its name should give that away.
At one point decades ago, we made a decision to prevent personal access to weapons of war. But since that time, weapons have advanced and now tools that technically fit our description of allowed arms have far surpassed a level of firepower that serves any purpose other than destruction. In many of these cases, these are actually weapons that used to be outlawed until we decided to make them legal. As a result, we need to continually review the laws against the technological advances and update the laws.
The letter of the Second Amendment has long been rendered meaningless, both from lack of a militia and from restrictions on military-grade weaponry. The spirit of the Second Amendment is about protection – “the security of a free State.” While, as addressed above, no personal level of armaments can do much of anything against a national military, the word security can still apply to our local needs: families, neighborhoods, etc.
By all means, let’s keep access to guns that fit the needs to provide personal security. Assault rifles are not part of that category. The goal of the Second Amendment is defense, not attack, both on a personal level and on the level of protecting the nation from tyranny. The presence of these military-grade weapons in our nation are actively undermining our security, costing lives of so many innocent people.
When police respond to a shooting and stop the perpetrator in less than 60 seconds, and still we have nine deaths and nearly 30 more injuries, we can’t pretend to call that security. If that shooter had instead had a traditional handgun, he would not have been able to get nearly as many shots off, and they would have inflicted far less damage.
We have many issues in our society that contribute to violence, but the simple fact is we have a massively higher rate of gun violence than other advanced countries who have similar gun ownership levels but restrict the types of guns available. We should not simply focus on one contributor: we should also devote resources to better mental health care and destigmatizing mental health treatment in our country; we should unabashedly condemn all forms of hate not just in one speech but in ongoing words and conduct from the leader of our country down; we should seek to love the people around us in ways that create a more hopeful and positive community.
But yes, we need to restrict access to weapons that were never meant for personal use and cannot be seriously considered as tools for hunting or defense. Further, we need to conduct background checks to make sure we’re not giving weapons used to kill people to those who have shown demonstrated violent tendencies. As I’ve discussed above, these steps would not go against the letter of the Second Amendment any more than previous restrictions have, and it would actually support the spirit of the amendment.
After the horrific attacks of 9/11, we instituted overwhelming changes to regulations on air travel, security at public buildings, and more. We didn’t hide behind the claim that we can’t legislate evil; we did what we could to make it harder for evil to succeed on the same scale again. We have the same opportunity – and obligation – now.
We can do better. All of the innocent lives lost to violence perpetrated using military-grade weapons of war demand it.