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.