Children and the Second Amendment

After the horrible attack in Las Vegas, a lot of people are talking about guns and gun control again.  We’ve had a lot of these terrible shootings in the last few years and it’s no surprise to me that people see this as a disturbing trend that needs to be curtailed sooner rather than later.  I have very mixed feelings about it.

I grew up in rural south Georgia.  Guns were everywhere.  My mother didn’t let me and my sister have toy guns except for squirt guns. And none of the squirt guns were allowed to look anything like a real gun.

My mom wasn’t scared of guns as such. She could handle one well.  I remember one morning her taking one of my dad’s guns and stepping out of the back door in her robe to take out a raccoon that was stuck in a trap by our chicken pen. It only took her one shot.  She knew that guns are dangerous and have to be handled with care and precision.

So, I shot guns as a kid. My dad and my uncles taught my cousins and I to shoot.  In Boy Scouts, I earned my shotgun and rifle merit badge. I never had any interest in going hunting because it sounded boring to me, but my cousins said they enjoyed it. And I laughed along with hilarious stories of people doing foolish, but ultimately harmless things with guns. Like the one about our family friend who had a handgun with him while he was out fishing and a snake dropped into his jon boat. The snake lived, but he had to wade out of the swamp he was fishing in. Guns are just part of that way of life.  They’re commonplace, but respected.

I’ve been out shooting a few times as an adult. I took a concealed carry class while I lived in Tennessee because I was curious about it.  But, so far, guns just aren’t my thing.  They’re loud and, in spite of my experience with guns, I don’t feel like I know enough about them to handle them without a lot more education.

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The Second Amendment is a troublesome thing for a lot of people.  It’s one sentence and it’s written in such a way that I can only imagine that its author thought, “This is obvious. I don’t need to explain anything more about this.”  And yet there is a lot of debate about it.

Some people take a hard line and say that the Second Amendment means citizens should be allowed to own as many weapons as they like up to and including nuclear arms.

Some people say that the Second Amendment does not apply to all weapons, but simply to things which can be handled by a single person, things like rifles and handguns, but not nuclear weapons and fighter jets and whatnot. The basis for this argument rests on drawing a distinction between “arms” and “ordinance.”

Some people say that the Second Amendment was relevant in a time when a firearm was necessary for survival and included things like muskets. They say it did not anticipate weapons like AR-15 semi-automatic rifles.  So, they say that if we have to allow guns, then we should limit that allowance to our modern day equivalents of muskets.

Some people say that the Second Amendment is an outlandish concept in modern society and it should be repealed and no private citizens should be permitted to own guns.

There are, of course, a lot of other perspectives on the Second Amendment that fall between these various positions.  I’m not a lawyer, but here’s how I read the Constitution.

First, some relevant excerpts from the text:

AMENDMENT II: 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.

ARTICLE 1, SECTION 8 (Powers of Congress): 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;

I’ve seen it argued that private citizens shouldn’t have the right to own weapons for fun, but rather the reason given for the right to bear arms is for the purpose of maintaining “a well regulated Militia.” And the reason we have a Militia is to “suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”  And the reason we want to suppress insurrections and repel invasion is “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

However, I’m inclined to read the Second Amendment as saying, “People have a right to keep and bear arms and because we want to make sure our militia is filled with people who know how to use them, we don’t want to infringe on that.”  The distinction is that the “well regulated militia” is not a general justification for the right to bear arms, but a specific justification for mentioning it in the founding document of the land.

The Constitution does not mention self-defense by the individual.  The Ninth Amendment says, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people,” though. The notion of self-defense as an individual right is well-established among the ideas and philosophical underpinnings from which the Constitution is drawn. So, it’s safe to argue that the Founding Fathers took a person’s own right to defend their person and property with firearms as a given.

I’ve seen some people argue that another reason why we retain the right to bear arms is so that we might even need to fight back against our own government.  I’m sympathetic to this view and I believe some of the Founding Fathers were, too.  But I’m not sure The Constitution provides any support for that view… especially since from the perspective the federal government, such efforts would likely be viewed as an “insurrection” for which Congress might call the militia.

Fast forward to today where we have these incredible weapons at our disposal. The average person can easily manage a firearm that shoots hundreds and hundreds of bullets at an amazing rate. They’re powerful enough to punch through walls and other barricades.  And they can reach, with lethal force, people thousands of feet away.  They are terrifying devices in view of what they can do and it’s no wonder my mother insisted on absolute safety and respect for these tools.

My read on the Second Amendment is that people have a right to own and use firearms for personal defense or recreation or hunting or whatever.  But I don’t see it as an absolute right.  Meaning, I don’t read it as a right to bear ANY AND ALL firearms.  You can bear arms, but only certain arms and under certain conditions. So, I don’t see outlawing automatic weapons, for example, as an infringement of that right.  I also don’t see any problem with keeping guns from some criminals and the mentally ill. I think some sort of background check or even waiting periods are reasonable steps to put into place for would-be gun owners.

I would love to see more of an education/proficiency requirement for owning a gun.  I mentioned the carry class I took in Tennessee. That class was woefully inadequate to the purpose, in my opinion.  But the law stipulated that we had to have something like 8 hours of class time, so we sat in a classroom for 8 hours while an ex-cop told us stories about people with guns.  If you know guns well, being forced to sit in that is stupid. It’s time-consuming and adds nothing to your knowledge.  Those people should be allowed to demonstrate their knowledge and proficiency and leave right away.  People like me who want more in depth education should be able to get more than anecdotes from a chubby ex-LEO.

I can see why some would see any restrictions on which arms a person can buy as a slippery slope toward infringement. And I do think we should be careful when we consider placing any new restrictions on gun ownership. I don’t think such decisions should be motivated by emotional responses to horrific events like the slaughter in Las Vegas.

I don’t have any good answers for these questions. The problem of mass shooting is very disturbing and I don’t have a good solution for stopping them.

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I would love if I could teach my children about guns and gun safety. I don’t want them to have emotional reactions to guns in the way that I see so many responding.  I don’t want them to freak out if they see someone with a gun, rather I want them to  assess the situation and respond accordingly.

I was on the subway in NYC a few years ago and the train stopped at a station and stayed there for a while.  Other passengers and I heard some shouting and started looking around.  I stepped off the train and saw a man walking very quickly toward me with a gun drawn and pointing it at the ground.  He was very focused on something toward the front of the train and I believe he was a plain-clothed cop, so I stepped backwards out of his path and when he went by, I looked at the the woman next to me and we both quickly moved behind a concrete barrier on the other side of the platform.  Soon, it was all clear and we got back on the train and went about our business.

Perhaps more importantly, I want my children to take an intellectual, not emotional, view of these topics.  I’d rather that they seek to understand the facts; I’d rather they grasp the ideological principles of freedom and the concept of rights; and I’d rather they grapple with the challenge of finding solutions accordingly.

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