Under the Gun
Guns: We love them. We hate them. We can't live without them. We can't live with them. They dominate our lives. Stories about their use and misuse dominate the news on many days. They are at the core of our political discourse about crime, terrorism, race, constitutional rights, national security, personal security, and immigration. It seems the most important and divisive right we have as Americans is our right to have a gun. Most people agree with other rights guaranteed by the constitution like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom to peacefully assemble, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to a fair and speedy trial. But the right to bear arms divides us like no other.
The Second Amendment states: "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." These twenty-seven words have made America what it is today.
There have been several Supreme Court cases over the years that have interpreted the amendment. In 1875, in United States v. Cruikshank the court ruled, "the right to bear arms is not guaranteed by the Constitution; neither is it any manner dependent upon that instrument (the constitution) for its existence. The Second Amendment means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress." In a more recent case in 2008, the court ruled in the District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment "protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home." But it also said, "the right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."
That last sentence says a great deal. "The right is not unlimited." The pro-gun argument is always we have plenty of laws on the books. We just should enforce those. We don't need anymore. We don't need any more rules. They just keep guns out of the hands of the good guys, and good guys need guns to kill the bad guys. Some argue we should let teachers and college students carry guns into classrooms so they can shoot the crazed mass murderer or terrorist when they attack the classroom. That should make us feel safer.
There are rules in society about everything. There are limits to our rights. Freedom of speech doesn't allow us to yell fire in a crowded theater when there is none, or to defame someone. A free press is regulated by the laws of libel. Our homes can be searched if the authorities can convince a judge to issue a search warrant to find evidence of a possible crime. Police can restrict how and when people can peacefully demonstrate. So why are there no limits to our right to own a gun?
Guns do three things when fired. They destroy the target by putting a hole in it or blow it to pieces. They wound people and animals. They kill people and animals. It's unlike any other right we have. The consequences of its use change and end lives. Everyone has the right to defend themselves, and the constitution does give us the right to have a gun. But it's our responsibility to protect society from deadly misuse. We can correct the misuse of our rights to free speech or a free press. The misuse of a weapon usually cannot be corrected.
Society does everything it can to make things safer. We build safer cars, produce safer medicine, restrict the use of dangerous chemicals. We are always striving to make things better and safer. Why does this not apply when it comes to guns?
Guns are part of the American culture. They have been since the first Europeans landed here. The wild west frontier mentality became engrained in our way of life. I think the writers of the constitution would be shocked by our obsession with guns, and the damage they have inflicted upon our society. James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, proposed and shaped the Bill of Rights. He said, "That government is instituted, and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people: which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
Madison believed we had a right to bear arms, but we also have a right to be safe. Gun owners think they can only be safe with a gun in their hand. With that comes the responsibility to make sure we are doing everything as a society to make us all safe. Smart guns, background checks, stopping gun purchases by people with mental health issues, requiring gun locks for every gun sold. We are allowed to put limits on our freedoms.
I know gun rights advocates will argue these measures do nothing to stop the bad guys with guns. We must live with the gun culture that was part of the foundation of the great American experiment. There will always be bad guys with guns. They will always corrupt our freedom. But not to do something, however small, to save one life, to keep a gun away from one person who could walk into your child's school and take away the most precious thing in your life, condemns us all to live under the gun.