Gun Control: Can We All Just Get Along?
by Buz Whelan
The arguments on gun ownership and whether there should be new limits placed seem to be producing no movement on either side. Gun proponents, led by the NRA, resist any change in the status quo. The most extreme gun control advocates would allow only hunting weapons, controlled and licensed. And the arguments are beginning to appear to be irrelevant. Red state senators and congressmen and women know they cannot vote for any meaningful gun law and not expect a primary challenge. In most densely populated states where hunters are a small minority, gun laws are already strict by NRA standards. Realizing the futility of debate, I am nevertheless presenting my own view of the firearm landscape. What follows are my thoughts on the subject developed from a little research. I’ve divided this piece into three parts for easy digestion.
Part I: The Second Amendment
“A well established Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Seems direct enough, does it not? But throughout the life of our republic, we have disagreed on its precise meaning. Some feel it guarantees unrestricted gun ownership, while others point to the opening phrase. A careful reading of the entire Constitution reveals a certain economy of words. The entire purpose statement, called the Preamble, consists of only 51 words. Why, then, did the framers include the words “A well established Militia” in the statement? Why not just write, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” and leave it at that? Why mention “Militia” at all?
There were two important Supreme Court decisions on the Second Amendment during the 19th century. In the first, US v Cruikshank (1875), the court ruled that the Second Amendment “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.” This was reiterated in Presser v Illinois (1886) with the court stating that the Second Amendment “is a limitation only upon the power of Congress and the National government, and not upon that of the States.” These decisions state clearly that individual states and, by extension, such municipalities as New York City, Chicago, Washington, et. al., may impose whatever restrictions on gun ownership that they may deem necessary and prudent.
In a later case, the court ruled on the National Firearms Act of 1934. This law, passed in response to public outrage over the carnage being wrecked by ‘Tommy guns’ (automatic weapons), authorized excise taxes to be placed on certain types of weapons (e.g., automatic weapons, parts for same, sawed-off shotguns), ordered the registration of these weapons, and forbid their transfer across state lines without special permit. In the case of US v Miller (1939), the court upheld the law, but did so in conjunction with Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which grants the power to congress “To raise and support armies” and further, “To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions.” The court seemed to be indicating that the right guaranteed by the Second Amendment was tied to having an available militia, not non-affiliated personal ownership.
In its most recent ruling the court upheld the right of the individual in a narrow five to four decision. In the case of “District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)”, the majority ruled that the individual had a right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes such as self-defense. A complete ban on handguns and a requirement that guns in the home be disassembled or trigger-locked by the District was thus declared unconstitutional. The majority stated that the initial phrasing about militia stated a purpose but was not a limiting phrase. Writing a dissent, Justice Stevens examined historical evidence and concluded that the amendment protects militia-related interests.
So, where are we now? The decisions indicate that individuals have a federal right to possess firearms, but that lower governments may impose reasonable limitations and restrictions on that right, and that ordering the registration of guns is constitutional.
Part II: Why I Need an Assault Rifle with Extended Ammunition Magazines
For me, at least, the silliest argument for assault rifles and magazines that hold more than ten rounds is protection from the United States government. Not only is oppression of the general population by our own government unlikely in the extreme, should such a thing ever come to pass, resistance by the people would be utterly futile. The idea that a ragtag bunch of civilians could in any way hamper a military operation is as realistic as Ralphie holding off Black Bart and his gang with a Red Ryder air rifle.
When I returned from combat in Viet Nam my first assignment was as company commander of an infantry training unit in Fort Polk, Louisiana. Upwards of 90% of our graduating trainees would be going directly to the combat arena. All of us cadre, drill sergeants and officers, took our training responsibilities seriously. Nevertheless, we often found amusement in the ineptness of the trainees. And these were folks who already had 8 weeks of basic training before we saw them. It would take 9 weeks of intensive training with us, then a period of adjustment with their combat unit before they were competent soldiers. Civilians with Bushmasters? Ridiculous.
In warning against the possibility of a government takeover, examples such as China, Russia and Nazi Germany are often cited. But both the Russian and Chinese revolutions were essentially civil wars. In Russia, the Bolsheviks battled the Czarists, and both armies were heavily armed. In China it was the communists under Mao Tse-tung against the nationalists under Chang Kai-shek. Again, both armies were heavily armed. In neither case did an existing government suddenly make war on its citizens. The German example is even more ludicrous. Hitler was appointed chancellor by President von Hindenburg after the Nazis elected the most delegates to the Reichstag. There was no war against civilians. And if you watch newsreels from the era you will see huge crowds deliriously cheering their Fuhrer.
Here’s a last example. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the U.S. military and its allies faced Saddam Hussein’s ‘elite’ Republican Guard staffed by battle-tested veterans of the 8 year Iran-Iraq War. They lasted fewer than 100 hours against the coalition forces. Again, I point out the absurdity of civilians facing down the American military.
And finally, let me point out the most obvious fact: the federal government is already in control. There is no imaginable reason for them to war on their own people.
Part III: Making the Perfect the Enemy of the Good
There are no perfect solutions to the problem of gun violence in America. There is no law proposed or extant that would have prevented all the terrible mass murders we have experienced or that would absolutely preclude the possibility that another will occur. But we also know this: doing nothing will not improve the odds. And yet that seems to be the argument that so many proponents of unrestricted gun ownership advance. To any suggested measure that would provide some increased restriction on the type of weapons available or place some limits on who may own guns, they say, “That wouldn’t stop all gun violence; that wouldn’t have prevented Sandy Hook or Aurora or Columbine.” Here, we’ll break down some of the suggested remedies and the arguments for and against them.
Proposal: That all sales and transfers of weapons be subject to a background check on the recipient.
The counter argument goes that ‘criminals will still get guns; only legitimate buyers will be hampered.’ And it is true that some, even many, criminals will find ways to obtain guns. It’s also true that legitimate buyers may have to expend some extra effort obtain guns, but is this really too much to ask? But will all criminals have the same ease of obtaining weapons that they have today? Certainly, mobsters will find a way. But are mobsters the problem? The massacres of the last generation have not been done by career criminals. They have been perpetrated by disaffected individuals with little or no criminal backgrounds. Petty criminals, the type that hold up gas stations and liquor stores, do not have the connections that the ‘made guy’ has. If background checks were universal, it would make it more difficult for anyone with a criminal record or a history of psychiatric problems to obtain a weapon. Not impossible; just more difficult. And for the kid who just wants a gun because it thinks it would be ‘cool,’ the increased difficulty would often be enough to discourage him.
Proposal: That assault weapons and magazines holding more than 8 rounds be declared illegal.
‘There are already more than a million assault rifles in private hands. Further, an experienced shooter can change a magazine in seconds, so limiting the capacity would have little, if any effect. Banning the weapons and magazines would only affect legitimate sportsmen.’ But what ‘legitimate sportsman’ needs an assault rifle? These weapons will fire a round with every trigger pull. They can fire at a rate of over 100 rounds per minute. The one time when a shooter is vulnerable is when they are changing magazines. If this must be done every 8 shots there will be more and sooner opportunities to stop the shooter, either by return fire, tackling the shooter, or for victims to run to safety. A ‘sportsman’ who needs more than 8 rapidly-delivered shots to fell his prey is not much of a sportsman. And as far as the number of weapons already in private hands, the same argument was made against restricting the sale of Tommy Guns, those fully automatic weapons favored by gangsters. But the National Firearms Act of 1934 was passed. It took years to make a difference, but how many Tommy Guns are around today?
There’s one more argument that must be examined. Over and over I hear gun advocates say that Chicago has the strictest gun laws, but the highest gun violence rate. But the problem with the Chicago gun ordinances is the Indiana gun laws, just as the problem with New York City regulations is the lack of Virginia gun regulations. As long as individuals can game the system by simply crossing state lines, the big cities will continue to have the greatest gun crime rates. And loosely-regulated but sparsely populated states like Wyoming will be used as examples of how more guns per capita equal less crime. It’s a false statistic, but it isn’t going away.
In Summation I should make clear that I am not against all gun ownership. I believe hunters have a right to their shotguns and hunting rifles and private citizens have a right to firearms for their own defense. But we must have some sane regulations to reduce the number of gun deaths and the ferocity of individual events such as Aurora or Newtown. If we ban rapid-firing assault rifles and magazines over 8 or 10 rounds it will take a generation or more for their numbers to be significantly reduced, just as it did with Tommy guns. But it will be a start. If we make all weapons transactions subject to background checks and registration it will reduce the number of guns going into the wrong hands and aid law enforcement in solving murders. That alone may have a deterring effect. We do it with cars. I can’t transfer my car to my wife without going through DMV. Why should guns be different? Has our government ever gone house to house to seize anything? If we do all this we still won’t eliminate all gun crime. People who shouldn’t, will still get guns and guns, and magazines that are banned will still find their way into criminal hands. But people still murder, steal and speed on the highways. Would it make any sense to drop laws against those things as well?