Gun ownership: an inconvenient right

Whenever there is a terrible tragedy such as the Tucson shootings, the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms  becomes a subject of debate.

I am not a gun person myself.  I don’t own a gun.  I don’t have a hunting license.  I have fired guns less than half a dozen times since I qualified in marksmanship in Army basic training back in 1956.  I am not an expert on existing gun legislation.  But I don’t think it is necessary to be an expert to be aware of certain truths.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes the right to keep and bear arms an individual right.  Because of the wording – “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” – some people hold that it only applies to members of the National Guard and Army Reserve.  But this is not how it has been understood, either in the Founders generation or by the present-day Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Joseph Story, in his influential Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, had this to say:

“§ 1889. The next amendment is “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.

Ҥ 1890. The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them. [FN1]

And yet, thought this truth would seem so clear, and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised, that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline, and a strong disposition, from a sense of its burthens, to be rid of all regulations. How is it practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger, that indifference may lead to disgust, and disgust to contempt; and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights. [FN2]

via Justice Joseph Story on the Second Amendment.

That reads almost like a manifesto of one of the self-organized “militias” of today.

Justice Story’s vision is realized less by the present-day United States than by Switzerland, which depends for its defense on a citizen army, many of whom keep high-firepower arms at home.  In the United States, citizen militias proved inferior to disciplined British troops on the battlefield in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; we defeated the British in the Revolution by outlasting them and by calling in the aid of professional French troops.

But the Second Amendment still stands.  The U.S. Supreme court ruled in District of Columbia vs. Heller in 2008 that “the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home.”  And last June in McDonald vs. Chicago, it ruled that this right applies against state and local governments.

You may or may not agree with that interpretation, but until or unless the Supreme Court changes its collective mind, this is the law of the land.

Self-defense is a fundamental human right.  Throughout history and across cultures, there are two things that have been denied to subjugated peoples and glasses – the right to own weapons and the right to testify in court; in other words, the right to protect yourself or be protected by the laws.  In ancient, medieval and early modern times, democracy existed only when the mass of the people had weapons and not just aristocrats and the royal bodyguard.

Aristotle’s Politics ridicules the idea that citizenship is possible without weapons and military service.  How can an unarmed person resist subjugation? he asks.  The tradition of many of the Oriental martial arts is that they arose among oppressed people who were denied access to weapons, and learned to make their own bodies into deadly weapons.

Possibly that is why guns and gun-wielders – the Minute Men, Daniel Boone, the Texas Rangers, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok – are an integral part of the American cultural heritage, just as swords are part for Japan.

Ownership of firearms by responsible, law-abiding adults is not a social problem.  When I grew up in small-town western Maryland in the 1940s, every household had a hunting rifle, and many boys (not me, though) learned to use guns as part of coming of age.  Somehow we managed not to kill each other.  There are many other examples – Vermont in the United States, and Switzerland in Europe – where people own a lot of guns and yet the crime rate is low.

It is true, though, that nobody back in Williamsport, Md., owned rapid-fire weapons with 30 rounds to a clip.  And nobody took weapons to school.  Basic Constitutional rights are subject to reasonable regulations that are consistent with their purpose.  The First Amendment does not confer a right to shout “fire” in a crowded theater.  The right to vote is subject to residency requirements and can be denied to convicted felons.  The Supreme Court has held that the Second Amendment does not overturn laws forbidding guns in schools and public buildings, banning concealed weapons and the like.

With rights go responsibilities.  My father was devoted to deer hunting.  I remember each year, prior to deer season, he would spread newspaper on the kitchen table, and dismantle, clean and oil his rifle.  One of his most frequent admonitions was, “A gun is not a toy.”  I am thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that one of the worst things you could ever do would be to allow the muzzle of a gun to point toward someone.  No hunter from my home town would have shot a companion in the face, as Vice President Richard Cheney did.

I think everyone who does own a gun should take a firearms safety course from the National Rifle Association or its equivalent.  A friend of mine thinks the high schools should offer firearms education, just as they offer driver education.

People who leave loaded guns within reach of small children should not be tolerated (by “not be tolerated,” I mean “yelled at,” not “arrested”).   Taking loaded weapons to political rallies is an extremely bad idea, whether by white Anglo Protestants or members of the Black Panther Party of Self-Defense.

As I wrote, I don’t own a gun myself.  I’m not a hunter.  To be ready to use a gun for self-defense,  I would have to prepare myself mentally to be willing to take a human life. Otherwise the gun would be useless.  Nothing in my life circumstances induces me even contemplate this.  That’s not to say I never would. if my circumstances changed.  Nor is it to say that other people ought to be like me.


Click on Supreme Court affirms fundamental right to bear arms for a Washington Post article on the 2010 McDonald vs. Chicago decision setting limits on firearms legislation.

Click on Citizenship in Emergency for an article by Elaine Scarry in Boston Review on the broader meaning of the Second Amendment and citizen self-defense.  The article is long, but worth reading and printing out.

Click on Choose the Right Gun for advice from columnist Charley Reese  to those contemplating arming themselves for self-defense.

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2 Responses to “Gun ownership: an inconvenient right”

  1. Tweets that mention Gun ownership: an inconvenient right « Phil Ebersole's Blog -- Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Todd Inman, Gold Country FNRA. Gold Country FNRA said: Gun ownership: an inconvenient right « Phil Ebersole's Blog […]


  2. Leif Rakur Says:

    Like the Second Amendment itself, the quoted Story passage is about the importance of a well-regulated militia, not about individuals carrying arms on private missions. And a well-regulated militia is one that is governed by what Washington called a “well regulated Militia Law.”

    In the last quoted paragraph, Story says that if Americans should continue resisting service in a well-regulated militia, that could undermine ALL the protection intended by the Second Amendment. That doesn’t seem to leave any Second Amendment protection for persons outside the well-regulated militia.


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