That Oh-So-Gray 2nd Amendment (Part 2)

Frédérik SisaThe Recreational Nihilist

[img]7|left|Frédérik Sisa||no_popup[/img]What if the Second Amendment didn’t actually say what it says? Here it 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.” Arms is the key word. And it creates an explicit gray area. Interpreted literally, it means we all have the right to weapons. But what those weapons consist of is a matter of opinion. This raises an interesting question: Is it consistent with the Second Amendment to ban some weapons provided that other weapons are available for people to arm themselves with? The implied proviso, which is where guns may come in, is that it doesn’t mean anything to be armed if those weapons are ineffective. We could all have slingshots in our homes and consider ourselves “armed.” But slingshots might not do us much good in a gunfight. So, guns it is in today’s world. Maybe.

So far, it hasn’t been necessary to explain why we need a right to bear arms in general and guns specifically. Obviously, the reason is self-defense but it’s a curious omission in a founding document. If the Constitution had said, “the right of the People to defend themselves shall not be infringed,” we’d be having a different discussion that doesn’t begin and end with guns, but instead launches from the question, “what is the best method for people to defend themselves?” Answer: A method that doesn’t cause more harm than the offense. That’s why we can rule out people carrying grenades, flamethrowers or suitcase nukes around in case they get mugged, and that’s why we can suggest that gun owners be trained and have registered weapons with traceable bullets that make it easier for law enforcement to deal with gun violence. In other words, if we’re talking about defense, we’re talking about a bigger picture with more issues to consider.

As it happens, though, the Second Amendment does touch on the issue of defense when it talks about “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State.” This, of course, is where the whole idea that the second half of the sentence, separated by a mere comma, refers to the right of citizens to bear arms as part of a militia defending the country. Not only is the very notion of having a “right” to own a gun suspect, it’s far from clear that the individual right to be armed makes sense in light of the hopelessly vague Second Amendment.

Speak, but Speak Plainly

But let’s be charitable. Let’s assume the Second Amendment does mean we have a right to own guns. It still says nothing about the way in which we own them. The great mistake of gun advocacy is in treating gun control as being the same as a gun ban. This brings us back to the case before the U.S. Supreme Court that started off last week’s column. Does Chicago have a right to ban guns or should the Windy City, like Washington D.C., be made to repeal the ban in line with the Second Amendment? Since the language of rights is vague and the Second Amendment is ambiguous, there is no clear answer in this case beyond the ideological preferences of the U.S. Supreme Court justices and, arguably, the precedents set by previous cases.

Perhaps what we need to decisively settle is the issue of gun rights – in the larger context of self-defense – a good old-fashioned referendum. After all, the problem with all this ambiguity is that it just encourages partisan warfare, petty bickering and endless spin. A plain question with plain wording could provide much-needed clarity. Unfortunately, whether such a thing is possible in today’s climate is a whole other issue.

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