After every notable act of violence involving firearms, there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction among a portion of the population to call for bans on certain types of weapons or restrictions on gun ownership. Those calling for restrictions on Second Amendment rights use historical misrepresentations, incendiary rhetoric, and an inability to learn from experience to justify their emotional distaste for firearms.
The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution clearly reads,
“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.”
Opponents of firearms emphasize the term, “well regulated Militia” as their justification to legislate restrictions on the right of the people to keep and bear arms. They interpret this phrase to mean the government has the right to impose regulations on ownership and that the right to bear arms is only guaranteed for military units sanctioned by the Federal government. These opponents of firearms either fail to recognize the historical context of the Second Amendment or are engaged in a purposeful attempt to misrepresent it.
The concept of Federal regulations and restrictions on everyday activities is, in a historical sense, a relatively new phenomenon. The idea that the Federal government has the power to impose its will on the states and the people therein did not even originate until the Civil War and was not institutionalized until the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century. The framers of the Constitution did not use the phrase, “well regulated” to mean Federal oversight and restriction on the right to bear arms. What, then, did the phrase, “well regulated,” imply at the time of the passage of the Second Amendment? “Well regulated” was a relatively common phrase meaning that something was in proper working order. Within the context of bearing firearms, “well regulated” meant that someone was properly trained and proficient in the use of these weapons. That meant that people bearing arms were expected to be trained in the use of the arms, and as members of the militia, engage in periodic drills. The phrase did not imply that the Federal government had the authority to regulate the use of firearms, as we commonly understand the term, “regulate,” to mean today. Indeed, the entire concept of granting a central government the right to unlimited regulation was totally foreign to the Founding Fathers. The term, “militia,” is also misunderstood or misrepresented by opponents of firearms. They argue that the militia only consists of the National Guard and reserve units of the uniformed services and that the Second Amendment only pertains to people enlisted in these government-controlled entities. This is probably due to ignorance of the Efficiency in Militia Act of 1903, which codified the circumstances in which state National Guard units could be brought under federal control. The act did not, however, restrict militia membership to organized units (like the National Guard). In fact, the Efficiency in Militia Act recognized the existence of an unorganized militia (which was also recognized in the Militia Acts of 1792). The unorganized militia was comprised of all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 17 and 45. In other words, the entire population of capable males was considered, by default, members of the militia. (It could certainly be argued, based upon current legislation and Constitutional interpretation, that the age and gender restrictions are no longer in force.) Therefore, every citizen of the United States, by default, is a member of the militia and subject to the rights enumerated in the Second Amendment.
Militias in America were historically designed to allow citizens to band together for the common defense. All able-bodied males of a certain age (as codified in the various Militia Acts) were expected to be trained and proficient in the use of firearms and expected to be able to use those arms if the need arose. The Second Militia Act of 1792 required that every male citizen possessed a firearm and adequate ammunition. Except in rare instances, militias were established and controlled at the local or state level; federal control was limited to extraordinary circumstances, usually limited to service in a declared war or insurrection.
There was a good reason for establishing militias at the state or local level. People at the time of the passage of the Second Amendment distrusted a standing army in times of peace. The abuses of British authority were still fresh in their minds. Rather than granting power to a large central government, the citizenry preferred to restrict most political power to the states or individuals (as codified in the Tenth Amendment). If there is any doubt that the framers of the Constitution intended the Second Amendment to apply to all citizens, one needs only read the amendment carefully. It clearly states “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” shall not be infringed. Note the use of the word, “people.” The amendment does not restrict the right to keep and bear arms to governmental authorities; it extends this right to all people. This does not contradict the first part of the amendment because, as was already established, the militia was composed of all people. Anyone arguing that the Second Amendment should not be universally applied is ignorant, or is purposely misrepresenting both the historical context and the true wording of the amendment.
The opponents of the rights codified in the Second Amendment also resort to incendiary rhetoric to appeal to emotions, rather than reason. The most common example of this is referring to certain types of firearms as military-grade “assault” rifles, as if the only purpose of these weapons is to assault someone in the commission of a crime. Although many of the opponents of the Second Amendment are woefully ignorant of different types of firearms, they usually use the term, “assault” rifles to refer to automatic or semi-automatic weapons. Of course, many firearms opponents don’t even know the meaning of these terms.
In general terms, a fully automatic weapon fires multiple rounds with a single pull of the trigger. Machine guns are the most obvious examples of weapons in this category. A semi-automatic weapon only fires one round per pull of the trigger. Although a new round is automatically chambered after the previous round is fired, it can not be fired until the shooter consciously pulls the trigger. A single-shot weapon requires that a round be manually chambered each time the weapon is to be fired.
Fully automatic weapons, the only true “assault” rifles, have been subject to substantial restrictions since the National Firearms Act of 1934, and virtually outlawed by the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986. They are not available to the general public except under very stringent and specific circumstances, as prescribed by law. Today, the only “long guns” available to the general population are single-shot and semi-automatic rifles, each of which require a specific single pull of the trigger for each fired shot.
Finally, the opponents of the possession and use of firearms rely upon emotional knee-jerk reactions to violent incidents (or outright political pandering), rather than reason. Legislation at both the state and federal level restricting access to firearms has proven ineffective at stemming the violent incidents seen lately. On the federal level, more and more restrictive legislation has been passed (including the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, the Gun Control Act of 1968, the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993). Many states have even more stringent restrictions on the use and possession of firearms than provided for by federal statutes. In addition, it is a crime, with substantial penalties, to harm a person with a firearm, except in cases of self-defense. If these laws have not prevented those with evil intentions from committing crimes, how can we expect further laws to do so? Rather than addressing the real causes of violence, further restrictions on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms will only penalize individuals who use firearms for legal purposes, like hunting, target shooting, and personal defense. Although further gun restrictions may allow a fearful population the illusion of protection, these “feel good” laws will do nothing to prevent future outbreaks of violence. Additional laws will only have the unintended (or maybe intended) consequence of turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals if they inadvertently run afoul of one of the newly legislated restrictions.
The recent spate of mass shootings has certainly been a tragedy, and it is understandable that people are searching for ways to prevent further occurrences. But further restrictions on our Second Amendment rights are not the answer. (In fact, they may even make the citizenry more vulnerable to attacks by removing the deterrent of self-defense). Most of the mass shooters are willing to die during the commission of their crimes, so further laws will not deter them. The perpetrators of these vile deeds obviously have no respect for human life, including their own. Perhaps the reasons for this tendency are worth exploring if we wish to prevent further occurrences of violence. Further restrictions on our Second Amendment rights, however, will, as historically shown, have no impact on preventing further mass shootings. In fact, further gun restrictions may have the negative impact of lulling the population into a false sense of security while other actions that may actually reduce tendencies towards violence are ignored.