Bill of Rights

Guns, Assault Weapons, and the 2nd Amendment 10

Bill of RightsI’m writing this post on January 16, 2013 — the same day that President Obama released a document entitled Now Is The Time: The President’s plan to protect our children and our communities by reducing gun violence. The full text of the document is available here.

This blog post isn’t a response to that document — but it is a response to part of it, most notably his main point #2: Banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and taking other common-sense steps to reduce gun violence. This post is also a response to much of the discussions I’ve heard lately on the TV and radio, social media, and in-person. All of the links in this blog post will reference original, official documents. My belief is that original documentation is extremely valuable, particularly in times and concerning subjects where opinions seem to be proffered as replacements for facts. So please take the time to “fact check” this post by actually reading the appropriate parts of the documents to which I link (they’ll open in a new window). Even if you don’t agree with me, you’ll at least be better informed when it’s all over.

On June 8, 1789, James Madison (who was then serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and 20 years later would become the 4th President of the United States) proposed a bill to the House of Representatives which included a number of proposals for modifications to the country’s brand new Constitution (which had only gone into effect a mere three months prior). As with all proposals brought to the floor of the House, the original text of Madison’s proposals are public record, available at the Library of Congress by clicking here. It’s worth a read.

Following Madison’s proposal, a House Committee was formed on July 21st, and a mere one week later on July 28th, that committee provided a report back to the House, which was tabled until August 17th, when it was read into the House Record. Eventually, after discussion, debate, and a few rounds of modification by both the House and the Senate, the final versions of what would later be ratified as the first ten amendments to the Constitution were entered in the congressional journal. The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution read:

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.

Madison’s opinions on firearms in the hands of the People were never in doubt. He made them clear on a number of occasions, most notably a year before proposing the 2nd Amendment, in his Federalist No. 46 (part of the Federalist Papers, a collection of essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay in an effort to convince the States to ratify the Constitution), in which he states:

Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments, to which the people are attached, and by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition, more insurmountable than any which a simple government of any form can admit of. Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms. And it is not certain, that with this aid alone they would not be able to shake off their yokes.

As the recent national debate has unfolded, I’ve heard opinions about what “the framers intended” with the 2nd Amendment, including preserving the right to hunt or have target practice. Both arguments are absurd; ammunition was far too expensive in the 18th century to be used for something as frivolous as target practice, and hunting was simply a way of life for those who wanted to keep eating.

As unpopular as this notion may be among a number of vocal citizens and politicians, it’s hard to argue that at the time of its ratification, particularly after one studies the debates among the members of the House and Senate who accepted it, that the primary purpose of 2nd Amendment’s right of the People to bear arms was so that they could bear them as defensive weapons. And further, the entity against which “the framers” clearly believed the People might have the greatest need to bear arms in defense was the government itself! Those who wrote and agreed to this amendment still had the memory fresh in their minds of having to resort to firearms to defend themselves against an oppressive government, and so their primary purpose in adding the “bear arms” portion of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution was to ensure that citizens of the United States always had the right to defend themselves against an oppressive government, were they ever to need to do so again. I actually believe that the right of self-defense against individual threats, while important, is a secondary right provided by the 2nd Amendment.

From the discussions I’ve heard, it seems there are some who feel that the right of individual citizens to bear arms is no longer necessary in the modern age; that after a mere 237 years of existence (which is adolescent by historic geopolitical standards), somehow America has “outgrown” the risk of its government stepping so far out of bounds that its citizenry may need to convince it to step back in using means other than a voting booth.

It’s my opinion that those people are wrong… but in addition to the protections afforded under the 2nd Amendment, those people (and you may be one of them), are also protected by the 1st Amendment, which allows them to share their opinion freely — just as it allows me to publish this blog without fear of being arrested… or worse. I support the protection of free speech as much as I do any other protection granted by the Constitution.

There are some who apparently feel, due to recent events, that now is an appropriate time to exchange some of their rights in return for the promise of increased security (note that it’s only a promise… from a politician, and not a guarantee). “We’ve to do something,” they say. As his rally cry, the President is even promoting the Twitter hashtag #NowIsTheTime. Of course, I can’t think of that phrase without hearing Michael Jackson sing “For you and I to cuddle close togethaaaaahhhhhh” after it. But I digress…

In the coming weeks and months, I imagine there will be much discussion about the President’s proposals. I actually support 75% of the “headlines” of his plan: #1 Stronger background checks, #3 Making schools safer, and #4 Increasing access to mental health services. I don’t know yet if I can support all the details of those steps, but those concepts sound great to me. My problem is with #2 – which matches the number of the Amendment under attack, and I don’t think that’s any coincidence. I don’t support banning “military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines” for two reasons: 1) I don’t believe that will have any effect on gun violence, and 2) doing so would move us further away from the original intent of the right to bear arms in self-defense against oppressive individuals and/or entities. One day, maybe you and I, or maybe our kids, or maybe their kids, or maybe their kids’ kids’ kids’ kids will wish they had a “military-style assault weapon” with a “high-capacity magazine” to defend themselves against an assault that employs those same weapons. Or perhaps they’ll need to mount an assault of their own. Sure. Go ahead and laugh. But history is replete with accounts of populations who “never believed it could happen to them.” America is wonderful… but it’s young, and like every other civilization throughout history, it will always be vulnerable to the stages of Toynbee’s Theory of Decay (Google it – seriously).

However, what actually upsets me most in this debate is the rampant dishonesty displayed by those who wish to tip-toe around the truth — and if you’re one of those people, I hope reading this next part will convince you to change your tack.

If you’re among those who believe that we’ve outgrown the need for the 2nd Amendment, then please just be honest and say it that way. Instead of trying to convince yourself and others that the 2nd Amendment was originally intended to protect hunters, or marksmen, or enthusiasts, or only the right for in-home self-defense, or that its intent has somehow otherwise morphed since its original ratification in 1791 (although I don’t see anyone claiming such nonsense about any of the remaining 9 Amendments in the Bill of Rights), and instead of further attempting to use those arguments as justification for passing laws that infringe upon the rights guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment, please just have the courage to stand up and declare that you want to see the 2nd Amendment repealed. It’s not without precedent. We’ve done it once before (the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th). As I’ve stated above, I’d argue against such a position, but at least we’d both be arguing from a position of integrity. Don’t attempt to change the facts to justify your opinion. State your opinion in light of the facts. If you want to buoy your opinion by invoking shootings in malls, schools, or movie theaters, that’s fine. Just be honest about it.

Of course I feel awful for the families, friends, and even complete strangers who’ve been affected by recent tragic events in which the criminals used firearms. As a parent who’s lost a child myself, I know that while time and therapy can help fade the pain, it can never take it away. I don’t blame any of those parents who might be looking for answers. But taking an eraser to the Constitution isn’t the right answer. Hopefully, some of the other proposals in the President’s plan will lead us to the right answers.

This probably won’t be my last blog post on this subject. But regardless of how the conversation goes from here, it needs to start with all of us being honest with ourselves and with each other. There’s no middle ground. You either support the 2nd Amendment as written, and as originally intended, and as upheld by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, or you support removing it from the Constitution.

It’s time to pick a side.

Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. But if I feel you’re being dishonest, I may call you on it… or I may just delete your B.S. comment. The 1st Amendment protects my right to do so. 🙂

  • William Roberto Phelan

    I fully agree with your post…if the essence is no longer acceptable or required, then the path is to repeal.

  • Dawn

    That was good reading Steve. I always like when gun enthusiasts recognize where the 2nd amendment came from 😉 I’m personally conflicted here. I’m the only member of my family that doesn’t own any guns, but I support people’s rights to do so. And I agree that banning things won’t stop criminals (things like laws, rules, bans, locks, those are intended for people with moral compasses) but I struggle to understand why someone _needs_ an assault rifle, or high capacity rounds. I really just don’t understand it. But man, does this country need an overall in the mental health system 🙁

    • Thanks for the well thought out comment, Dawn.

      I think maybe we should append “right now” to the question “Does someone _need_ an assault rifle or high capacity magazines?”. And I think most rational people would argue that there is no _immediate_ need today. But if you believe Toynbee’s model, and believe that if we’re not already in the universal state, we’re at least headed in that direction, then the question should be “Is there any potential that there will be a point in the future where I, my descendants, or any other citizen may need an assault rifle.” And if there’s any chance that the answer is “yes,” then we would be foolish citizens to allow our government to take away that right… particularly if you consider our history (and the history of any country) and believe legislators and executives are likely to restore rights that have previously been removed. Governments generally aren’t in the business of giving back things that they’ve taken away. History shows that it’s always the citizens who have to take it back — including recent history. The Arab Spring is a prime example, most notably the current conflict in Syria. The only reason Bashar al-Assad hasn’t been able to wipe the Syrian rebels completely off the map is because the rebels have some semi-decent firepower. They’re still way outgunned by the Syrian Army, but at least they’re still in the fight, and have been able to prolong it to the point where the world is starting to take notice and put pressure on al-Assad to step down.

      • Dawn

        Yup, I think your suggested “right now” addition is appropriate. Or rather, I would prepend with a “for me” statement as in “Do I need an assault rifle or high capacity rounds?” For me, the answer is no. And as with other decisions of ‘choice’, I don’t feel like I have the right to tell people what the answer is for them.

  • Are you going to go to the Rally in Olympia Saturday ? An Armed peaceful rally from noon to four. (they’re meeting up at 11am) but they’re encouraging open carry, some are bringing long guns. the “Militia” at its finest.

    (side note, read Article X of the Wa state constitution sometime… very interesting)

  • I am in agreement! The so-called “assault weapons” bans prohibit the very firearms the Second Amendment was written to protect, modern muskets. It was clearly intended that the American people be able to posses the same arms a soldier would carry in to battle. The Framers specified the word “arms” in the Second Amendment because they knew arms would advance with technology, much like modern media has advanced from the printing press. So should our Constitutional rights not apply to technological advancements? Should we not apply our freedoms to other modern practices that weren’t commonplace during the late 18th Century? Obviously the answer to these questions is NO. Their is no “Freedom of the Blog” amendment. So why then are the People being asked to give up their right to keep and bear modern muskets?

  • sjhovey

    My reason for having a firearm is simple. Before I married and had a family, when I was single, I never thought about it. But many times it has become all to clear that there are places in this country that can never be protected by law enforcement authorities. When we bought our first home our homeowners association had a meeting and prevailed upon the County Sheriff’s office to send representatives. They urged all homeowners to legally obtain a firearm, learn to use it and store it safely. No law enforcement in this country can guarantee absolute safety and it is the inherent responsibility of each family to provide for their own protection. In obedience to that advice every one of us did so. Nothing has changed in this country since to negate that advice I received 30 years ago. Hence, no law passed will take that right away from me that is guaranteed by the Constitution.

  • George P.

    Re: Dawn’s comments. I don’t even think “right now” or “for me” is the real issue. Starting a “banning” process is a slippery slope. Ban the assault weapons or high capacity mags, and what’s next? A very DANGEROUS slippery slope.

  • Pres Obama has called his proposals “common sense”. They are very real and rational responses to “gun violence”. However, the “assault weapons” ban very clearly falls into the prohibited area of the “shall not be infringed” portion of the 2nd Amendment.

    We need to ask all our elected representatives if it is “common sense” to act contrary to the “law of the land”, the very Constitution they are all, by oath and law, obligated to “protect and defend”.

    We have “common sense” laws that prohibit burglary, robbery, rape, and murder. Yet, these crimes continue to occur.

    Various Drugs are “banned” yet they continue to flourish.

    None of the remedies will make a difference to those who currently don’t obey laws. They only represent an illegal attempt to abridge the 2nd Amendment.

    Respect it or Repeal it.

    John (the Dad) Larson

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