In the wake of the most recent spate of killings in a high school in Florida we hear once again the tired mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The whole thing is brushed aside as a case of poor mental health. And while there is some truth in this, since anyone who walks into a school and starts shooting innocent teachers and students has to be clinically insane, it remains a fact that guns DO kill people and automatic weapons kill a great number of people in a very short time. Let us now hush the mantra and the mindless dismissal of real causes to consider the fact that there is hard evidence that tougher gun laws do, in fact, reduce the number of gun deaths. This has been shown in the case of both Japan and Australia.
Those who insist that the possession of an automatic weapon is a question of a Constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment need to read that amendment closely and consider the fact it was designed to protect the right of the militia to bear arms and that for two hundred years after the adoption of the Constitution federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by the Second Amendment was limited in these two ways:
“. . .first, it applied only to the keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of the states or local governments to regulate the ownership of firearms.”
These are the words of retired Supreme Court judge John Paul Stevens who has written a book about the six amendments we need to incorporate into our Constitution. He goes on to point out that it wasn’t until very recently, 2008 in fact, that the tough gun laws that had been passed in this country to deter, for example, the sale of sawed-off shotguns and tommy guns to ordinary citizens were weakened somewhat when the Supreme Court, by a vote of five to four, decided in District of Columbia v.Heller that the second amendment protects a civilian’s right to keep a handgun in his home (not a tommy gun or an automatic weapon) for the purpose of self-protection. Then, as recently as 2010, by another vote of five to four, the Court decided in McDonald v. Chicago that the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limited the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. Stevens was involved in the discussion of both of these cases and he dissented in each case. He notes that
“. . .nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacles to the adoption of preventive measures. . . . the Court had made it clear that even though machine guns were useful in warfare in 1939, they were not among the types of weapons protected by the Second Amendment because that protected class was limited to weapons in common use for lawful purposes like self-defense.”
In a word, Stevens reminds us that the Second Amendment was never designed to protect the presumed rights every Tom, Dick, and Sally to own and use weapons designed for warfare. Stevens is convinced that the insertion of a brief clause in the wording of the Second Amendment might help clear this up. It would then read:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”
That brief clause would make it crystal clear that the Amendment was designed to protect the right of those chosen to defend their country — in our case the National Guard — and not everyone else who now incorrectly makes the demand to own and use automatic weapons. The likelihood that this amendment would pass this Congress is very near to zero — given their obligation to the NRA and the gun manufacturers who got them elected and threaten them with the withdrawal of funding in their next political campaign, coupled with immense support for their opponent. Nonetheless, as Stevens points out, the states could pass tougher laws with no restrictions whatever from either the Constitution itself or possible legal precedents. Moreover, even at the federal level:
“. . . the Congress’ failure to enact laws that would expand the use of background checks and limit the availability of automatic weapons cannot be justified by reference to the Second Amendment or to anything the Supreme Court has said about that amendment.”
It is assuredly the case that the availability of guns does not, in itself, remain the main cause of the insane spate off shootings in this country. Guns alone are not the sufficient condition, as logicians say, of the gun deaths. But they remain the necessary condition in that if there were no guns there could be no gun deaths. And while the right to bear arms for self-defense and the shooting of game might be seen as protected by the Second Amendment of our Constitution, the possession of automatic weapons clearly is not.
It is time, indeed, past time, that we stop all the mindless drivel and pass laws that will take the guns out of the hands of those who are, admittedly, not fully aware of what it is they are doing, by making it impossible for them to purchase automatic weapons at the very least.