28 March 2013
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.Then and now: Then, every citizen needed firearms not only to protect land, property and family, but also to protect one's community, township and state from violent intrusions from other states, other peoples, and other nations. Our colonial history taught the wisdom of these words and towns, settlements and traders relied on the right to own and carry weapons. Protection by governmental agencies did not exist as today. Private companies like Pinkerton's preceded local police departments and usually were hired by business owners, trading companies and the Post Office for guarding shipments of payrolls and other cash. Communities and townships had volunteer militias of the people. The concepts of having a national or state standing army were foreign as the stuff of European colonizers. Individuals needed to protect themselves against attacks on their homesteads, their families, their livestock, their churches and communities.
Thus, the Bill of Rights included this right second only to the First Amendment's right to freedom of speech and religion.
From 1787 to the 1930's, America was an agricultural nation first and an industrial country second. The vicissitudes of the Great Depression and World War II changed that. Emerging from the war, America was the predominant industrial nation in the world, most of its industrial rivals having been leveled. Our population has become more and more concentrated in urban and suburban communities. Much of rural, farming America is now corporate-owned and technological advances enable massive tracts of land to be cultivated efficiently. The family-owned farms so characteristic of pre-Depression years struggle to compete financially with the corporate farms.
What changed in the second half of the 20th Century to warrant such strong debates about gun control? In effect, weapons manufacturers, domestic and foreign, sell to the general public weapons they manufacture for military use, in combat, to impose incredible armaments against an enemy. Hand guns, automatic firing pistols, grenade launchers, other automatic and semi-automatic rifles are sold through large retail stores, small gun shops, online via the internet and at gun shows and exhibitions. Weapons designed and manufactured for military personnel are sold to practically anyone with the opportunity and the cash. Additionally, accessories and ammunition are readily available. Only machine guns, aka "tommy guns", are prohibited from being sold to and owned by civilians in the United States. A federal law passed in 1928 as a result of the well-publicized organized crime wars of that era forbade owning machine guns. To my knowledge, it is still in effect. I wonder, however, why only this one, archaic weapon technology falls under this law, since current semi-automatic and automatic pistols and rifles perform the same function as machine guns did.
Horrible instances of mass murder within schools, college campuses, shopping centers, lawyers' offices and other tragic, multiple deaths have caused people to question why these assault weapons are so easily obtained by the perpetrators. Indeed, criminals, drug gangs and organized crime elements use these weapons and the fear of being defenseless against such criminals always dilutes arguments to impose regulatory controls on buying such weapons. Fear of criminals causes many to want to have such arms for protecting themselves, their families and their property. These arguments from many parts of the political spectrum generally lead to little if any legislative will to limit the Second Amendment's stated right to bear arms.
Public opinion polls report that a majority of Americans favor establishing controls on the public's access to those weapons designed for military combat, as cited above. Some people propose universal background checks by all persons desiring to buy any gun or rifle and ammunition. Even the carrying capacity of ammunition, the magazines, would be subject to background checks. Others believe that better enforcement of current laws would be more productive in reducing unregistered weapons in criminal hands. Additional proposals focus on the mental health of purchasers of weapons, ranging from including this in the background check prior to sale, to expanding community mental health resources for persons who may be thinking about using their weapons for attacking other people. One recent commentator maintains that this is not an either/or choice, but a need to address both the weapons for sale and the selling process as well as the mental health education and resources of the communities.
I have lived most of my life in suburban and urban environments. I owned no guns nor did I feel the need. I only used pistols, rifles, and assault weapons while in the Army. In civilian life, I wanted better police departments and sheriffs to protect me and mine. My religious practices turned toward non-violence and peaceful living. I also became fatalistic about becoming a victim of a random urban crime; the dangers of commuting were more pressing.
Since late 2007, however, I have lived on a horse ranch about ten miles from the nearest store. The roads were paved only a few years earlier and I remember when the entire region was open range with cattle grazing everywhere. This is horse country and laced with trails throughout. We own weapons. Awhile back, I spent a long hour trying to frighten off a small pack of large dogs that had invaded our main pasture. I used a 30-gauge, double barreled shotgun firing into the air as I approached the pack. They left and our horses were saved from their harassment. Nightly, we hear coyotes singing and yelping to each other, sometimes in packs, as they roam among the ranches and hills. We have had mountain lions attack sheep and llamas, too. Further, the more isolated houses are vulnerable to break-ins by armed thieves and many ranches have elaborate alarm and protection devices to guard against a criminal invasion. Most lock their doors when they are home, rather than when they are away. And, most people have outside dogs that help keep intruders away.
I would feel very exposed without having firearms available to me. I didn't understand when I lived in cities why personal firearms could be necessary. I now do.
Some people argue that we require training, testing and registration for a driver's license, yet similar requirements do not apply to owning firearms. This argument is a false comparison: a driver's license is a privilege controlled by each state. Owning a firearm is a right by dint of The Constitution.
Why might this right to bear arms have relevance today? There have been times in the past 12 years, especially after the passage of The Patriot Act and other anti-terrorist security legislation when it seemed quite possible for the President to establish a totalitarian government. That legislation is still in place, by the way. Habeas Corpus was suspended, secret courts issue warrants for domestic spying, citizens could and can be detained as suspected enemy combatants (a term that avoids the Geneva Convention). Such was the control of media and news information by the Bush-Cheney Administration during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike during Viet Nam, in the all-volunteer military, there are no mothers of draftees writing to Congress about the wars. Embedded press toed the official line or they would be sent home. No more war on the 6 O'Clock news.
Those circumstances were and remain apt for an individual's right to bear arms. On the other hand, it would be just as easy if not more appropriate to move abroad or over the borders to Canada or Mexico.
In the end, I have concluded that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is inviolate, with some caveats that do not diminish that right. First, the state and federal governments have the ability to enact controls on the types of firearms an individual can buy. Manufacturers could be prohibited from selling military grade weapons to civilians. Regarding magazines, ammunition and other accessories that transform pistols and rifles into military-like assault weapons, the local and state governments could impose weapon apparatus or accessory controls like they have for recreational drug users.
I believe that universal background checks for prior violence or felonious behavior, age and permanent residency are appropriate at all reseller locations, including gun fairs and manufacturer exhibitions. Creating a mental health criterion, however, is worrisome. The only circumstances for a behavioral or cognitive personality trait to be a recorded "mental health" criterion should be limited to those individuals who are identified in public records of courts that would restrict an individual's right to bear arms. Education and public health agencies and institutions should expand their services to enable proper safety for gun users, parents who own guns should be able to access instructional resources concerning weapon safety in storage and in use, indications of behavior that might indicate violent personality traits developing in their children, and a general community awareness of gun safety, violence as a public health issue as well as criminal issues, and the availability of help from community public and private resources.
Ask a parent or any adult about allowing children to play with or to have access to chain saws, miter saws, lawn mowers and other yard tools kept in a work place or garage. For that matter, access to a car can be a dangerous circumstance for a toddler or curious child, even if they only want to crawl underneath. Why should we be any less diligent and guarded about the guns we keep at home? Why wouldn't it be logical to teach children and others about gun safety, about preventing access to our guns, and about how to respond to a crisis or emergency should those efforts fail?
Our Second Amendment Rights bring responsibilities for all citizens to exercise those rights for the good of the community, for our own safety and for the safety of our families. Just as the other Constitutional rights have limits under our system of laws, so does the right to keep and to bear arms.