January 22, 2013

Context in the Gun Control Debate

Cover of "A Well-Regulated Militia: The F...
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I figured it was time to take a look at gun policy now that the Obama administration has announced some of the measures under consideration. I've always been a bit ambivalent on the subject of gun control, because I can see both sides of this issue and have been discouraged by the unthinking rhetoric I hear being spouted from the polar opposites of the debate. If we are going to expand gun control in some way, I'd hope we would do so rationally.

The Second Amendment: Different Interpretations

When I read the 2nd Amendment and consider the historical context around it, it seems obvious to me that there are at least two very different ways in which it can be read. Here is what it says:
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.
As you can see, the right of the people to keep and bear arms is clear. But it is also clearly linked to the idea of a "well regulated Militia" and the security of the State. This is problematic for gun rights proponents because it does not say anything about individual citizens who are not part of any regulated group tasked with security. In fact, it seems easier to use this text to support armed local law enforcement forces than private citizens. Read in such a way, there is little to prohibit gun control legislation.

The second way to read the amendment is to focus on the historical context of what the founders might have been thinking when they wrote it. That is, it can be interpreted as providing a means (i.e., arms) for the people to hold their government accountable through violence. For a people to be truly free, they must possess the right to arm themselves against their own government if it descends into tyranny. Reading the amendment this way is problematic for those who favor gun control because it would seem to suggest that there should be no gun control whatsoever. In fact, this reading would suggest that individual Americans should be able to own anything from land mines to anti-aircraft munitions. After all, we are not going to be able to overthrow our government with semi-automatic weapons alone.

As you know, the courts have generally interpreted the 2nd Amendment in a limited way as guaranteeing the right of citizens to own some types of firearms while allowing the government to limit them in significant ways. In essence, it is a compromise intended to permit firearms for reasonable self-defense but not for the purpose of permitting the people to have any realistic chance of armed revolution.

Compromise and Trust in the Government

Like any decent compromise, this one has managed to upset nearly everyone. The gun lobby pushes to expand rights and create fear that "Obama is coming to take our guns." Many on the left would prefer to expand federal bans on black rifles and high capacity magazines.

I have long suspected that the gun control issue is as controversial as it is, in part, because it is a proxy for an even more important controversy - the degree to which we in the U.S. are willing to trust our government and surrender some of our individual freedoms to promote our collective safety. Do we trust that the federal government has our best interests in mind, or do we worry that we may someday have to defend ourselves from the government itself?

Personally, I do not have much confidence in my local, state, or federal government. I see them doing despicable things at every level, but my primary concern is not about wanting to overthrow them violently. My primary concern is their competence. At the local level, I am most concerned with the slow response time with which I could reasonably expect police assistance at my home after a 911 call. It is for this reason that I keep a gun in the home.

As many action movies as I have watched, I do not seriously believe for a second that my fellow citizens and I could rise up to overthrow our government violently. I am now fortunate enough to live in a safe neighborhood, but because I have some idea about realistic police response times to my home, I realize that it is not out of the realm of possibility that a gun could be important to my safety.

I have had the experience of living in some truly dangerous neighborhoods. I have been robbed multiple times, and I have even been shot at on a couple of occasions. Once, the shooter fired into a car I was driving from another car. Another time, I was on foot and heard a bullet fired from a passing car pass by my head. If I was still living where these incidents took place, a gun in the home would not be enough. I would also carry one on my person whenever possible. Why? Because the police cannot be everywhere.

I recognize that there are far too many injuries and deaths in the U.S. involving firearms. I also know that reducing access to firearms might reduce gun violence. And yet, I also believe that we should have the right to protect ourselves. In addition, I think that many of the laws we have enacted to curb gun violence have been ineffective, overly politicized, and not data-driven in the first place. We implement these laws reactively following a tragedy, and usually end up getting it wrong.

Sensible gun policy must balance the right of the individual to defend his or her person, family, or home with the right of society-at-large to minimize access to dangerous weapons. It is not an easy task and one which demands the application of reason.

This post was adapted from a couple of posts I wrote at Red State Progressive roughly a year ago.

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