“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.”
There is probably no other section of our Constitution that is currently more controversial than this one. In my own opinion, the amendment guarantees the right of the people to keep and bear arms only in the context of a well-regulated militia. I invite any old English grammar experts to render an honest opinion on the literal meaning of that sentence. I am not one, but I cannot interpret it in any way that does not link the right of the people to “keep and bear Arms” to a “well regulated Militia.” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Number 29, “If a well regulated militia be the most natural defence of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security.” Of course, the body he was referring to was the Executive Branch.
However, the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 in District of Columbia vs. Heller that “the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home” and “that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense.” This ruling clearly articulated the Court’s view that individuals have a right to bear arms.
Though I am not convinced that the original intent of the 2nd Amendment was to allow the individual right to bear arms outside of well-regulated militias, for practical purposes, that is the law of the land today. Even President Barack Obama supports an individual right to bear arms. In one of the 2008 Democratic Primary debates, he said, “As a general principle, I believe that the Constitution confers an individual right to bear arms. But just because you have an individual right does not mean that the state or local government can’t constrain the exercise of that right, in the same way that we have a right to private property but local governments can establish zoning ordinances that determine how you can use it.”
Despite my view that the text of the second Amendment does not provide for an individual right to bear arms, I do agree that there should be such a right and I applaud the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling. I think the D.C. law on handguns was overly restrictive. Please note that the dictionary definition of the word “arms” is weapons, not just guns/firearms. I think a better label for this conversation is weapons or arms control rather than gun control, because there are other types of deadly weapons beyond guns (i.e. weapons of mass destruction) that should be regulated in the interest of public safety.
No other objective is more important for the federal government than public safety. President Bush stated as much several times in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In the interest of public safety, we do not allow individuals to purchase weapons of mass destruction. If you set out to create your own anthrax, or VX gas, and you are discovered, you will go to jail. Similarly, individuals are not allowed to own rocket propelled grenade launchers and mortars. They cannot even own heavy machine guns like the mounted, fully-automatic 50 caliber variety. Who in their right mind believes it is a good idea for these types of deadly, mass casualty-causing weapons to be legal for the general public? The point is that while current law supports the notion of an individual right to bear arms, the government clearly regulates what types of weapons individuals can own, and what types of weapons should be banned in the interest of public safety. In United States vs. Miller (1939), the Supreme Court rejected a second Amendment challenge, ruling that it was permissible for the State of Arkansas to prohibit sawed-off double barrel shotguns with barrels shorter than 18 inches. An informed debate on arms control and the 2nd Amendment should center around a discussion of what types of weapons are too dangerous for ownership by the general population. It’s all about where we draw the line.
The federal government should ensure that there is a baseline law governing what types of weapons are too deadly for public ownership, and then allow states and local governments to be more restrictive up to a certain point. It is perfectly reasonable for rural Montana to have less restrictive arms control laws than, say, urban Los Angeles. I believe it to be acceptable for individuals to be able to own handguns and hunting rifles. Handguns make sense for personal protection in the home, and hunting is a valued American tradition.
However, automatic weapons like assault rifles (i.e. sub-machine guns, M4s, AK-47s, and other high-powered automatic rifles) are not necessary for protection in the home or for hunting. They are designed for causing mass human casualties in a short amount of time and are appropriate only for law enforcement and the military. In the interest of public safety, the recently expired assault weapons ban should be reinstated and made permanent. The 1997 North Hollywood Shootout and the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre are good examples of the danger of allowing public ownership of assault weapons. The AR 15 assault rifle that was used in the Hollywood Shootout was not illegal at the time. (However, the AR 15 used by one of the shooters had been illegally modified to turn it into a fully-automatic weapon.)
We also now have and should maintain reasonable laws to prevent dangerous and mentally unstable criminals from owning any deadly weapons, especially firearms. Prior to the 1993 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (which was fiercely opposed by Republicans), there was no requirement for any sort of criminal or mental health background check individuals seeking to purchase a handgun.
In the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, it became known that the shooter’s history of serious mental health illness was properly reported to Virginia authorities; however, because of inadequate laws, Virginia did not report Seung-Hui Cho’s status to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which would have barred Cho from purchasing the guns he ultimately used to slaughter 32 people.
Most people know about the elephant-sized loophole in federal and state gun laws through gun shows. Individuals can purchase weapons at gun shows without any sort of background check. (One notable exception to the gun show loophole is Pennsylvania.) This renders the Brady Bill and other laws requiring criminal and mental health background checks on gun purchases meaningless because criminals and the dangerously mentally ill have a very easy way of legally purchasing firearms. There is simply no rational explanation for this. It is an affront to one’s conscience with respect to proper public safety laws and should be redressed by the Congress as soon as possible.