It concerns the ongoing problem with gun violence in this country: not a new problem or suddenly more urgent problem, though the media can make it feel that way sometimes, but an ongoing one. Periodically, lunatics and bastards use brutal weapons to commit mass atrocities: often, the cold-blooded murder of children. It happens all the time, with several high profile incidents every year, and several more that are not afforded media attention.
Not all mass violence in this country is carried out with guns, as the recent bombing in Boston reminds us (though it is worth remembering that shots were exchanged, and people were hurt, during the following manhunt). But guns, along with explosions, periodically disrupt our lives with new tales of tragedy and madness. It is not a rare exception, but a hazard of living in America: people are shot and killed every day for no good reason, in reports that you hear about and reports that you don't.
And that is why I genuinely think we should repeal the Second Amendment.
Already I've trodden beyond the acceptable boundaries in American politics and entered into the realm of pure fantasy. But I like it better out here, and if you'll indulge me I'd like to tell you why.
To begin with, I am not advocating the abolition of guns or the confiscation of every privately held firearm in the nation. I am not proposing a bizarro-amendment to the effect that "the people shall not have the right to keep and bear arms." Nevertheless, I am proposing the repeal of an amendment that is a part of the Bill of Rights and has been in force for nearly as long as the Constitution itself. Calling for the removal of any part of the Bill of Rights is not something that should ever be done lightly, as each of those amendments was written and ratified with the express purpose of safeguarding our rights and freedoms. To change one is to radically redefine what people in the 1790s regarded as essential liberties.
I'm not saying that people should not have the right to keep and bear arms. I'm saying that there should be constitutional recourse for the government to infringe that right when it is clearly better for the public's welfare to do so.
I don't intend to spell out in minute detail every conceivable circumstance where a particular weapon should be banned or regulated, nor where a particular weapon is beyond the government's reach. I lack the expertise to cite the physics and logistics involved. But I'm asserting that both such circumstances exist and our legal policy toward guns should reflect that.
The text of the Second Amendment reads like this:
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.
There are those who regard these words with reverence of a religious, even idolatrous nature. As I have stated before, no document should be regarded this way, least of all one that was meant as a part of a pragmatic solution to a contemporary political controversy. Times have changed since 1791, and so have the implications of a blanket statement that people should be able to keep weapons.
In District of Columbia vs. Heller, a 2008 Supreme Court case that upheld the individuals right to own firearms (as opposed to a collective militia right), the Court nonetheless recognized that some regulation is necessary. According to the court:
Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.
That is an entirely sensible, even banal statement. Obviously it would be an unmitigated disaster to have people roaming the streets with Uzis so as to mark their territory with bullet holes. Reasonable people agree that people should not use guns to commit crimes, and that there are weapons that essentially cannot be used by civilians for any purpose other than committing crimes. When the Court acknowledged this, it was merely recognizing that the alternative to a limited Second Amendment was insanity.
Essentially, the current law on the subject of firearms is that the right to keep them is absolute so long as the implications are not obviously ludicrous. But this "sanity exception," this basic principle that the Second Amendment has limits, is not to be found in the amendment itself. The text simply says "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." It is stated as an absolute, and it is regarded as an absolute by the rhetoric of gun rights advocates. The only thing keeping it from being a true absolute is our sense of perspective.
The Lunatic Fringe
But some people don't have a sense of perspective. Some people are concerned not only with guns as a component of liberty, but as the actual manifestation of all their freedom. They hold fast to that quote by Thomas Jefferson, that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." I am referring, of course, to the notion that our various rights and freedoms are only guaranteed by the fact that if some jackbooted bureaucrat comes to take them, we can shoot him.
Let there be no doubt that this is a paranoid fantasy. The people cannot defeat the government in a noble war of principle. The government can do this:
The ideals of this country are about more than rugged individualism. Our society can only function under the rule of law, not of force. Our freedoms can only survive if we conduct ourselves as free and responsible people. If we insist that it is necessary to hold anybody at gun point to guarantee we'll still be free in the morning, then we were never free to begin with.
The Second Amendment supports people in a delusional mindset that they can relive the glory days of 1776, when it was plausible that a ragtag band of rebels might defeat an empire armed only with muskets (and lest we forget, the indispensable aid of the French). The culture surrounding this delusion makes violence a virtue, and insists that regardless of the will of the majority or the rule of law, might makes right.
On the (slightly) less apocalyptic side, gun-rights groups like the NRA tell us over and over that the only thing that can protect us from guns is guns of our own. We should not accept that argument. It is an admission that our society can never be peaceful and nonviolent, an exhortation that the only way to truly live in peace is to be prepared to take a life at a moment's notice.
But a society of violence is not an inevitability. It is a society of our own making, and the Second Amendment is central to its survival, as we seek to justify its existence.
I see nothing deeply wrong with firing a gun at a home intruder to protect life. And I can live with a world where proven responsible people can shoot as a hobby. Guns can have a place in our society, if we have a strong public commitment to keeping them from causing harm. As it stands now, it is inevitable that our gun culture will claim hundreds and thousands of innocent lives long before it precipitates a righteous second coming of the American Revolution.
The right to bear firearms is not universal across time and space. It is rather a specific instance of the right to defend oneself, given that firearms exist as a means to do so. The right to self-preservation is much more obviously fundamental, and worthy of being a part of the Constitution. Any amendment that effectively abolishes the Second must consequently reaffirm the fundamental right underlying it.
This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn't. What I am proposing is merely that people should have the right to defend themselves by any means that they can prove themselves responsible to use. That means background checks and waiting periods. It means higher standards applied to weapons of more destructive capability. It means bans on the most disproportionately destructive weapons. I believe that a reasonable reading of the Second Amendment permits these policies already, but the common cultural understanding of it makes them fraught with controversy.
Nobody claims that these policy changes would solve all of our problems, and that no more children would die senselessly. But it would make a difference: a society where guns are regarded as a dangerous and controlled resource is preferable to one where people can simply check them off on their grocery lists, no matter what they have in mind.
This proposal of mine is far more grounded in realism and compromise than my flight to the world of imagination might suggest. It may be a weakness of mine to insist on less than I really want, but I prefer to consider it a strength, given that what I want more than anything is to live in a genuinely free and open society. I have no faith in the ability of guns to provide that, either in the hands of police or the hands of private fools who make shows of occupying public buildings and streets with the implied threat of violence.
Ours is an unacceptably violent society, but it is not the most violent society. That is because we have other traits besides a love of guns: we respect law and freedom, and we have been blessed with remarkable power and prosperity. Were it not for that prosperity, we would have been beyond hope by now. If we had not regarded guns as totems of our civic mythology, our society might be truly enviable by now.
Our survival in the face of our own insanity proves that there is more holding this country together than the right to be lethal at a distance. There is a stronger foundation for freedom than the ability to kill.
So let's get rid of the Second Amendment, and while we're at it, let's do away with all the cultural baggage that feeds on its legacy. 1776 was a very long time ago, and no amount of glory should convince us to try and recreate it. Tone down the rhetoric and admit some responsibility into gun policy, and the USA may yet surprise everyone with the freedom and peace it can provide for itself.