Rights, Guns, and Newtown

Like most of the country, I was absolutely appalled at the tragedy in Sandy Hook high school this past Friday. To the point that, after trying to figure out which link I wanted to put into this post for informational purposes of what happened, I decided on nothing at all. I honestly can’t handle looking at it all again. So if you have been under a rock for the last few days, just Google “Newtown, CT” and you should find everything you need to get back up to speed.

I haven’t written here in a while, and rather then spend my return discussing the disgustingness of what took place–which has been done and undoubtedly will continue to be done ad-nauseum for the upcoming days and weeks–I thought I would venture into an area that I have been interested in for years, but never had the guts to discuss in public forums until now.

The oft-debated “right to bear arms” is understandably at the center of the recent media firestorm, and it is clear that both sides of the political universe are trying to find ways to use the events in Newtown as a catalyst for achieving whatever goals they have generally on this topic. And while I usually find myself somewhere in the middle of the spectrum when I think about people’s rights concerning firearms, I thought it might be a good opportunity to go back and look at what is actually stated in the Second Amendment, and go from there. Here is the text:

“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.”

As is common in the rights ascribed by the Bill of Rights, the forefathers made (at least in my mind) a conscious point to remain as ambiguous as possible in the details while still affirming the conceptual importance of what was being discussed. In other words, because the idea of the Constitution was to provide the framework upon which to found the nation and guide it through its various future iterations, the writers had the good sense to understand that getting into the nitty-gritty of the time period in which they lived would provide little help for American citizens living in the more technologically advanced future. Hence the ambiguity. People have the right to keep and bear arms, and that right cannot be infringed by government. What should count as “arms,” however, is (again, understandably) left out of the document, and left up to the individual generations of government and citizens to interpret on their own.

So the question for today remains: How well have we done in this interpretation of what the founding fathers were pushing for two hundred plus years ago?

Rather than get into a complex conversation about the difference in scope between federal and state laws, and who should govern what, etc.–for which I wouldn’t have the competence or background to do well anyway–I just want to consider the big picture for a moment. As to the first question of whether people should have the right to keep and bear any firearms (and I should point out that at this point in time, “arms” can’t realistically be considered anything less than guns), I would give a conditional “yes, they do.” I don’t have a problem with someone keeping a well-protected and maintained gun in the house for the purpose of self-protection, or protection of his family. That alone doesn’t concern me. However, even that potentially benign example, in my view, should require a more stringent licensing process than appears to exist in many parts of the country today. Greater time elapses, stronger requirement classes, psychological evaluations (on a continuing basis), and frequent renewal exams all seem perfectly reasonable to me for those who wish to own a firearm at home.

To the many who argue for the priority of freedom and liberty over potential security, I can only give my staunchest disagreement. This isn’t about the denial of liberty for the sake of governmental control. This isn’t big brother at play. This is about ensuring that those who wish to invoke the rights ascribed in the Bill of Rights are capable of doing so in a competent, safe fashion. And while it will undoubtedly be pointed out that even the best security checks will not stop people from obtaining weapons through beating the system or utilizing the black market, that alone doesn’t provide the justification for abandoning the protection of law altogether. We aren’t anarchists, no matter how imperfect the structure of law may be currently.

Consider the security checkpoints existing in many of the airports throughout the country today. Putting aside the legitimate concern of potential profiling in who is actually checked the most, let’s look at (again, from a big picture standpoint) why these checkpoints became so stringent ten or so years ago. Prior to 9/11, it was pretty easy to get through an airport and onto a plane carrying items that could provide the means for causing the atrocities we saw on September 11th. Now, while it is clearly not impossible to get a weapon onto a plane, it is damn hard. And while I am among the many who get annoyed in the moment when I have to take off my shoes, wait in long lines, and have my liquids kept to a certain small quantity before boarding, at the end of the day I am willing to sacrifice the “freedom” of keeping people from seeing my socks for the sake of having my plane take off and land safely. Just a little quirk of mine, I guess.

Getting back now to the question of what should count as legitimate “arms” for a citizen to keep and bear, in my mind we should take a common-sense approach to this. In other words, what would it take for the average person, who is not in combat, to protect himself and his family while in his home or (less importantly to me) in public? Would a knife do the trick? Well, maybe not if the person attacking you is carrying a gun. Or, worse yet, if the person attacking you is actually a group of people instead. So under these circumstances, what would suffice for your protection? How about a pistol or two, each of which carries, say, twenty rounds of ammunition? That must be enough, right?

I have yet to hear a good argument for the average non-military citizen’s right to develop and maintain an arsenal in his home. What purpose would this serve, beyond simply honoring freedom and liberty for the sake of freedom and liberty? And more importantly, what are the costs of allowing this type of freedom and liberty to exist? As we saw in Newtown, and as we’ve seen in other similarly horrible situations, the damage an assault rifle can cause is massive. The purpose, as I understand it anyway, of an automatic weapon is to provide the user with the capacity to fire multiple rounds as quickly as possibly without the burden of reloading. Add to that the extended magazines, etc., provided in these types of weapons and one has the obligation to ask what do you really want to do with something like that? When is the ability to wound or kill five, or ten, or twenty people in seconds really and truly applicable to self-protection, except perhaps in the most imaginative of exceptions?

The fact of the matter is that while people may indeed have a right to protect themselves with firearms, that right needs to be limited to something a reasonable and rational person would agree to. And while I may not be the paradigm of either, I cannot for the life of me understand why a weapon designed primarily for military warfare is needed for the average person looking to defend himself and his family in a worst case scenario setting.

A final point concerning an analogy that has been–inappropriately–used by many in support of an open-ended right to bear arms. Drugs are illegal, and people obviously continue to have access to them. Abuse is present, and crime persists because of it. But these facts, while tragic, do not imply the necessity of complete deregulation of drugs in America. A change in regulation, perhaps, but not deregulation. And that’s really what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? Your “right” to something doesn’t in any way imply that I have a subsequent obligation to just hand over whatever you want without first offering up some realistic expectations and restrictions. Even the hardcore libertarian has to accept that while government shouldn’t get involved in restricting his freedom, that freedom simply cannot result in the illegitimate harm of others.

Give me liberty or give me death. Well, in this case, giving you one may give me the other. And I’m not ready to go quite yet.

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