Gun Control

23 March 2016

 

We usually think of the Bill of Rights as recognizing and guaranteeing to Americans important basic human rights, already articulated and defended by philosophers like John Locke.  But how about the second amendment, the “right to bear arms”?  Did the second amendment recognize our right to own guns, or create it?

America is an anomaly.  Other liberal democracies don’t see gun possession as a fundamental human right.  They don’t see it as having the status of as freedom of religion, or speech, or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures,  excessive bails and cruel punishments.   So perhaps our right to guns is just an historical accident, a fluke, a huge and consequential mistake, that doesn’t reflect a fundamental human right?  A gun is basically a way of making holes in objects, including humans, at a distance.  How can the ability to make holes in other humans at a distance be a human right?  Doesn’t having people around us, with that capacity, diminishes our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

Perhaps gun rights derive from the fundamental right to defend oneself.  Free speech isn’t worth much, if one is not allowed to publish and broadcast and, nowadays, tweet and email.  Similarly, the right to life, liberty and happiness, including the right of self-defense, isn’t worth much if those from whom you are defending yourself have guns and you don’t. 

One could argue that the right to drive a car is quite analogous to the right to bear arms.  Driving an automobile gives me the power to run over people.  It doesn’t give me the right to run over people, but it gives me the power.  Similarly, owning a gun may give me the power to make holes in other people, but it doesn’t give me the right to do so. 

Handguns, one might argue,  are basically intended for protection, for self-defense, just as cars are intended for transportation.   Both guns and cars are capable of harming others, in the wrong hands.  But just as we trust people to not to use their cars to hurt innocent people, shouldn’t we trust gun-owners to use their guns for self defense, or target practice, or hunting, and not for gratuitously hurting other humans?  Shouldn’t  an old person, living alone in the woods,  have the right to a gun for self-protection?  Or a family in a neighborhood full of criminals, where police protection is too little and often too late?

If this is a good analogy, the second amendment, at least as interpreted by many, goes to far.  We require licenses to drive cars; we requires training to get a license; we don’t allow nut-cases to drive; we tax cars; we keep careful track of who owns what car.  Our automobile policies are not based on a paranoid fear that the federal government will exploit responsible regulation and registration to confiscate all of our cars.  It seems only reasonable to have similar safeguards for guns.

But wouldn’t a society in which no-one has guns, or at least the kinds of guns designed to be concealed and to injure and kill people, be even better?  The old lady and the family wouldn’t need guns, if criminals didn’t have them.  Other societies get by without a population that is armed to the teeth.  Why can’t we?

That brings us back to the 2nd Amendment.  Were our forefathers prescient, in realizing that America was destined to be a gun-using society, and that government regulation would only guarantee that law-abiding citizens would be less well armed that criminals?  I think it's more plausible that they make an incredible mistake, with this weird amendment, making a big contribution to America’s being, by far, the most violent and murderous of all the liberal democracies. 

 

Comments (11)


Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I do not consider America to

I do not consider America to be an anomaly. The country may be unusual in connection with its history and, of course, its constitutional foundation. The gun control issue will, most probably,outlive many of us who read and participate in this blog. All sides of the argument have merit, and those who are most strident, whatever the camp, are unlikely to give much ground on the matter. It will be fodder for all sorts of causes, whether those be private, public, political, cultural, economic, ethical or any combination of the aforementioned. Yes,America is a violent and murderous democracy. And, anyone who has not lived somewhere else; anyone (almost?) who worships the American way of life and the freedoms we have under this system of governance, would argue that  violence and murder are somehow preferable to ironfisted repression. Are they? Well, that is another argument altogether. I will say this much regarding best of possible outcomes: I hope the argument never falls under the purview of the Supreme Court for a final(?) disposition. Talk about ugly. Yeah...

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, March 26, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Didn't we cover this one

Didn't we cover this one recently? Hate to contradict you, Harry, but most of what you've said is proved wrong in Change They Can't Believe In, by Parker and Barreto. It details the history of the right-wing assault on New Deal programs from father Coughlin to Charlton Heston. The authors follow the whole story, naming names, and tracing the money. The NRA has become the new KKK, but before the civil rights era it was a modest organization more interested in gun safety than promotion, and only became what it is today in reaction to the Black Panther claim of a right to bear arms. If Blacks have that right, it now states, Whites have a duty. This year Nixon's "Southern Strategy" is blowing up in the faces of the Republicans. But the strange thing is, the very people now incensed at what America is becoming are the one's who assured it was bound to become this.
The Bill of Rights is not what it's cracked-up to be. It was accepted in principle by the people who ratified the Constitution, it was not written by them, even though they had made it plain that ratification would not be forthcoming without it. The Second Amendment is contradictory. It is plainly asserted a collective right, not a personal one. There can be no such thing as a fundamental collective right. It drives to the very heart of the foundations of all governance and law to suppose there are such rights. It was motivated by the belief that police power exclusive to government would lead to "tyranny", but this merely reflected the ancient tensions between knighthood and the 'hundreds'. The ancient Celts and Saxons were democratic tribal peoples who extended the franchise to anyone who could show a weapon. That's the real origin of the vehemence in feelings. But that vehemence is entirely one-sided. David Hume, in his History of England, divides the political debate during the House of Stuart (when American attitudes were really formed) between the 'enthusiastic' and the 'polite'. We have the same picture today. But, in fact, only along the frontier and in the regions where slavery was heavily enforced were guns an accepted as having a place in the community. As towns grew with the Westward expansion the first order of business in creating civil institutions was to ban guns. This is just the facts. The plan was that America would defend itself with 'citizen soldiers', almost explicitly stated in the text. And that reading was the judicially accepted meaning of it until the gun lobby stepped in to capitalize on racism in the wake of civil rights legislation and the white panic at the antics of the Panthers. But the use of the Militias quickly proved disastrous in the War of 1812, which we almost lost because of the clumsy organization of our forces. The fact of a professional army effectively repealed it. I suppose the English and Canadians would be amused at being classed as 'iron-fisted repressors', but one thing is very clear, you can be prosecuted in this country for claiming a right to violently overthrow its government. And it would seem to me that if anyone is 'iron-fisted' here it is those who insist on a fundamental right to 'pack iron'.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, March 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Strange diatribes are

Strange diatribes are appearing in the comments proffered on this blog and its thoughtful topics. I do not do diatribe, nor do I attempt to discern foreign languages (including those that might resemble a fond memory of my childhood: Pig Latin). Everyone, on some level, has some chipped beef on his or her shoulder or some other axe to grind or cross to bear. That's perfectly OK with me. When my spider sense detects such peevish nonsense, I simply suspend any interest in what  naysayers have to naysay. I know people in my day-to-day life who will start an argument about nothing, just for the sake of doing so. That's OK too. I have tons of tolerance for friends and family. Not so much for strangers, though. So, just for the record: if you see a future comment from dear old Neuman and you have previously not appreciated what he has offered, don't bother reading the comment. Others who read and contribute to the blog won't miss the peevishness. And, I suspect that Taylor, Perry, Maguire and company won't miss it either. One more thing to consider: lots of folks are writing books these days. Some of them get read; some don't.
Neuman.

Jock's picture

Jock

Tuesday, March 29, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

 

As a transplanted Brit I have long since been puzzled by America's love affair with guns. Don't get me wrong; I have no objection to guns per se. The rancher/farmer/urban dweller with their shotguns and/or hunting rifles, the hunter and target shooter with their guns are all quite legitimate and, one supposes, responsible gun owners. It's the millions of other guns loose in the country in the hands of irresponsible owners that I have a problem with.    
Gun rights advocates often quote the second amendment as "the right to bear arms", ignoring the "A well maintained militia" bit. Given the state of the brand new country in the late 18th century with no standing army to provide security, a well maintained militia would seem a reasonable device to provide such security. Fast forward 240 years and the need for a militia seems somewhat redundant in the early 21st century, a point alluded to by Gary Washburn in the post above.                                                                                                                                    
It rather seems to me that the right to bear ams does not translate to any arms. Is it reasonable for the gun owner to own an RPG or surface to air missile? Not many would say so, I think. If I give you a bow and arrow your constitutional rights have been met in so far as you are now armed. At the other end of the scale that may be considered equally ridiculous. My point being, society should have a say in what weapons are allowed outside of the military. The authors of the Constitution could not possibly have imagined the array of advanced weaponry available in the present day when they included the second amendment. Perhaps if we allowed only those weapons available at the time, the flintlock pistol and the muzzle loading musket, to gun owners today there would be far fewer tragedies to report each day!
Jock

MJA's picture

MJA

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Guns are for the weak so they

Guns are for the weak so they can feel strong.
And as for the constitution, it needs to be rewritten.
It needs to be written in a way that needs no interpretation.
Equality is the way.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Spam is annoying, but I find

Spam is annoying, but I find the posts advertising ?winning essays? in garbled English a bit amusing. As for 'diatribes', whose sore is getting rubbed? We think of the Bill of Rights as a list of fundamental liberties, but it is fatuous to suppose owning guns among them. The framers of the Constitution really were pandering to vigilantes meant more to suppress slave uprisings than to defend the nation, and to Round-Heads fearing the return of the king. Feelings run high because America doesn't have much of a future if it doesn't deal with, deal out, its culture of intimidation. I am not accusing anyone here of that culture, simply pointing out that it is at the heart of the gun issue. It is not a point to let politeness hold us back on. I hope I am not disrespectful, but too many who post here seem to think philosophy is a matter of expressing one's opinion, and leave it at that. It isn't. It's a matter of judgment, and the only way we can develop it is to critique, and respond to, each other. There are no real discussions here, just so many placards, like the street-level window behind the news presenters on the Today show. I would welcome a well reasoned criticism for a change, but Mr. Neuman's rebuke leaves me bewildered as to what exactly it is he is irritated at, my facts, my judgment, or my flourishes. A little clarity there might help make me a better researcher, thinker, or writer, but I'm not sure which is being rebuked, or whose sore is being rubbed.
Jock,
American violence runs much deeper than the availability of guns, though it certainly would improve matters if there were fewer temptations.
Mike,
I actually am sympathetic with your first assertion, but a new Constitution would suffer the same roadblocks and corruption that the rest of our political debates run into.

MJA's picture

MJA

Thursday, March 31, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Well said Jock,

Well said Jock,
But what about military weapons?
America distributes death when in sells its arms to the rest of the world. And as for bombs, the day Brussels was bombed a US military official was apologizing in Afghanistan for blowing up the hospital killing forty one innocent people one year ago that day. Who is the terrorist, them or us?
As for amending the right to bare arms bill, not to cross the religion state line, what about something simple like "thou shall not kill"?  I think everyone would understand and benefit from that! =
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, April 3, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the

Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the 1897 Harvard Law Review, published an article, The Path of the Law, thoroughly debunking the concept of strict construction. He shows how it would be an act of professional malfeasance to represent a client in a case at law under that precept, and that the concept of the law the lawyer must bring to the case is the one in the mind of the judge. For the purposes of the Supreme Court, the law is not an abstraction, it is a concrete statement of what decides real issues among real people. It is not holy writ. The gun lobby (and that's what it is, not just a spontaneous congress of gun fanciers), if it persist in wielding the Second Amendment as a weapon against gun control, has to prove that the Constitution means to assert and affirm private gun ownership as a fundamental right, not as a worthy or primeval pastime, nor even as a safety or security measure. The individual benefits or pleasures of gun ownership have nothing to do with it. The ancient Anglo-Saxon principle of extending the vote to any man who could show a weapon is the obvious derivation of such a supposed right, but in this case it is a duty and not a right at all, and that would be a very much harder case to make in today's reality. And so, when I see Mike's post I am close to wanting to sympathize, but the relevance is elusive. If there is to be a national defense at all it is hard to see how denying it weapons could be a realistic option. The fact of incompetent leadership and immoral conduct in war is obvious to anyone familiar with the history of America. But it is hard to see what fundamental rights apply either way. But there is a relevance. If you do indeed mean to elevate the law of Moses to Constitutional authority you have a hard row to hoe, since it has long since been established in Constitutional law that the "Ten Commandments" is a religious icon not to be supported or displayed anywhere by the public sector. Besides, the law of Moses is a much longer list than the usual shortened version, and many of its provisions have long since been repudiated by most Americans, who eat pork, cut their forelocks, and mix beef with milk or cheese, let alone barbeque, or work, of a weekend. The first law of Moses is, after all, keep the Sabbath. But as to atrocities in war, the relevance is that it raises the matter of an assumption that killing can be, not only justified, but doing justice. This is where everything goes wonky. Killing may sometimes be excusable, but it is never doing justice. In order to justify war or to support a fundamental individual right to own guns, you have to assume a duty to kill. The principle of self-defense does not measure up to the mark. That principle contributed to the birth of modernity by giving evidence that the law cannot regulate such a primordial urge. The ability to defend oneself, even against lawful arrest, cannot be wholly suppressed by reason. It is not reasonable, therefore, to suppose the law, of men or god, can cancel it. The burgeoning Enlightenment relied on this fact to demonstrate, not that reason has limits, but that the laws of nature are independent of the laws of god. But if there is no sense in which the raw instinct for self-preservation is the basis of the rational act of self-defense, then, as fundamental as that instinct may be, it cannot serve to support a fundamental right to prepare so rational a defense as owning a gun.

adamzman's picture

adamzman

Monday, April 4, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

"The militia" was basically

"The militia" was basically synonymous with the people back when the Constitution was written.  All able bodied men who were not already government employees were expected to be ready to be called up for militia duty by the state or the federal government at a moment's notice.  And to bring their rifle with them.  Because the founders were opposed to maintaining a permanent, professional standing army. Because such an army would be dangerous and likely become its own power center or constituency with the ability overly influence Congress and/or stage a coup and take over the government. This is why there is a constitutional ban on any congressional appropriation for the military lasting more than two years.
A well armed citizenry was considered to be the last resort fail safe against a foreign invasion, or against a takeover of the government by a dictator or demagogue.
Therefore it stands to reason that the right to bear arms should include at minimum any rifle that would be similar to what would be standard issue to a soldier in the army.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, April 4, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

So, the Second Amendment

So, the Second Amendment covers only military style weapons and sporting guns and pistols, for only personal recreation or protection, can be prohibited?

 
 
 

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