Saturday, March 22, 2008

The "Right" to Bear Arms.

One of the most commonly expressed fears emanating from the radical right is that the government will one day take away the guns of lawful citizens. While regulations concerning guns have historically been rather mild, Republican politicians have been able to harness the anxieties of sportsmen and other collectors of firearms in order to defeat their opponents. Organizations like the NRA continue to invest significant funds in lobbying efforts, and any perceived limitations on gun ownership are fought with often disproportionate zeal. Despite the fact that no one with any political power has seriously suggested outlawing the possession of firearms, reactionaries paste provocative messages to the bumpers of their automobiles that dare functionaries to disarm them.

All of this furor naturally results from various interpretations of the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution. Often the exact words of this document are edited or misquoted by those with extreme positions on the issue. For the sake of exactitude, I quote this portion of the Bill of Rights 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."

That certainly seems straightforward, doesn't it? Yet like any other construct of human language, it can be analyzed and interpreted in multiple ways. Does it mean that arms are necessary for the proper functioning of a militia? That seems true beyond doubt. But do those words preceding the comma limit (in any way) the clause that follows? Or were individuals meant to "keep and bear arms" apart from their participation in a militia? And what exactly does "shall not be infringed" entail?

At the time the Constitution was written, it was actually expected that free white men would always be armed for the purpose of "public defense". If you listen to the words of the founding fathers, it seems pretty clear that they included this protection as a way to ensure that the federal government would not be able to exercise unchallenged power. Obviously our ancestors were concerned about preserving their civil liberties against any foreseeable threat. This was a direct outgrowth of arguments in the wake of Shay's Rebellion. Anti-federalists were fearful that the creation of a standing army might lead to a form of military dictatorship. They insisted that James Madison include a specific acknowledgment (as an amendment to the new Constitution) that citizens were entitled to protect themselves against tyranny.

Unfortunately for modern commentators, the historical debate at the time of the writing of the 2nd Amendment involved matters of state security- not individual self-defense. So it's not altogether clear what the founders' intentions would have been regarding a person's desire to accumulate weaponry for its own sake. This right seems more appropriately to be drawn from common criminal law tradition. It's quite clear that restrictions on gun ownership have existed since the very formation of the United States. The South prohibited African-Americans from possessing firearms for the first 100 years of the nation's existence. Additionally, early decisions throughout the country affirmed the state governments' powers to regulate the concealment of weapons.

Regardless of the subjectivity found in the varying opinions regarding the "right to bear arms", it is clear that the American people have tolerated some level of gun regulation ever since the 2nd Amendment was written. It's a shame that we have entered an age in which people feel the necessity to assume black-and-white positions on almost every important social issue. It's frankly ludicrous to suggest that we have an unalienable right to possess any type of arm, in any place, and at any time. Try employing that logic when entering a school, an airport, or a government building- I doubt your decision to carry a handgun will be defended by general public opinion. Yet on the other hand, I don't hear many people express a desire to see private gun ownership eliminated altogether. So I have a hard time figuring out why people consider this a divisive political issue in the first place. Can't we incorporate a bit of nuance into our approach?

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Blogger John Morris said...

You are correct about that Merge. Free citizens with arms constituted the final check on the possible abuse of government power and also a cheap way to have a "just in time" army for national defence.

Of course they also thought people had the right to defend their lives and property. Since so many people lived on farms not far from wilderness they could not have thought "police" as we know them would be practical outside of a few towns and cities.

I think many people are rabid about this issue because they have seen so clearly the current abuses of our government.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yes, I definitely agree that it would have been unthinkable for many early Americans to be without a means to defend themselves, especially on the frontier.

I agree with your theory about why people are so "up in arms" on this issue.

4:58 PM  

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