This morning I’m thinking about the Constitution. About the Second Amendment.
“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.”
I have thought about this particular sentence quite a lot over the years. I’ve shifted my position on this several times, generally in the same direction; not because the side I’ve shifted towards is entirely right (Though it is the right-wing position, the conservative position, that doesn’t make it the right-minded position), but because I came into this debate with a pretty extreme view.
See, I was raised to hate firearms. Violence of all types, certainly, but firearms in particular. My mother, a nurse and a pacifist and the kindest person I have ever known, never even let me have a BB gun, no matter how many times I watched “A Christmas Story.” There was one occasion when I was about 8 or so when our family went over to visit friends for dinner; my mom and dad liked this couple quite a lot: he was a computer guy who worked with my dad, and she was a ceramic artist. They all got along great — until Ben, the husband, showed my brother Marvin and I his pistol. I have a clear recollection of the gun — a revolver — being entirely unloaded, the cylinder open with no shells in it; I remember him letting us hold it. And I remember my mother coming in the room and finding us there holding a gun.
We never saw them again. Not only didn’t go over to their house, but we never saw the Kirchners again. I think my mom saw Mrs. Kirchner at some point, because we had a number of mugs that she made; but we never saw Ben after that.
So I’ve never been in a fight, and I’ve never gone hunting, and I’ve never killed an animal larger than a mouse, and I’ve never fired nor even held a gun past that one time when I was eight. I remember being in an online debate when I started taking this topic on, and my opponent accused me (as online debaters — read “assholes,” including myself when I debated online — are wont to do) of being a hoplophobe, someone who is irrationally afraid of firearms (Please note that this is just a politically charged insult recently coined, like “snowflake” or “soyboy” or that kind of bullshit.). And my response, which stunned the asshole who threw the word at me, was, “Yes. Yes, I am.” I did add the clarifications that I was afraid of people wielding firearms, not of the weapons themselves, and that this fear was not in fact irrational.
The response was basically that I should get a gun and learn to defend myself like a man.
This is a bullshit argument.
But it’s not actually the argument behind the Second Amendment.
Let’s be clear: the Second Amendment has been misinterpreted (in my opinion) by the courts, and even more by the general populace. It does not define the right to self-defense: there is no need to define and protect the natural right to self-defense, because self-defense is never a crime. But I don’t believe there is a guarantee in the Second Amendment that an individual has a right to, needs to, or even should, have a gun for self-defense.
The Second Amendment is also not in any way a defense of hunting or target shooting or collecting firearms to display in your home. None of those are rights. They’re amusements, hobbies; you have no right to a hobby. “But Dusty, what about people who hunt for food?” Well actually, you don’t have a right to food, either. People should have food, and it makes sense for us as a country to ensure that people have food and the ability to get food; but we do it because it makes sense, not because it’s a right. If it stops being sensible to provide food — let’s say we all voluntarily go into the Matrix, and survive on pink goo pumped directly into our gastrointestinal systems — then the provision of food will stop, without any violation of rights.
Let me explain a bit before I go too far into the weeds. The Second Amendment states that the people — not a person — have the right to keep and bear arms, in order to defend the security of a free State. The implication is that the main threats to a free State are external: I think that’s the “security” line. If it was primarily about the defense of a free people from the state, then it would say something more like “to ensure the integrity and continuation of a free State.” But I don’t mean to be one of those people who parse every word of the law in order to determine what the point is: I don’t actually idolize the Founding Fathers, and don’t think that their intentions should be the deciding consideration when trying to interpret the Constitution. I think we should look at what the document is really supposed to do, not necessarily what the men who wrote it wanted it to do.
The Constitution is intended to create and preserve a nation based on the rule of law, and not the whims of men. Laws need to be interpreted and executed by people, so our opinions have some importance; but the defining, essential purpose of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers was to escape and prevent the tyranny of powerful men.
You know how you escape the tyranny of powerful men? You spread power out as much as humanly possible. You create separate but equal branches of government, with checks and balances. You ensure that, as much as possible, the people who run that government are beholden to the masses, through the power of the ballot. (It’s probably a good idea to ensure that the people who are in charge of the actual laws are not quite so beholden to the people, but rather to the law itself — but that’s a different topic.) And because physical force is a source of power, you spread out the physical force as widely as possible: you don’t allow it to concentrate in the hand of a few, or even, if you can manage it, in the hands of many: you put it in the hands of all. That’s what the Second Amendment does, and what it does is right to do: the wider the dispersal of power, the less likely power is to be abused.
I do think the Second Amendment is intended partly to ensure that the people stay free and are able to defend that freedom against a rising tyranny in their own government. But it’s not that specific: it’s intended to create resistance to any gathering of power. The Ku Klux Klan have less power when the Black Panthers have rifles: it’s really as simple as that.
That means that we need to have the right to own firearms, as firearms are the most powerful individual force-multiplier we people can own. Tanks would be better, and an entire air force or navy owned by each individual WAY better; but that’s not feasible. Anyone can own a gun, and a person with a gun is more deadly than one without. That’s why the Amendment defends the right to keep and bear arms. That does also imply that we should have the right to defend ourselves from personal harm using firearms. It makes sense: the point of maintaining a free State is so we free individuals can have a place to live; therefore the purpose of defending a free state also encompasses defending a free individual. Also, not to get too silly, but you can’t defend the state if you get killed by an intruder in your home.
But here’s the thing: there’s nothing in the Amendment, neither the wording nor the logic, that implies that we should not require background checks on every single purchase of a firearm. And a national gun registry of every owned or manufactured firearm. And red flag laws that allow the removal of firearms from dangerous individuals. And mandatory firearms training and testing, just like we have for motor vehicles. And limits on types of firearms (To some extent — there should be a limit on the limits so that the limits do not become a de facto ban), and on magazine capacity, and on everything else that we see fit to regulate. See, the goal here is to ensure that power is spread out: not that power has to be granted and defended for every halfwit who can pull a damn trigger. Not that the power has to allow one sovereign citizen to take on the military, or even the police, and win. The arguments against regulation are all predicated on the (rather paranoid) idea that the main purpose of the Amendment is to limit the ability of the federal government to control people, and that’s just not the case. Anyone who is a threat to us needs to be controlled, primarily by the limiting of power in the hands of those who are a threat. Note that: if we fear the rising power of the Federal government, then clearly the answer given by the Constitution is to limit that power, not to rise up against it. The worst case scenario is that the people will need to overthrow their own government, but the Amendment isn’t the plan for that; the Amendment is part of the plan for preventing that.
Our ability to own firearms is one thing that helps keep the government from the most simple and brutal sort of tyranny (And it really does do that, and I think I’ll have to talk about that at greater length on another day; the topic is too complex for a single post); but to keep us from turning our power on each other (And to keep the citizens from turning their power on the government for corrupt reasons, too; let’s not forget that. Let’s not imagine that most revolutions are idealistic and freedom-loving.), well — that’s why it says “Well-regulated.” Right there in the front of the Amendment. Even before the “keep and bear arms” part.
I think this will have to be continued.