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. — Amendment II, United States Constitution
This is one of those areas where, if I were running for office, I would have both sides of the debate trying to bankroll my defeat. Once again, legally purchased guns are at the center of an unspeakable tragedy in Colorado, and the perennial debate over the Second Amendment gets fresh fuel.
Full disclosure: I have never owned a gun and don’t plan to. That said, I do not regard gun owners as scary or unstable people. OK, some of them, but I could say the same about many non-gun owners. The point is, I don’t have a dog in this fight.
The debate over the Second Amendment is about as futile as it gets. We can only guess at the unexpressed assumptions buried in this tortured sentence. The only one made explicit is the need for a “well regulated militia.” Those three words alone have consumed an ocean of ink in the debate over their interpretation. What seems clear is that the founders intended local militias as a check on the national government’s power, particularly should that government build large, standing armies.
Let’s dispense with that one quickly. Assuming the intent was to counter federal military power, that train left the station about a century ago. When in the past 100 years has it been possible for loosely organized citizens armed with light weapons to challenge the increasingly formidable hardware of a modern army? It’s pure fantasy. If our national government were to turn on us to the point of provoking a violent insurrection, only a widespread mutiny within the military could offer any hope of victory.
So, on the most significant count, the Second Amendment is already obsolete. But other “givens” of 18th century life may well be embedded here, so obvious that it would have insulted the people’s intelligence to spell them out. What are they? Here are a few possibilities:
– People in the 18th century tended to put their own meat on the table with their own weapons.
– There was no policing as we know it; self-defense was always up to the individual, and law enforcement came after the fact.
– Any other threats that existed, whether from wild animals or displaced Native Americans, were likewise for the individual to confront.
None of these conditions, which were woven into the framers’ consciousness, are nearly as relevant today. If you live in the backwoods, yes, the nearest cop may be far away. Some people still hunt for food, not for sport. Some live at times perilously close to nature.
But by and large, the Second Amendment – even if you read into it only what’s explicit– is an answer to questions that aren’t even on the table today. There are other questions, though. What’s the proper treatment of firearms in a society beset with drug- and gang-related violence, where guns are cheap, plentiful and able to do more harm, more quickly, than our forefathers could have imagined? When does self-defense cross into vigilantism in a society where organized law enforcement is a critical line of defense against crime?
I’m not implying any particular answer in posing those questions. But the conversation needs to be had over a blank sheet of paper. As long as we talk in circles around the Second Amendment, we’ll keep passing the same old landmarks without reaching a destination. The premise of the gun debate needs to shift to the replacement of the Second Amendment. Not plain repeal — we could never live with that vacuum — but replacement.
I don’t kid myself that this will ever happen. It would require a mass political suicide unprecedented perhaps in the history of elected governments. But I can dream.
Meanwhile, I’ll consider some of the imponderables, such as this one: why the tie between evangelical Christians and gun rights advocates? I’m sure many Christian gun owners hold their views on the Second Amendment separate from their faith. Still, sometimes I wonder whether I would be considered un-Christian if the person sitting behind me in church knew my views.
Is there something I’m missing in the New Testament? Or is it the thought process of people who are convinced God is a Republican, and Republicans favor gun rights, therefore God favors gun rights? Just asking.