Most talk about gun rights, or the legislation that aims to curtail them, begins and ends with the second amendment to the United States Constitution. It reads 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.
The meaning of this amendment depends upon which clause you believe is necessary to the security of a free state. Is our freedom defended by our individual right to bear arms or is our freedom supposed to be protected by government regulation? On one hand, the use of the word militia implies that only active members of the military are allowed to bear arms. For the record, the Supreme Court has ruled that to not be the case. On the other hand, the finality of the phrase “shall not be infringed” implies that there can be no law or regulation whatsoever that limits a citizen’s ability to bear arms. Regardless of which argument you support, I hope you can see that the other side is just as well supported.
My purpose in covering those opinions is to show that the second amendment is not relevant to the argument over gun control. It is too vague and far too short. It implies that gun ownership is a right while simultaneously offering equal support to the possibility of regulation. Thus, I can confidently pull one single conclusion from the amendment: it is intended to provide free reign and discussion on the subject of gun control. If the founders wanted the right to bear arms to be absolute, they would have said so. The opposite is also true, if they had wanted arms to be restricted to the military; they would have written as much.
It is my opinion that vagueness of the second amendment, intentional or not, means that every legal option is meant to be up for debate and vulnerable to repeal should a past decision become obsolete. I think that the founders recognized that they were too ignorant to forever fix the American citizen’s right to self-armament to a law based on the technology of their day.
This is the point where, I imagine, some of you readers are expecting me to begin my ardent cry for gun regulation in flat rejection of the sacredness of the second amendment. Not hardly. Rather, I want to see a shift in the debate that we are seeing in Washington and across the nation. Every time this debate opens up, people immediately fall in line to support or attack legislation that restricts access to guns through a variety of controls, bans, and regulations. I think that we have another question to cover before we even touch the subject of legislation. How much killing power can a single citizen possess?
I bet most people are ok with the idea of more primitive, less lethal weapons like knives, javelins, and bows being legal. The same may be said about simple firearms like double-barreled shotguns, pump action shotguns and bolt or lever action rifles. These are sporting and utility weapons. All are lethal if used properly against one to a few people but their low rate of fire and killing force makes them unlikely candidates for mass killings.
Continuing upwards, we run into handguns and semiautomatic weapons. This is where, I think, things really start to get dicey. These weapons have higher rates of fire while their clip fed mechanisms allow users to maintain a much more constant supply of ammunition. Such weapons could be, and have been, used to kill dozens of people in a few minutes. We could follow this scale for pages, through submachine guns, assault rifles, and heavy machine guns, grenades, all the way up to artillery, bombs, and even nuclear weapons. I won’t, but my point is that all weapons, all arms, have a quantifiable killing power. What we need to decide is how much killing power is acceptable.
I think that American citizens have a right to bear arms. But, I also think that it is foolish to assume that we have a right to bear any and all arms available. When the constitution was written, the most deadly, and expensive, weapons in the world were cannons and musket arrays (organ guns) with about as much practical killing power as a modern assault rifle. Today, our most lethal weapons are of the nuclear variety. There will come a time when the destructive power of a hydrogen bomb is compressed into a product that could be wielded by any average citizen. What do we do then? Would we refuse to regulate the ownership of such power on the grounds that citizens have a right to obtain any weapon up to and including the most destructive one available? That would be insanity.
My example regarding nuclear weapons may sound hyperbolic, but so would have a similar example regarding rapid fire weapons two hundred years ago. Maybe assault weapons are ok. Perhaps, in spite of the shootings and the arguments levied against them, they are not lethal enough to warrant regulation. I am not passing judgment on that today. Instead, I simply want to make it clear that the right to possess killing power cannot be unlimited. There must be a line where the right to bear arms ceases to apply. There can be differing opinions about where that line falls, but it is ridiculous to assert that it does not exist.
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