Things Have Changed

madisonarguesIn America, the right to bear arms is constantly being scrutinized and defended, especially following mass murders committed by American citizens like in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. Fundamentally, debates between gun rights advocates and gun control advocates revolve around the second amendment to the Constitution – its language, its context, and even its authors. If you argue long enough with folks from either side, you will inevitably hear attempts to support their viewpoints with “evidence” based on what the founding fathers intended when they wrote the amendment.

Those who favor restrictions on firearms will suggest that the authors of the second amendment intended that such a right only apply to “a well regulated militia,” or today’s equivalent of military and police personnel. This interpretation would not necessarily mean that private citizens cannot own guns today; it just means that they would not have a constitutionally protected right to do so.

Those who oppose restrictions on firearms suggest that the authors of the second amendment intended absolute freedom for private citizens to protect themselves through “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” This interpretation seems to hinge on the phrase, “shall not be infringed.” According to this interpretation, any attempt by the government to limit access to firearms or to regulate the types of firearms and ammunition a citizen can possess would be considered an infringement of a Constitutional right.

Now, arguing an ideological point based on what may or may not have been going through the minds of a few men over two hundred years ago seems like a flimsy way to justify an opinion of the second amendment. However, supporters of stringent regulations on guns and ammunition should concede that gun rights advocates’ interpretation of the founders’ intentions is absolutely correct. That’s right, they should completely accept the argument that the authors of the second amendment intended for the right to bear arms to extend to civilians and remain unchecked by any governmental authority.

This appears to be a counterintuitive approach for gun control, but with such a major concession comes some bad news for the NRA. If gun control advocates accept the conjecture of their opponents as indisputable, the following two stipulations would also have to apply:

  1. The founding fathers would have intended for citizens to bear the arms of the late 18th century. These included single shot muskets, long rifles, and dueling pistols. Samuel Colt’s iconic revolver, which increased killing power six-fold, was not even a twinkle in the gunsmith’s eye when the language of the second amendment was written. Based on gun rights advocates’ logic regarding the founders’ intentions of individual gun rights, there could categorically be no Constitutional protection for the possession of the semiautomatic handguns and assault rifles of today.
  2. The second amendment and the Bill of Rights were not intended to apply to Native Americans, women, African-Americans, the physically disabled, or the poor. In effect, the amendment that gun rights advocates champion when they rely on the intentions of the authors would only protect white male landowners.

Many U.S. citizens fed up with domestic mass murders committed in public places are all but ready to repeal the second amendment. This is an overreaction based on emotion; instead, maybe they should simply accept the longstanding argument of gun rights advocates – the same argument that would consequently restrict civilian firearms to 18th century single-shot rifles, muskets, and pistols. I would hope however, that the gun rights folks would be willing to stray enough from their conjectural logic to allow all Americans to exercise the right of self-defense by antique firearm, not just those who share the skin color, socioeconomic status, and gender of the second amendment’s authors.

Jason Palmer

Jason Palmer

Jason Palmer is a full-time instructor of composition and American literature at a small college in North Georgia. He is also the editor of and regular contributor to The McLean Parlor.