The United States is a nation born out of revolution. In the face of tyrannical British rule, the thirteen colonies combined to form the first version of the United States of America, and in so doing declared independence from British authority. As was to be expected, Great Britain resisted, and the armed conflict known as the American Revolutionary War ensued. Tens of thousands of American militiamen and British soldiers died as a result, most as a result of starvation and disease, but many as a direct result of battle. From the very beginning, guns helped to ensure that the revolution took hold and stood firm, and helped to shape the kind of nation that future generations would inherit. The American gun culture was born.
The founding fathers certainly recognized the significance of an armed citizenry, both as a practical matter and as a symbolic representation of the inexplicable factor that distinguishes the United States from other nations, which some have called American exceptionalism. Both ideas are encapsulated in the following quote from James Madison, a founding father, chief drafter of the Constitution, and our fourth President: “Americans have the right and advantage of being armed – unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.”
It is no surprise, then, that Madison, who is oftentimes named the “Father of the Bill of Rights,” was instrumental in drafting the Second Amendment, which protects United States Citizens’ rights to keep and to bear arms, as follows: “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.” Although the language of the Second Amendment was not controversial at the time of ratification, the years that followed brought ever-increasing scrutiny and debate as to exactly what the right to “keep and bear arms” means, and in particular whether or not the prescribed right protects and guarantees an individual’s right to bear arms unconnected with militia service.
The United States Supreme Court addressed that very issue in the landmark District of Columbia et al. v. Heller decision in 2008, in which the Court held that “[t]he Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” The matter, though not settled, was clarified.
Although discussion and analysis of issues related to the Second Amendment could fill volumes of law review articles, the above paragraphs paint a basic picture of where we are today. As an individual American citizen, I have a fundamental Constitutional right to own a gun. And yet, although I agree with the Court’s analysis and remain an advocate of this right, in the wake of the unconscionable recent events in Newtown, Connecticut, I find myself asking: to what extent? As my hands literally shake with anger while I type these words, I ask myself whether or not laws as currently written concerning individual gun ownership are worth the consequences? These are questions that must be addressed carefully and thoughtfully. Newtown is a turning point for our country. These kinds of events cannot become accepted as the new normal. Something must change.
The gun debate is not new, and it is incredibly polarizing, but I believe it is necessary. Sadly, the debate is oftentimes reduced to one-dimensional one-liners that are designed to stifle any meaningful discussion. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” “From my cold dead hands.” “The liberals are coming to take our guns.” I have heard them all, and frequently. The other side of the issue is equally guilty, in my estimation, oftentimes demonizing organizations like the NRA rather than offering a constructive, well-reasoned argument. Surely this issue is worthy of a more serious examination, which may require us to step down off our high horse of preconceived notions for a moment and think logically.
There must be a solution that preserves the fundamental Constitutional right to bear arms, while simultaneously addressing the very apparent problems wrought by the deeply ingrained American gun culture. To be frank, I am hesitant to propose what that solution should be, because I recognize that I do not have the requisite expertise. I do not often agree with David Gergen, but he is an expert, and his proposal, which I include word for word below, in my opinion very likely offers a reasonable starting place:
1. To own a gun, you must first have a license — and it shouldn’t be easy to get. The right parallel is to cars: Everyone over a prescribed age is entitled to drive. But cars are dangerous, so we first require a license — determining that you are fit to drive. Citizens have a right to bear arms, but guns are dangerous, too. So, get a license.
There are a number of issues with our current system of state-based permits. First, variation in gun regulations from state to state deeply complicates enforcement efforts. Arizona, for instance, allows concealed carry without any permit, while its neighbor California has implemented the strongest gun laws in the country. We must design a sensible federal gun control policy to address the current legal chaos.
As we construct a federal licensing system, we should look to California. The state requires all gun sales to be processed through a licensed dealer, mandating background checks and a ten-day waiting period; bans most assault weapons and all large-capacity magazines; closes the nonsensical gun-show loophole; and maintains a permanent record of all sales.
2. If you are a civilian, you can’t buy an assault gun. Hunters don’t need military style weapons, nor do homeowners who want to be able to protect their families. They are far too popular among people who shouldn’t have access to guns in the first place. We should restore the federal ban that has expired.
3. Parents should be heavily advised to keep guns out of their houses and out of the hands of kids. No one wants to blame the poor mother of the Connecticut shooter, but everyone wonders why she kept so many military-style guns in the house, so accessible to her son. It’s hard to believe, but roughly a third of households with children younger than 18 contain at least one gun. In too many neighborhoods in America — not just in big cities — parents who don’t allow guns in their homes are apprehensive, even frightened, by their kids playing at homes where they are kept.
Some will argue that the above steps do not offer a viable solution, but for the sake of our children’s safety, do we not have a moral obligation to try? I am reminded of steps that Australia took following a mass killing of 35 in 1996. The government bought back more than 600,000 semi-automatic weapons and required registration of all owned weapons. What was the result? Homicides by firearm dropped by 59% between 1995 and 2006. Suicides by gun dropped by 65%. Robberies involving firearms decreased. Most strikingly, in the 10 years prior to the mass killing that spurred the legislation, there were 11 similar mass shootings in the country. In the 15-plus years since the legislation was enacted, there have been no mass shootings in Australia. Surely, there must be a correlation.
Admittedly, the United States is a much different place, with a more deeply ingrained gun culture and many, many more guns. There is no guarantee that a similar law would have an analogous effect. It would be foolish to believe that new gun laws offer a fail-safe solution, because there is no such thing. Sadly, future similar tragedies will likely occur, regardless of governmental intervention, but do we not have a moral obligation to create a legal framework that makes gun ownership, and therefore gun possession, much more difficult? The Second Amendment is a Constitutional right, and the manner in which Constitutional rights apply is continually evolving. We must be willing to evolve, adapt, and yes, even make sacrifices, if there is even a chance that good will come. I will gladly accept a narrower interpretation of my Second Amendment rights if there is a chance that our children will grow up in a less-violent country.
Something must change. President Obama is wrong on many issues, but he rightly said in his memorial service speech that our first task as a society is “caring for our children…If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.” Certainly, this is a Biblical concept. The Bible places great emphasis on the value of children in society. They are called a heritage from the Lord. To an extent, they are our examples as Christians, for unless we become as little children, the Bible tells us, we have no hope. Unless we exemplify the humility of children, we have no reward. We have a duty to protect them. Jesus took children into his arms and blessed them.
I believe that the real and lasting solution to our societal problems – gun violence included – starts in rehabilitation of the home, but surely there are stop-gap measures we can take. Perhaps a reevaluation of the Second Amendment is a good place to start. I don’t know if it will work, but I can think of 20 innocent reasons why it’s worth a try.