In the wake of the particularly grotesque mass shooting in Connecticut, we are bound to have heated debates on the correct course of legislative action to address the high number of gun deaths in this country. Before I give my opinion on the matter – for whatever it is worth – I would like to talk about some of the unavoidable arguments over the 2nd Amendment that are to ensue shortly. Those who are against more stringent gun controls will usually take an unnuanced individual rights and/or common defense interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. The exact wording of the 2nd Amendment is 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.”
Naturally, the wording would lead one to believe that the common defense aspect was an important factor, if not the most important factor, at the time the Constitution was drafted, and with good reason. We did not have a standing army at the time and there were concerns about European powers getting that covetous look in their eyes. Many of the founders were also wary that our democratic experiment would devolve into an authoritarian government with a standing army at its beck and call. The perceived solution to these problems was to have militias ready to defend the US against both domestic and foreign threats. Citizen-controlled armories stocked mostly with rifles were established at various strategic points to help communities respond to danger. Given the period, it follows that we associate the word “arms” in the Constitution with guns, but had the Constitution been drafted during the Middle Ages, those arms may have referred to crossbows and swords. Today, automatic weapons, RPGs, and IEDs appear to be what is necessary to attempt to take on an invading army. No sane person is arguing for the right of the average person to bear AK-47s and RPGs in case we are invaded. Nor would they be necessary for national defense against a foreign attack since we have long ago set aside our qualms with having a standing military force. As for the necessity to have high-powered weapons in the event a highly corrupt and unjust government comes to fruition, most would now agree that the recourses provided by our democratic framework and other avenues of protest would better address the problem than an outright rebellion.
The more relevant argument of the day is the claim that guns are necessary for people to defend themselves and their property. While this comes from a reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment that does not mesh well with the original language, I do not have a problem with that. Nations should continually take the lessons of history and reassess the value of their governing principles. However, in the US it is often done under the guise of finding the original intent behind the words, ignoring the 220 years of intervening experience. In any case, let us assume that there is a consensus on the right to bear arms for self-defense. What is the necessity of having assault weapons or high capacity magazines? For the purpose of self-defense a hand gun will do. Nor is it necessary to have an arsenal in a household. By comparison, the rifles and hand guns during the colonial period fired one shot at a time and took a while to reload. Many regions also lacked a presiding law enforcement agency. Now most areas of at least moderate size have local police ready to respond to emergencies 24/7. Being armed like an 80s action movie hero is not necessary for keeping safe. At any rate, gun control laws need not take away from the right of the vast majority citizens to keep guns for self-defense. In fact, they can reinforce self-defense by making it more difficult for those with violent criminal histories and the mentally unstable to acquire guns.
The argument that does get in the way of reasonable gun control laws is the idea that gun ownership is a basic right, like the right to free speech, because it is stipulated in the Constitution. Just because some historically revered figures wrote something down somewhere doesn’t automatically make it an unquestionable holy commandment. What made these men into the symbols that they are today has as much to do with people’s willingness to hear them out, spurred by a spirit of revolution, as it did with their perspicacity, convictions, and intellect. Today we could amass a group of Americans as smart and capable, not to mention much more diverse, as the Founding Fathers, but who would listen to them? If they are to contradict the magnum opus of the deified forefathers, they might fare little better than those who question the values and edicts held in holy books. But I digress. The point I am trying to make is that the right to bear guns is not what comes to mind when thinking of basic human rights such as the right to a trial, freedom from torture & arbitrary detainment, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, etc. A violation of these rights deprives people of dignity and social inclusion. On the other hand, no one is crying over those poor Englishmen who cannot carry glocks to the local cricket match.
Second of all, we already curtail something as basic as freedom of speech when it can potentially endanger the public. The classic example is that one cannot yell “Fire!” in a theater. Well, the proliferation of guns is at the very least partly responsible for the US having the highest rate of gun violence among the developed countries. It would make sense to put regulations in place so that not quite so many of them can find their way into the streets and into the hands of people with problematic histories. So, without further adieu, here is a list of moderate gun control measures in no particular order:
- Limit the amount of guns people can own. You’ve only got 2 hands, why would you need more than that many for protection? If you still need to augment your protection try getting an alarm system, a guard dog, stun gun, mace, flash bombs, etc. If you feel like firing off a variety of exotic or powerful weapons, do it at a gun range where you can rent those out.
- Limit the amount of ammo that magazines can hold and that people can buy. Once again, if you feel like spraying bullets you can go to a gun range and buy ammo for your weapon or a rented weapon. You just wouldn’t be able to take the ammo home if you had already met your quota.
- Extend regulations on where guns can and cannot be carried. For example, although alcohol and tobacco fall under the same regulatory umbrella, most are probably not comfortable with the idea of mixing alcohol and firearms in a bar setting.
- Do more thorough background checks. This needs to apply to all gun sales: gun shows and person-to-person included. Applicants names should be crosschecked against police records, FBI records, and records of mental history.
- Penalize stores and individuals who have multiple instances of gun theft or loss. If a store has more than one infraction in which it “loses” track of guns in its inventory, its license should be revoked and the previous management should be barred from working at any gun store or being involved with a new license procurement. As for individuals who have their guns “stolen” repeatedly, they should be subject to an investigation and harsh penalties if found guilty of illegally trafficking weapons.
- We should limit the ability for American companies and the government to sell weapons abroad. They should only sell these weapons to governments and law enforcement agencies with good human rights track records. This should go without saying for all firearms and military assets, but unfortunately it does not as anyone who follows US policies outside of the West knows well.
I believe these measures would go a long way to eventually bringing down the rate of gun violence in the US. However, they would also severely hamper the market for gun manufacturers. Ultimately, their profit-driven objectives run contrary to society’s desire for a peaceful world. This holds true for responsible gun owners as well, seeing as how they want the right to own but they do not want guns ending up in the wrong hands. The correct course of action would likely be viewed by manufacturers as an attack on their livelihood. They pay people good money to morph gun control issues into principled rights arguments, despite the illogicality of it. I fear that meaningful gun regulation will have to wait until the gun loses its iconic status in American culture and/or it becomes more acceptable to question the words on the pieces of parchment we hold so dear.