Thinking About Guns

By Mark T. Mitchell for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Hidden Springs Lane. Guns have been in the news a lot recently. The dialogue, such as it is, is dominated by voices that seem ill disposed to consider the legitimacy of the other side. Some demonize their opponents while others simply shake their heads, unable to comprehend how some could be so blind to facts so obvious. Some want to reduce “gun violence” by reducing access to guns, while others point to their constitutional right to own guns and decry any attempt to limit that right. Between the two positions there appears very little room for compromise. But at the very least, it might be possible to clarify some of the terms and issues surrounding these positions. To begin, however, here are the words of the Second Amendment:

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.

1. It is essential that we recognize that this amendment is not about keeping firearms for target practice or hunting. Plenty of politicians insist that they have no intention of restricting hunting rifles and shotguns. They claim that they love to hunt and even regale us with photos of themselves dressed like they stepped out of a Cabela’s catalog, happily shouldering a shotgun as they trudge through a field with a faithful German Shorthair at their heels. However, anyone who says that the Second Amendment is about hunting is either ignorant or intending to deceive. The Second Amendment is clearly addressing the idea of security, so let’s stop with the business about deer and ducks. That’s simply a rabbit trail.

2. If the Second Amendment is about security, we have to inquire about the nature of that idea. Insecurity comes in a variety of forms. An external threat is one type of insecurity. It is conceivable that armed citizens could help thwart an attack from a foreign power and thereby help preserve the “security of a free state.” It is also possible that a “free state” could be threatened internally by a government that sought to diminish or eliminate the freedom of its citizens. Resistance to that encroachment would be possible by an armed citizenry and it is imaginable that an armed citizenry would provide a disincentive to those tempted to change the nature of the state. It may perhaps be stretching the original meaning, but when individuals are threatened by criminals intending harm, the security of a free state is jeopardized. Armed citizens could protect themselves, their families, and their neighbors while unarmed citizens are ill-equipped to do so.

3. Advances in weapons technology since the time of the American Founding make things more complicated. In 1790, a typical soldier fired a flintlock musket, which could be fired once every 20 seconds by a proficient operator. The smoothbore (as opposed to rifled barrels) made long-range accuracy difficult. Officers also carried a pistol (same technology), which was accurate only at very close range. There were, of course, bayonets and swords along with cannons. At the time, a citizenry armed with muskets could conceivably hold its own against an army equipped with basically the same weapons. Citizens could capture enemy cannon and use them because the technology was essentially the same as the muzzle-loading rifles they wielded.

Consider how things have changed. Today’s armies are equipped with automatic weapons, hand-grenades, and night-vision goggles. They can advance with armored vehicles and tanks against which a shotgun or a hunting rifle is simply ineffective. They have air support from helicopters armed with cannons that can fire hundreds of rounds per minute. They can call in air strikes from bombers carrying armament that can level a city block. They have missile technologies that can deliver payloads to targets hundreds of miles away. There are nuclear devices capable of leveling entire cities. If the Second Amendment is about equipping citizens to resist encroachments by foreign or domestic armies, a 12-guage and some buck shot isn’t going to cut it. Neither will your trusty 30-06 bolt-action rifle with a four round magazine. But what does this imply? If the Second Amendment is about keeping a militia armed in a way that it can legitimately resist a modern army, does this mean that U.S. citizens should be able to own automatic weapons? (Of course, they can now do so with proper permits.) Should they be able to own a tank with accompanying armament? An Apache helicopter with 30-mm Automatic Cannon, 16 Hellfire Anti-Tank Missiles, Seventy-Six 70-mm Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets? How about an F-18? A nuclear device?

Clearly circumstances have changed. First, where in the Revolutionary War soldiers who captured a heavy weapon of the enemy could readily turn it on their enemies, what would a group of citizen soldiers do if they captured an M8 tank or an F-22 fighter? They would need specialized knowledge to operate these complex weapons systems, and most civilians wouldn’t have a clue. The gap between the trained specialist and the civilian soldier is glaring. Second, Red Dawn notwithstanding, the disparity between weapons owned by citizens and those used by a modern military make it unlikely that a citizen army could adequately resist a serious attack. What does this mean for the Second Amendment?

4. Rights are not unlimited. Just as the right to free speech has limits—there is no right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater—so, too, there must be some limits to the ownership of arms. What are those limits? By what principles are those rights limited? Can those limits change over time? How?

5. In recent years, the focus has been on violence perpetrated by those wielding firearms. “Gun violence” has emerged as the term used to describe acts—both criminal and accidental—in which firearms have been used to cause harm. For many, the Second Amendment’s aspiration for the “security” that gun ownership affords has been overshadowed by the insecurity of living in a world where firearms are readily available. The need for a well-armed citizenry to protect against foreign and domestic encroachments on liberty has receded: a standing, professional army has dissipated the fear of the former, and the reality of the latter appears the low, except to those conspiracy theorists who see totalitarianism behind every Bush or Obama. The NRA today emphasizes personal security as the primary reason for gun ownership. Its magazine includes accounts of citizens who have prevented crimes or saved lives by brandishing or using their personal firearms. Is this a good strategy or evidence that the Second Amendment is outdated? In other words, is the Second Amendment intended for the protection of persons and property or of political freedom? Are the two related?

6. So-called “assault rifles” are not a significant problem. The assault weapon ban did little to reduce “gun violence” because relatively few crimes are committed with rifles of any sort. According to the FBI, in 2011 more murders were committed with knives than with rifles.

Furthermore, a true assault rifle must have the capacity for automatic fire (as distinguished from semi-automatic fire). In other words, an assault rifle is a machine gun, and these are already heavily regulated. The so-called “assault weapon ban” goes after rifles that look like military rifles but don’t have the capacity for automatic fire: assault-style rifles is the better designation. This is a perfect case of appearance trumping any real substance. The push to ban “assault rifles” is really nothing more than political hot air. If we want to address “gun violence” handguns are the issue.

7. Does the term “gun violence” bother anyone? If a person murders another person with a knife, we don’t call it “knife violence.” We call it a brutal murder. We don’t speak of “car violence” even though many times more people are killed every year by cars (33,000 in 2010) than are murdered by people using firearms. Identifying the tool involved creates the impression that the tool is to blame rather than the person. At the same time, I realize that one of the main purposes of a firearm is to kill; however, let’s not forget that firearms don’t fire themselves. A person with free will is a necessary element.

8. We have recently heard tragic stories of murders in Chicago, where innocent children have been gunned down in the street. Something is clearly wrong and it is surely temping (and perhaps easy) to blame the weapon rather than the real cause, which is a flesh and blood man (yes, it is generally a male who pulls the trigger). Are there social and cultural factors that help foster such behavior? Will taking away their guns make these men more peaceful? Does it seem odd that Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, yet the shooting continues?

9. Not all communities are the same when it comes to guns. In some rural areas, guns are a common tool. Trucks have gun racks with rifles in them and often a handgun is shoved in the glovebox or under the seat. In some states, people are allowed to carry a gun without a permit. To put matters in perspective, would you feel safer walking down a street in South Chicago, where firearms are severely restricted or in Helena, Montana, where they are not? Where do you think you are more likely to suffer from “gun violence”? If the guns were removed from both places, would you feel equally safe in both places? If you answered “no” to the last question, it’s clear that guns are not the real problem. It may be the case, however, that some violent crimes could be stopped by limiting access to firearms, but if the root causes of violence are not addressed, we’re only playing games.

10. Because all places are not the same, perhaps gun laws should reflect those differences rather than attempting a one-size-fits-all solution that won’t be adequate for any particular place. Let the states and local governments determine what is needed given their particular circumstances. At the same time, this federalist solution is not perfect, for a resident of one place could conceivably drive to a place where restrictions are less severe, purchase a firearm, and return home: thug in Chicago could drive to North Dakota, purchase a handgun and return to Chicago. Of course, by doing so, he would be breaking the state law of Illinois as well as Chicago ordinances. If such a person is willing to break the law to obtain a handgun, is there any practical way to stop him? Sweeping federal laws that limit the production and sale of firearms would be a start. Limiting access to ammunition would be another possibility. But the Second Amendment is an impediment to radical restrictions. However, the Constitution can be changed. Amendments can be amended (see the 21st Amendment) or ignored (see the 10th Amendment).

Ultimately “gun violence” is not the issue. We’ve got a culture of violence that makes gun violence imaginable. Making laws is easy. The real task requires serious reflection and deep cultural (and perhaps even spiritual) healing. Broken families, broken communities, loneliness, hopelessness, rage, and fear. These are at the root of our gun problem. The President and Congress can’t do much to fix what is broken. A deeper cure is needed.

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