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Like many Americans, I am heartbroken by the prevalence of gun violence in our society. We are a nation plagued by the curse of mass shootings, suicides, and gun-related homicides.
The following statistics are well-known, but they bear repeating. There are approximately 24,000 suicides each year by handguns and 19,000 homicides. Guns are used in 79% of murders, and the 45,222 gun deaths in 2020 were the most ever recorded. In addition, mass shootings, shootings of 4 or more people, are a daily occurrence. Among developed nations, the U.S. stands alone as the singularly most violent. Yet, the number of guns manufactured in this country has nearly tripled since 2000.
Most Americans’ anger is exacerbated by the belief that there is little we can do. They are convinced that 27 words in the 2nd Amendment preclude us from taking any significant action to limit the over 300 million guns floating around the nation. What if they are wrong? What if we really don’t have an individual right to bear arms? What if we’ve all been duped?
Now, before I jump into this argument, let me state that the sheer audacity of the point is not lost on me. In a nation with more guns than people, I understand that what I’m about to say is blasphemous for many. It is the equivalent of the visceral reaction faced by Pythagorus and later Aristotle when they postulated that the Earth was round. Americans have an obsession with guns that is fanatical. Yet, the highly worshiped right for every citizen to carry lethal weapons is nothing more than a well-crafted myth. Our cultural understanding of the 2nd Amendment is erroneous and must be corrected if we are ever to heal our broken nation.
The 2nd Amendment states that “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.” The obvious and critical question that must be asked is, what is a well-regulated militia, and why does it matter when considering this issue? In the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case, the Supreme Court ruled (5-4) for the first time that individuals had the right to carry weapons separate from their participation in organized militias. Before this, the Supreme Court consistently upheld the government’s right to regulate guns.
In the dissenting opinion on Heller, Justice John Paul Stevens calls it the most incorrect decision during his time on the bench. He argued that gun ownership was certainly tied to militia service and, consequently, governments have the right to limit possession among citizens. Justice Stephen Breyer further argued that the purpose of the amendment was strictly for the militia, not personal self-defense. They concluded that there is no individual right to gun ownership above government regulations and separate from military-based service.
Quite contrary to popular opinion, the Constitution is a gun restricting document. What on earth do the words well-regulated militia mean, and why are they so often absent from our gun control debates? When the 2nd Amendment was passed in 1791, there was no standing army or police force. Instead, through militias, armed citizens were given the task of supporting collective order and law enforcement. Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution, which covers the legislative branch’s powers, defines the goal, structure, and purpose of the militia.
To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections, and repel Invasions:
To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.
It couldn’t be more obvious that this document was intended to create a population of citizens armed, disciplined, and organized by the government to enforce its laws. This definition includes the notion that the group would have officers appointed by the state and trained under the directives of Congress. Additionally, the government would employ these citizens in their use of weapons and their law enforcement powers. This is the only Constitutional definition of a militia and, consequently, the sole Constitutionally sanctioned use of weapons in the society.
The idea that citizens would be as heavily armed as they are today, disconnected from government service and authority, was never intended by the framers of this document. Though a popular justification for individual gun ownership, self-defense doesn’t exist in the Constitution. Given this context, it is clear that the 2nd Amendment strictly gives states the power to direct a citizen-based law enforcement entity. There is no other reason for the right to bear arms. On both sides of the political aisle, we have been sold a false bill of goods. Both political parties treat this issue like a sacred cow, and therefore in the face of tragedy after tragedy, nothing is done.
In 1990 Warren Burger, the conservative Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, said: “The Gun Lobby’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American People by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to ensure that state armies – the Militia – would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the 2nd Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon they desire.”
Furthermore, if the 2nd Amendment was taken to its logical gun-obsessed conclusion, there should be no infringement on any citizen’s right to bear any arms they choose. Can you imagine what this would mean? It would mean a society where people could make the argument for rocket launchers and grenades as tools for personal use. Yet, when the Bill of Rights was signed, a person could not carry a weapon into a federal building. There has never been a time when the government did not rightfully regulate individual gun usage. As defined in the Constitution, strong regulation has always been a much-needed function of both the state and federal governments.
I cannot ring the alarm loudly enough about this issue. Our collective obsession with gun culture is literally killing us. Tinkering at the problem will do little to stop the carnage in our streets. While I support measures like the assault weapons ban and universal background checks, they will ultimately do little to impact the overwhelming level of gun violence in this nation. A dramatic reinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment is the only way to address the unique American conundrum of gun violence. After the recent high-profile mass shootings across the nation, we are at a crossroads. When faced with the Nazi threat, Winston Churchill said, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”
On the issue of gun violence, the American period of consequences began decades ago. Yet it is not too late to save future generations. If we value human life above guns, the time to radically act is now.
Op-Ed by Ted Williams III
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of LuceroPhoto’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of ian mcwilliams’ Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Gordon’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License