Which Way to Go?
Have you read the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution lately? If not, here's what it says,
"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."
So, what does this mean? Well, back in the days when it was written, the founding fathers of our country didn't want the government to be able to take away their firearms. The rationale for this goes all the way back to King James II of England who ruled from 1686 - 1688. This King defied long-established English law that held there was a natural right of self defense. When the King tried to disarm his subjects, people were furious — in this case, the King tried to disarm the growing number of Protestants because he favored Catholicism. Once James II was overthrown, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 was adopted. This Bill created a right not to be disarmed by the Crown.
Okay, that's the history lesson. That's where the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution began—in English history. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken turns over the years at interpreting the 2nd Amendment, even trying to discern whether its predecessor English Bill of Rights actually delivered a new right to bear arms, or simply allowed for the right not to be disarmed by the government. But what we have as American constitutional law is what we have and it's quoted above. How we interpret it should depend upon present-day circumstances.
What does the 2nd Amendment mean to Americans in the year 2018 after a number of fatal school (and nightclub) shootings have occurred by people toting and using military-style rifles that discharge bullets as fast as the shooter can squeeze the trigger — or faster if the rifle has been modified to be a fully automatic weapon? It was the AR-15 rifle that was used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre (killing 26 children), and in the recent Parkland, Florida high school tragedy (17 dead and 14 wounded). The AR-15 is relatively cheap and has little recoil. Its bullets do maximum damage when they strike an object or person do to their high velocity. Bullets from handguns, on the other hand, move at lower velocity and, generally, afford much higher survival rates among their victims, though they do work well for self defense.
A deeper issue for me that goes beyond defining the 2nd Amendment is whether any semi-automatic weapon is necessary to protect or defend ourselves in today's world.
Could Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries have imagined the likes of an AR-15? Of course not. The Gatling gun, the first rapid-fire, spring-loaded weapon wasn't even put into use until 1864 in the siege of Petersburg, VA. Jefferson was drafting Constitutional amendments in the early 1790's. As prescient as Jefferson was, the notion of a semi-automatic or fully-automatic weapon that could be carried around easily by a shoulder strap would have been as inane as if he had imagined placing an astronaut on the moon. But, the world has changed, and, one might argue, so must the type of weaponry needed to protect and defend oneself and one's family in today's world.
Let's go back to the 2nd Amendment language. It begins with, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state..." before it continues with "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." To me, that suggests any weaponry in the hands of citizens must be well regulated in order for a free state to be secure. And yes, next, oh by the way, people should have the right to keep and bear arms. So, "well regulated" plays a paramount role, then the right to bear arms comes next. Given what Jefferson and his contemporaries knew about King James II and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, they must have felt that taking away the right to have arms would have been a necessary issue to address. As a result, we have a well-regulated militia and Americans have the right to bear arms. Since citizens during the Jeffersonian era were the militia, called to duty at a moment's notice as the needs arose, it becomes clear that ensuring regulatory oversight of the militia and the weaponry it carried was paramount. Today, we have a well-regulated militia quite separate and apart from the citizen militia that existed during the Jeffersonian era.
Which way, America?
How do these two rights interact? That is to say, if there is a well-regulated militia in place to secure our country, what kinds of arms should the American civilian populace have and for what purposes?
With today's well-regulated militia, namely, the U.S. Armed Forces, the American people are well-protected and secure at the national level. Further, Americans have police protection that far eclipse anything that was in place at the time the 2nd Amendment was written. Jefferson would be proud at the progress we've made at protecting our nation and upholding our laws. At the personal level, for self protection or defense, a handgun should offer plenty of firepower to a civilian wishing to protect or defend herself or himself. (A handgun bullet, by the way, does not destroy internal organs as does a bullet from an AR-15, ensuring a much-higher survival rate from a handgun shot if the victim is treated quickly.)
Further, for hunting, a shotgun, bolt-action rifle, or bow and arrow are about all that's needed to bring down a next meal whether it's on four legs or aloft on wings. There's really not much more that's needed in terms of weaponry to fulfill the "right to bear arms" as addressed by the 2nd Amendment — not in 1791, nor in today's world. After all, the right that the 2nd Amendment articulates is presumably borne out of a need that Jefferson foresaw. That need would have been a right to defend oneself and one's family from an overbearing government, a king in this case, intent upon taking away weapons owned by its citizens for self-defense or self-protection as part of a militia to defend the nation from the British Crown or other unruly government powers.
Of course, the argument can be made that if our current government were to take weapons away from its citizens, much like King James II tried to do during his reign, then more weapons are needed to ensure and protect the right to bear arms. I don't question this as a logical argument, though I do take exception to the fact that we'll always need more powerful weapons to combat existing weapons, but, here's why I don't really buy into this line of thinking. If AR-15's are stacked up against the kind of weaponry our current U.S. well-regulated militia has in its arsenal, it wouldn't make much difference if everyone had a fully-loaded AR-15 in their closet ready to fight the good fight. Our present-day militia just has too much fire power for AR-15-carrying civilian shooters to overcome.
The notion of having AR-15's as a right begs the question of whether to give every U.S. citizen the legal right to own and use rocket-propelled grenade launchers, or backpack nuclear devices to protect their right to bear arms or to defend themselves from government intrusion. After all, these are the kinds of weapons that would be needed in today's world if our government wanted to take away weapons from the masses. Yet, we don't condone such weapons of mass destruction for a reason, because they are too lethal and can kill too many people in too little time. If that's the case, then we should do away with the AR-15's and their ilk. There's simply no reason to allow people who live in a nation with the strongest army in the world to obtain and use semi- (or fully-) automatic weapons of mass destruction in the name of the right to bear arms as articulated in the 2nd Amendment. The damage such a "right" can have has already been demonstrated too many times and with too many children's lives lost in schools throughout our nation when someone with ready access to semi-automatic rifle weaponry decides to waltz into a school and shoot up our youth with devastating and tragic effects.
The AR-15 was the weapon issued to U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. It was designed to kill the enemy quickly, period. Must we have these weapons of mass destruction on our streets and in the hands of people who choose to use them for their designed purpose? Oh, and if we're to parse the 2nd Amendment's language of a well-regulated militia, then shouldn't access to these weapons of mass destruction be well regulated through the use of universal background checks to weed out potential shooters who are mentally ill? Doesn't the safety and security of our children far outweigh the "right to bear arms" of someone willing to kill innocent victims in the heart of our nation and its schools? Universal background checks, by the way, are no panacea to solving this gun crisis. It would be mere chance that a mentally ill shooter would have presented as a mentally ill shooter prior to a background check. Mental health professionals agree that potential shooters with mental health problems would have a low likelihood of being identified by any background check system.
Today, Jefferson would be appalled at how far we've taken his notion of a right to bear arms. Back in 1790, the militia was no match for its larger enemies like Britain. People had to have guns to protect the nation and themselves if a British invasion were to roll into their small towns. Jefferson also didn't want to take away the right to self defense because their wasn't much in the way of organized police forces to protect its citizens in this land about to become a fledgling country. Hunting was also a way of life for many people, so guns were necessary to survive. But, today?
Today, Jefferson would wonder why we give tacit permission to people to purchase and possess guns like the AR-15, knowing they are designed to inflict maximum damage to human targets in short order. Banning weapons of mass destruction like the AR-15 and other semi-automatic rifles for the average civilian citizen of the United States would be a welcome relief. Children could walk into their schools unafraid of whether they might be the next target of a semi-automatic gun, and teachers who similarly fear a shooter with unusual firepower will be able to turn their full attention to teaching, not living or dying. Instead of re-building schools into hardened shells like prisons to protect the children within, we'll be able to let students come and go as they should—as carefree children expected to focus on their schoolwork and friendships, and not on whether some new face at the classroom door is about to kill them and their friends. It's time to ban semi-automatic rifles and their even more highly lethal bumped up counterparts as fully automatic killing tools. The gun control issue America faces is no longer about our right to bear arms, it's about our right to live freely in a free country, rather than die trying to protect a wrongly-perceived right that's killing our children by dozens at a time.
Dave Celone of Lyme, NH and Post Mills, VT writes for Poetic Licence. Dave oversees the Long River Gallery & Gifts artist collective in White River Jct., VT. To follow Poetic Licence posts, please Click Here to sign up to receive an email each time Dave publishes a new piece.