How Do We Balance Gun Rights and Public Safety?
No gun laws imaginable will keep our children perfectly safe. Some gun regulation would make a meaningful contribution.
What measures have greatest promise of promoting safety? Can we implement them without compromising legitimate gun ownership?
America has a long tradition of supporting firearms prior to the Second Amendment, which 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."
What is a militia? Webster's broadly states, "any army composed of citizens rather than professional soldiers, called up in time of emergency." Also, "any of various disaffected groups of citizens that are organized as to resemble an army and that oppose the authority of the federal government."
The relevant history? From Wikipedia:
"The obligation to serve in the militia in England derives from a common law tradition, and dates back to Anglo-Saxon times ... that all able-bodied males were liable to be called out to serve in one of two organizations, the posse comitatus and the fyrd, a military body intended to preserve internal order or defend the locality against an invader. The latter developed into the militia and was usually embodied by a royal warrant.
"Every parish furnished a quota of eligible men, whose names were recorded on muster rolls. ... Each household was assessed for the purpose of finding weapons, armor, horses, or their financial equivalent. The trained bands performed an important role in the English Civil War on the side of Parliament."
America began as frontier colonies, far from the mother country. Protection in times of emergency, mostly from external threats but also from domestic insurrection, in the absence of an army or police force, depended upon the mobilization of ordinary citizens.
In the American Revolution, militias played a vital role in overthrowing the tyranny of the British Crown. Later, the state of Massachusetts raised a militia to put down Shay's Rebellion.
The U.S. Constitution provides for federal regulation of the militia. Prompted by Gen. St. Clair's defeat in battle with American Indians, Congress passed the Militia Acts of 1792, giving the president, according to Wikipedia, the "authority to call out the militias of the several states ... whenever the United States shall be in imminent danger of invasion ... whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed by combinations too powerful to be suppressed."
The latter was intended to thwart future Shay's Rebellions. It was soon used by President Washington to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion against taxes on distilled spirits.
The militia, at the time of the Second Amendment, was used for common defense of the frontier and suppression of domestic insurrection. Having just established a representative government with internal checks and balances, only a minority of our Founders would have felt the need for the additional check of an armed citizenry ready to violently oppose the authority of a regularly elected popular government.
The militia has since become obsolete. The U.S. military provides national defense. The National Guard backstops police in maintaining domestic order.
What justifications of arms remains?
- Self-defense. Police cannot be everywhere at all times.
- Hunting, for food and recreation.
Only with complete collapse of government would self-defense revert to the status of open frontier. Even the most deadly firearms would be an insignificant check against tyranny. We have police, National Guard and the U.S. military. All of them are unlikely to collude in tyranny. They operate as a check on each other.
Personally, except for hunting rifles, I would prefer that firearms be reserved for professionals who protect and serve. However, I live in a country where that is not the opinion of the vast majority and likely will never be so. I respect the Constitution and the right of my fellow citizens to bear arms.
Even our most basic right, the right to vote, requires registration so that there can be an orderly process. Unlike firearms, voting has caused few violent deaths.
It is reasonable to require registration of firearms, holding the owner responsible for the safety, proper use and transfer of his property.
Just as we do with ownership of automobiles. It is also reasonable to regulate the number of cartridges per clip, making more frequent reloading necessary. Finally, it might be a good idea to put metal detectors at schools and other public spaces where our young and vulnerable assemble.
Tom Goergen lives in Aberdeen. Contact him at email@example.com.
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