“They’re trying to take away my Second Amendment rights,” say many gun rights advocates. But what do they mean by that? I doubt that a cogent expression of their thoughts would be:
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 commas and capitalization discretionary)
That is the official wording of the Second Amendment, and to many it is extremely confusing. Does it mean that individuals should be allowed to have guns in order to be part of a well-regulated militia? If so, is this militia supposed to fight on behalf of the government or should it be a “citizens’ army” to protect individuals from a too-powerful government?
Or is the militia component really superfluous, because the Amendment states, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This interpretation would mean that individuals have the right to bear arms, period.
And what about the arms? What kind of arms do people have the right to bear? This is not stated in the Second Amendment. In fact, there is no hint as to whether there should be any limitations on the types of guns. And let’s remember that when Second Amendment was written in the late 19th Century, the firepower of the weapons was just a pittance of the strength of today’s armaments. Would the Founding Fathers have said that people have the right to bear nuclear weapons?
We must also keep in mind that, in the late 19th Century, most of America was rural. That was the predominant culture, and individuals had a more clear need for guns in order to protect themselves from dangerous animals and other threats that were common in isolated areas.
What to do now
The Second Amendment is confusing. Our national debate over guns is fought in the context of a great cultural divide over what role guns should play in our society. What we need more than anything is clarity. Specifically, that means that we need a new Second Amendment.
Below is a proposed new Second Amendment. It will be more specific that the current one. The more details, the more choices there are to be made. So, this will not be a final version of the Second Amendment, instead it will be a broad outline. Perhaps this can be the basis of some further discussion on the Second Amendment.
1. Regulations regarding the possession or use of weapons shall be framed so as to provide a reasonable balance between the rights of individual citizens and the common good of the American people.
2. Individuals shall have the right to possess and use weapons so long as they:
- Have not been convicted of a crime of violence.
- Have not been convicted of a crime in which they were in possession of a weapon.
- Have not been diagnosed as having a psychological disorder that would make them likely to use a weapon in an act of aggression.
- Have undergone a thorough background check by federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms or it successor agencies.
3. The Congress of the United States shall have the obligation to pass legislation outlawing those weapons that it deems to be unsafe for society if they are in the possession of individuals.
4. States shall have the right to further refine those weapons that are permitted in different areas of the state. The states should recognize that in certain areas the balance shall be more in favor of individual rights and in other areas the balance should be in favor of the common good.
5. All levels of government shall have the right to pass legislation invoking penalties for individuals or groups that possess or use weapons contrary to this Amendment.
The city of Chicago has nearly two deaths by firearms every day. Many rural communities have not had a killing by firearms for decades. Our goal must be to make policy that is maximally responsive to the needs of people in different demographic and cultural communities. Rewriting the Second Amendment would be a good place to start.
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.