One of the truly hot topics in America for years now is the issue of gun control. I never really understood why the topic produces so much heat. After all, it’s not about gun elimination, it’s about gun control at a time when we desperately need a bit of restraint, as recent events have shown. The favorite mantra of the N.R.A. and those who want no controls on the use of guns is the chant “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This is one of those half-truths that saturates our thinking and keeps us away from the whole truth — so far as we can ever grasp that.
The second amendment to the Constitution was written in 1789 and adopted in 1791 and it reads in its entirety “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.” It was written by James Madison, and please note the careful wording. The statement begins with what logicians call the antecedent “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State….” The remainder of the statement is the consequent. In effect, it reads “Because we need an armed militia, we must protect the right to bear arms.” The two sections of the statement must be taken together.
The Bill of Rights was passed as a rider after the Constitution was adopted in order to persuade still reluctant individuals to come on board. As Madison said at the time, “I believe that the great mass of the people who opposed [the Constitution], disliked it because it did not contain effectual provision against encroachments on particular rights, and those safeguards which they have been long accustomed to have interposed between them and the magistrate who exercised the sovereign power: nor ought we to consider them safe, while a great number of our fellow citizens think these securities necessary.” Initially it was felt that the Bill was unnecessary because no civilized country should need to spell out the rights of the citizens. Further, if they were spelled out there might be others, not mentioned, that would therefore be ignored. But these arguments were eventually dismissed and the Bill became part of the Constitution of these United States. At that time, there was considerable concern over an armed force on the continent — given the fact that the Colonies had been an occupied country for many years. In a word, the Founders didn’t trust armies. But, as was the case during the recent Revolution, men with weapons in their homes (muskets, of course) who could be called upon to defend their country was the acceptable alternative.
Thus, the reason the second amendment was adopted was to persuade those who were still reluctant to accept a constitution they thought would deprive them of states’ rights, but with the understanding that none of those supporting the document wanted a standing army. The “right to bear arms” was specified because it was believed that the country was better off being defended by men who were, in effect, defending their homes.
So much has changed since that time, needless to say. We now have one of the largest armed forces on earth and the need for an armed Militia no longer exists. Further, the Founders never envisioned hand guns and automatic weapons that could kill large numbers of people in a matter of seconds. It is true that someone must be holding a weapon for it to kill someone else (or the holder himself). But it is also the case that when these weapons are so deadly and so many people might die in such a short time, the likelihood increases that someone will die when the guns are fired. It’s a matter of simple probabilities. In a word, if there were no guns, no one could be killed by the accidental or intentional discharge of a gun. So, people kill people, but with fewer guns fewer would die or be maimed.
It’s impossible to read the minds of those who wrote the Constitution, though reading the Federalist Papers takes us back to the period and lets us see what sorts of things those people were thinking at a time when states’ rights were the central issue. One thing comes clear, and that is that these people lived in much simpler times and though they were just like us in so many ways, their technology was in kindergarten compared with ours. It is hard to imagine that they would have written and adopted an amendment like the second amendment given today’s conditions — the large stranding army and the advanced weaponry.
In any event, when the N.R.A. or others of their ilk defend the “right to bear arms,” they should also at the same time argue for the dismantling of the standing army. The two conditions go hand-in-hand.