The tragedy in Aurora Colorado has predictably re-ignited the gun debate across the United States. Once again, supporters and opponents of gun regulation alike refer to their specific phrases of the Second Amendment to justify their positions. Whether the stated “infringements” to a Right to Bear Arms is intended for individuals or a collective state militia has long been at the crux of the debate, and without any direct evidence to the intent of the framers of the amendment itself is impossible to resolve.
The disagreement is a red herring in terms of personal safety, however. Much like the proverbial chicken-and-egg argument, neither side can be correct. Worse, discussing the application of gun rights to individual versus collective freedoms does little to prevent tragedies like the July 20th theatre massacre. No amount of regulation can prevent a person from committing atrocities when they have no concern for the consequences, or even their own safety. However, undertaking a more productive exercise to study the amendment from a historical perspective could reduce the death toll in such future events.
Consider what was the understanding the legislators had of arms and their purchase at the time when they drafted the amendment. In 1789 America, the most common types of guns were single-shot arms of a limited variety and effectiveness. Aside from a few breech loaders, most were muzzle loaded in a process which essentially eliminated any threat of mass murder. The most common and inexpensive were muskets which were extremely inaccurate and only effective in a group application (eg. shoulder- to-shoulder platoon attack) rather than an assault by an individual. Accurate rifled barrels were available, however, the length of the barrel made it almost impossible to conceal (and sneak into a public place) and their relative expense limited their possession to the more affluent.
Mass production of guns and ammunition was still in its infancy so the cost and time to obtain arms was often considerable. As such, the idea of a household having more than two rifles or pistols to use against fellow citizenry was ludicrous. Even if we credit the writers of the amendment with the foresight to imagine a world where expense and manufacturing of armaments was no longer an impediment to multiple gun ownership, they were still framing the amendment around a belief of limitations in the guns themselves.
In 1789, balancing the rights of the individual with the safety of the community was relatively simple if a gun could only be fired once, often with a low probability of doing significant damage, before the opportunity arose to disarm the shooter. In fact a good knife, axe or pointed farm implement was a more deadly weapon for inflicting serious repeated damage. In the big picture, what harm to society could there be for allowing the average person to own a gun when weighed against the necessary restrictions needed on oppressive future governments?
Had legislators been able to see 230 years into the future when automatic weapons can fire a dozen rounds a second (and accuracy then becomes irrelevant) and the tools for mass destruction can be purchased quickly, inexpensively and with near anonymity over the Internet, would they will have taken greater care to spell out the controls intended in the Second Amendment? I think so. It is one thing to be free from government interference in the ownership of a duck hunting rifle but quite another to arm yourself with an AK-47 and 2 semi-automatic pistols for an attack on a middle school lunchroom. Nobody should have the right to do that.
To repeat: I do not expect laws to protect me from the unexpected acts of the deranged mind. Nor am I interested in the polarizing dispute between the two extremes of the pro and anti-gun lobbies. However, in light of the Aurora theatre shooting, it is time to examine a re-definition of the Second Amendment based on an appreciation of the times in which it was written. In doing so, I would expect the suitable restrictions on the purchase and even manufacturing of weapons such as those used on July 20th to regulated groups like the military and police force would not constitute an infringement of anyone’s civil rights.
Sadly, politicians will likely lack the courage to address the issue again, becoming distracted by the fanatic dogma from both extremes. Rather than taking measures to increase public safety through legislation that will infringe on no one’s rights, bills will be drafted to further restrict personal freedoms in an attempt to defend us from the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when movie theatres require all patrons to pass through a metal detector when purchasing a ticket. Never mind that accused shooter James Holmes did not bring his weapons in the front door, we will be told the inconvenience (and it’s added cost to ticket prices) is the price we have to pay for safety.
There is something wrong in America when lawmakers see nothing amiss with requiring movie goers to undergo a full body scan to watch the next installment of “The Avengers” but instead refusing to update legislation to limit the killing power of crazy people. Sensibly eliminating the production and distribution of deadly weapons unimagined over 200 years ago will not be seen as unconstitutional when examined free from the rhetoric of special interest groups.