Friday, June 24, 2016

Thoughts on Gun Control, Part 1: Underestimating the Founding Fathers

In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, one of the characters, Boromir, looks at "the one ring" -- a magical ring with the power to destroy the entire world -- and he says:

"Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing?"

I think much the same thing when I look at the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America -- that loftiest of lofty American documents... All we get is this; the amendment in its entirety:

"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."

Is it not a strange fate that this little sentence has one group in their country at the throats of another? Yet, there it is. 

Short as it is, it is not without difficulties. People latch onto the idea that "the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed." What they ignore (often for the purpose of creating the sentence in their own image) is that the word "infringed" can have two shades of meaning. One can read this section of the amendment as either: 1) no one shall take away the right of people to own guns or, 2) no one shall limit or encroach upon ownership of guns in any way (i.e. not even limiting the kinds of guns owned).

Either way, people need to be allowed, according to the amendment, to own guns. That's clear.

The problem is that the second part could be interpreted to mean that there should be no limit on the kinds of guns owned. I would argue, though, that this is not something that could have been on the minds of the Founding Fathers. During the whole of the 18th century, the only firearms available were blunderbusses, pistols, muskets and rifles. The fastest of the fast could manage three shorts per minute with a musket, which needed the completion of a twenty-some-step process. In other words, there was no limiting of firepower to be done, unless done to minute and inconsequential differences. There was pretty much one kind of weapon available to the average American citizen: a pistol, musket or rifle that could fire very limited projectiles.

Therefore, I don't think it was possible that they were using the word "infringed" to mean "limited". What they meant was that no one shall stop the people from owning the available guns. Which guns they would own is not an issue, as it is today, so basing any pro-gun, modern arguments on the lack of limitation in this 18th century document is invalid. 

I'm going a step further than most who argue that "they didn't mean automatic weapons" by saying, they simply could not have even meant weapons of more than their contemporary limited shot capacity. (And as far as firepower, even if the average person bought himself a cannon, he still could not pull off the  kind of carnage of our modern mass murderers. In short, if guns were not limited, the American of 1787 [the year of the Constitution] it would neither have decreased nor increased the average American's ability to defend himself. 

Working backward, there is also still the issue of the reason the Second Amendment gives for the need of citizens to bear arms: the maintaining of "a well-regulated Militia." The writers of the Constitution were not even necessarily addressing personal protection with the amendment; they were referring to the ability of a state (or the State?) to fight for its own freedom, as the Revolutionaries had done, against oppression. 

The militias had figured heavily into the Revolution. The Founding Fathers were thinking of keeping us safe from mistreatment by government when they drafted the Second Amendment. This is tricky.

Today, the legality of militias varies from state to state. In some, they are illegal; in others, they are allowed, but carefully regulated. But a militia implies that the states might have to fight against...what? Other states? Didn't 600,000 people die in the Civil War to keep the states unified? If it is against governmental oppression that we establish militias, then...o.k. But is that really what gun advocates are really fighting for? I don't think so, except in isolated cases... In short, I think the militia part of the amendment is not a relevant point anymore.

What? "How can I say that," you ask? The Constitution should be inviolate? -- unchanged? Strangely, Thomas Jefferson did not think so. He thought that sometimes things need to change as the world around us (and inside us) changes. In my opinion, we need to rethink the Second Amendment -- not spit in its face, but consider what its modern equivalent is. We should be able to defend ourselves, but, at what cost (more of that in Part 2)? Anyway, Jefferson is pretty clear, here:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

So, no more trumpeting about disrespect for the Founding Fathers' views. The biggest disrespect we can show them is to underestimate their vision. One of the "new truths" we have to live with today is that, within a few minutes, someone can go from the gun shop into a crowded place and kill dozens of innocent people with one gun. Jefferson would want that problem dealt with, I think. Let's not insult him further. He saw this coming. He was anything but barbarous. 

1 comment:

  1. You point out, what I think, is an all-too-often leaned-on flaw in the argument against prohibition of guns--the idea that the piece of paper, and the men who wrote it, are infallible. I have no issue with reviewing the Constitution to make sure it still makes sense.

    The problem is that there is no clear functional distinction between so-called "assault weapons" and other semiautomatic weapons. The problem is that there is no place to draw a line.

    Proof--New Jersey has an AR ban. Yet I can still buy the culprit, a Sig Sauer MCX, here, if I'm vetted by my town and state for firearm purchase and I pass a background check. The reason for the failure of the ban is that you can't ban the design. There's nothing in the design that makes it clearly, functionally distinct from other semiautos. New Jersey attempts to get around this by banning anything that says "AR-15" on it (which most clone models, like the MCX, do not say anyway--so all you do is prohibit the original producer and a handful of others from doing business). Beyond that, NJ places a series of arbitrary mandates on it:

    *No telescoping/folding stock. You can, however, get a telescoping stock if you have it set permanently. There's nothing saying you can't set it permanently at the shortest position (which from there, obviously, only prohibits you from making the weapon LESS concealable).

    *16" barrel with no flash suppressor or bayonet lug. Another matter of concealability. If you're going to commit mass murder and are really that concerned about the extra 2", you can change your barrel out illegally.

    *The standard NJ 15rd magazine limit. Again, if you're not worried about abiding the law, you can easily find larger mags.

    These things make up one of the most poorly-written laws I've ever had the pleasure of reading, along with one other caveat--a firearm can't bear "substantial resemblance" to a list of military weapons. What more proof do we need of how weak that language is, resting on a weak attempt at distinguishing weapons that look "military" from other killing implements, than the fact that everyone thinks the MCX bears enough "substantial resemblance" to an AR to insist on calling it one, yet it's legal to buy in places with AR bans?

    The amount of misinformation swirling around about the AR platform is making my eyes cross. Fact is, all guns can be used to kill a lot of people, and all have their most lethal scenarios of use. Banning the AR does not take away mass-killing capability. If we're going on precedent, handguns are MUCH worse, even in mass-murders. I've said this elsewhere--I've seen a 9mm Glock with a 100rd drum mag on it. Excessive blowhards abound.

    While I agree with your position on reevaluating the Constitution every so often, it's important to understand that a distinction of lethality cannot actually be drawn on a functional, concrete basis between ARs and other semiautomatic weapons, as evidenced by the government's failure to write an effective ban on multiple occasions. Any line you try to draw there is thus drawn on a slippery slope.

    And the basis of it, "this gun was used to do X," does not set a promising precedent for handgun owners, who own, inarguably, the most lethal guns in America.