Sunday, April 4, 2010


The Second Amendment has not mattered to me. I have only a modest history with firearms. I fired rifles in the backyard to kill sparrows using birdhouses intended for other species, in camp competition, and in military training. I needed a handgun only once in Vietnam and have handled no firearm since. But I accept the importance of firearms to hunters and inhabitants of high-crime neighborhoods.

I believe that people have not only the same right to firearms as they have to automobiles, but also the same responsibilities for them: registration for ownership and restrictions on use. Loaded guns no more belong in crowded places than speeding cars belong on city streets. The amendment is not needed to protect peoples’ rights—no one wants either their firearms or their cars—and should not be used to pervert or preclude their responsibilities. It certainly does not justify firearms without restrictions, as two common arguments suggest.

One is personal or family safety. Crime statistics and media sensationalism suggest that we live in dangerous times. America is a more violent nation than other nations with advanced economies. But in the quotidian lives of over 300 million Americans, firearms do little to promote individual safety. Firearms kill more people in domestic accidents or violence than in criminal incursions into the family circle. Most of those who possess firearms for self-defense are, in a showdown, unable or unwilling to use them. No one denies the right to arms for self-defense even if you are a greater threat to those in your home than to those invading it.

The other is political freedom. Despite inflammatory talk, America faces no risk of a government-led confiscation of firearms as part of an effort to suppress individual dissent. Despite anger at illegal immigrants or fear of foreign attacks, Americans face few, if any, dangers from identifiable threats which can be sensibly addressed by armed citizens. If the government transfers terrorists to a super-max prison in Colorado or Michigan, neither their good citizens nor those of Maine, Florida, and Idaho are going to need arms to defend their families and themselves in their cabins, condos, or double-wides.

Let us face it: the Second Amendment is a linguistic nightmare and a historical anachronism. Here it is: “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.” Some versions vary in punctuation and capitalization, but the variations do not much affect meaning. Still, I do not find this amendment as problematic as many find it.

Unlike the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment alone uses an absolute construction, a relatively rare syntactic form which establishes conditions for what follows, like a sentence adverb (e.g., “hopefully”). The conditions are now historical anomalies in its references to a state, not a nation, and to a militia.

The amendment does not assume the very nation and its federal government which the Constitution defined. Instead, it implicitly rejects both. It reflects a political compromise, with those who believed in a strong federal government allowing this after-thought to assuage ruralists who drafted an amendment assuming states to have powers not since either available or practical. Although state militias survive in law and fact, they are instruments of collective action for the good of the state, not of a group or an individual. So the construction is a fossil. The national government, not the states, has primary, overriding responsibilities to defend the nation and to enforce the laws of the land. Only paranoid or political wingnuts—often one and the same—imagine armed citizens fighting pitched battles against National Guard or regular troops, much less doing so successfully. And they are a far cry from “well-regulated.”

The main clause is straightforward in stating a right like other rights in the Bill of Rights; like them, it is not absolute or unqualified. The right to free speech entitles no one to libel, slander, incitement, and the like; it is limited by the need to prevent harm to individuals and society. Likewise, the Second Amendment defines the right to “keep and bear Arms” but is likewise limited by a similar need. The absolute construction itself implies a specific political purpose which restricts the right: “the security of a free State.” So an individual bearing arms at a political rally or wearing them in a coffee shop is not “well regulated” and is not doing a thing for “the security of a free State.” He may not like government policies or the coffee at Starbucks, but carrying a weapon to a rally or a restaurant is a threat to constitutional democracy and a danger to law-abiding citizens.

Go hunting, shoot skeet, enter marksmanship competitions; otherwise, keep your firearms at home, unloaded and locked up. And stop using the Second Amendment to justify their misuse.


  1. Approximately 30,000 people deaths a year involve firearms of those roughly 12,000 involve intentional deaths of another (suicide not included). Defensive uses of firearms (not necessarily discharged firearms) number roughly 80,000 per year using the most conservative numbers I could find. Your statement "Firearms kill more people in domestic accidents or violence than in criminal incursions into the family circle" has been discredited for years. During the LA riots of the 1990s small business owners used firearms to protect their businesses. During Hurricane Katrina the government attempted to confiscate privately owned firearms. Between the ages of 18 and 45 you are in the unorganized militia. The difference between car ownership and gun ownership is the difference between privledges and rights. Finally imagine citizens fighting troops, in Iraq or Afghanistan.

  2. I am happy to publish this dissenting view, but I wish that the author had provided something other than unsubstantiated counter-assertions. One, the numbers which he/she provides are not clear. How does 30,000 break down: criminal and domestic (whether accidental or intentional)? How does 80,000 uses break down: injuries versus deaths (and of what kind)? Two, whether ownership of cars or guns is a privilege or a right, ownership of both can and is regulated. Three, imagining citizens fighting troops in Iraq or Afghanistan is one thing; imagining them fighting troops in America is another. What is it about Americans that they imagine such confrontations, whereas citizens in the democracies of, say, Western Europe do not?

  3. My apologies for not supplying the backing references:

    In 2005, firearms were involved in 30,694 deaths,

    Total number of deaths in 2005 involving automobiles? 43,667

    Total deaths in 2005 = 2,448,017 (100%)

    Firearm; Suicide: 17,002 (0.7% of all deaths in 2005)

    Firearm; Homicide: 12,352 (0.5% of all deaths in 2005)

    Firearm; Accident: 789 (0.03% of all deaths in 2005)

    Firearm; Legal intervention: 330 (.01% of all deaths in 2005)

    Firearm; Undetermined: 221 (.0.009% of all deaths in 2005)

    Firearms were only a factor in 1.25% of all deaths in 2005.

    Heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. killed 652,091 people in 2005. (26.63%)

    Defensive Uses of Firearms At the high end:
    In "Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America" (1991) (11), a myriad of scientific publications, and his latest book, "Targeting Guns" (1997) (9), Prof. Kleck found that the defensive uses of firearms by citizens amount to 2.5 million uses per year and dwarf the offensive gun uses by criminals. Between 25 and 75 lives are saved by a gun for every life lost to a gun. Medical costs saved by guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens are 15 times greater than costs incurred by criminal uses of firearms. This has been substantiated by a Department of Justice study in 1997 under the Clinton administration, which found that up to 1.5 million citizens use firearms to protect themselves and their property yearly. Dr. Kleck is a professor in the school of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He has researched extensively and published several essays on the gun control issue. His book. Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America, has become a widely cited source in the gun control debate. Readers of his material may be interested to know that Kleck is a member of the ACLU, Amnesty International USA, and Common Cause. He is not and has never been a member of or contributed to any advocacy on either side of the gun control debate. Also a Department of Justice sponsored a survey in 1994 titled, Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms determined there were 1.5 million Defensive Gun Uses annually
    At the lower end:
    Crime Victimization Survey ("NCVS") indicate between 65,000 and 80,000 defensive gun uses per year. PHILIP J. COOK & JENS LUDQIG, SUMMARY REPORT, GUNS IN AMERICA: RESULTS OF A COMPREHENSIVE NATIONAL SURVEY ON FIREARMS OWNERSHIP AND USE 59 (1996).

    I am not, paranoid or a political wingnut, however I can imagine that militia armed with rifles and pistols could fight the national guard or regular army. Anyone who keeps up with current events should be able to do the same.

  4. Thank you for this response. However, since, this breakdown does not reflect my analysis--family quarrels, etc., versus break-ins, I cannot agree or disagree with your statistics. I appreciate the documentation and the references, which I shall check out. But I am impressed by your work and shall address it as appropriate. Good work.

  5. I took a quick look at the issue at some websites. Wow! No one agrees on the statistics, and everyone cites whatever statistics support his or her case. I cite one: "Study after study has found that a gun in the home is associated with an increased risk of homicide and suicide. And while guns are used to prevent some crimes they are used far more often to commit crimes. Guns are used to kill, maim, rob, assault, threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self-defense." The source, States United to Prevent Gun Violence, appears to be an anti-gun group about which I can get no significant information. So I have no reason to change the statement challenged, but I shall open to something recognizably more scholarly than partisan. So Kleck appears to be one expert on one side of the issue and does not go unchallenged by other experts on the other side. Again, thanks.