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Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Most people recognize that our rights are not absolute. The First Amendment says we have the right to free speech, and yet we know that we cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater (unless there is actually a fire). Similarly, our right to free speech is limited by laws against slander and libel.
In the same way, our right to bear arms is not absolute. We have to balance the right to bear arms against other rights, such as the right not to fear that first-graders might be shot to death in their schoolrooms or that we might be shot to death in a movie theater.
Furthermore, the right to bear arms is often misunderstood. In the debate over gun rights and gun safety, a half-truth is central to the discussion. The half truth is the idea that all Americans have a constitutional right to own any firearm. This half-truth is consistent with the second half of the Second Amendment: “. . . the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” But the first half of the Second Amendment is often forgotten: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, . . . .” Focusing on only the second half of the Second Amendment has led to a distortion of the true meaning.
Reading the entire amendment, the explicit purpose of the amendment is to provide for “the security of a free State,” and the explicit means of providing this security is through “a well regulated militia.” It is clear that lone gunmen taking assault weapons and large quantities of ammunition into movie theaters, malls, temples or classrooms has nothing to do with providing the security of a free state. Obviously, such a gunman taking such weapons into such places is detrimental to the security of a free state.
The distortion of the meaning of the Second Amendment is actively supported by the National Rifle Association. The primary mission of the NRA is, arguably, maintaining and increasing the profits of the corporations that manufacture and sell firearms and shooting-related profits. The Violence Policy Center reports the majority of NRA’s “corporate partner” funding comes from these types of corporations. It is in the interest of these corporations to sell as many firearms as possible. However, it is not in the interest of the American people that these corporations sell as many firearms as possible.
In order to return to the original purpose and meaning of the Second Amendment, I propose the following. Let the federal government establish regulations regarding militia. Militia organizations would be accountable for the actions of their members. Militia members might be allowed to store their weapons in the home, but if a militia member committed a crime involving a weapon, the specific militia would be accountable. If a militia member committed mass violence, the specific militia organization might be dissolved. Militia might decide to require an interview with a psychiatrist for anyone seeking membership. Such organizational accountability would ensure some measure of oversight, as opposed to the free for all we have now.
For those who are not militia members, gun ownership would be a privilege, not a right. Those who are not a member of a militia would be able to own small arms, but might not have the right to own assault weapons, high-capacity magazines or hollow-point bullets.
This proposal will be opposed by the NRA. In its quest to maintain and enhance the profits of gun manufacturers, the NRA has taken increasingly extreme positions. Recently, the NRA has even backed away from its previous support for universal background checks for those wishing to purchase firearms. Why? Because universal background checks would slightly erode profit margins for the firearm manufacturers. Most Americans, however — and even the vast majority of gun owners — support universal background checks for would-be gun purchasers. Surely universal background checks would contribute to the security we all seek.
I believe that the framework proposed above would allow the vast majority of citizens to own the guns that they want for sport and for protection while at the same time establishing both a greater sense of accountability in the use of guns and greater security for citizens of our free nation.
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