Guns. There is currently no more emotional issue in the US and nothing that polarizes more. You’re either in favor of guns or you aren’t, and if you’re in favor of them the ownership of a gun is probably viewed as a fundamental right. There isn’t much room for compromise.
Into this debate we have a nearly constant litany of shootings, sometimes with legal weapons and sometimes not. President Obama has decided to act where he can, more or less working on tightening up the existing background check laws and enforcing them more uniformly and rigorously.
There was a time when gun advocates called for us to “enforce existing laws” rather than write new ones, but even this action is controversial. But it shouldn’t be.
The heart of the issue comes down to the Second Amendment to the Constitution. It’s a very odd one for many reasons, primarily because it is the only right outlined that has a distinct qualifier to it.
Where freedom of the press, religion, and speech are absolutely guaranteed the right to a gun has a limit. We rarely have the “intent of the founders” expressed this clearly:
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.
Regulation, in this sense, is not a series of laws that empower an agency to enforce them as necessary. It almost certainly refers to training – drilling in the proper use of weapons to create a unified fighting force. There is no mention of personal security, but rather the “security of a free State.”
Over the years this has been interpreted in a number of ways by gun advocates, but rarely by the US Supreme Court. The decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) was the first time the Second Amendment alone weighed on a decision, and the court did what it usually does for constitutional rights – interpreted it as broadly as possible and declared that citizens do indeed have a right to a gun for self defense.
That’s where we stand today. There appears to be an absolute right to a gun.
Is Obama’s proposal, or for that matter any background check, constitutional? The short answer, based on Heller, is that such things aren’t. The existing framework for anything resembling keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people may not stand if properly challenged. We need to clarify this, and may soon.
According to a Quinnipiac poll, Americans favor expanded background checks by over 89% – including 84% in households that own guns. Keeping guns out of the hands of “dangerous” people appears to be a no-brainer to the public, regardless of any basic “right” that is defined or assumed. A law that would have broad support would do a good job of defining “dangerous”.
But who is “dangerous”? Who does not deserve this fundamental “right”? It’s probably going to require a very good test case before we know for sure.
For my part, I believe very strongly that talking about guns is a losing issue for advocates of some kind of control. Guns, as a thing, are not the seminal issue here. What always matters with any weapon is training or the ability to use one properly and responsibly – and whether a person is capable of absorbing the appropriate training. “Gun control is being able to hit your target” was the way the old bumpersticker slogan went. The process of obtaining and verifying training is the personal touch that allows professionals a chance to see a potential gun owner up close and in person for a proper evaluation.
When Minnesota passed a “shall issue” concealed carry law in 2001, I predicted there would be chaos and death. After all, it was a big change and there would be a lot more people walking around with guns – the easy call was for mayhem. I was completely wrong. Nothing bad ever came from this law.
Why was I so wrong? The statute wasn’t a blanket issue of a concealed carry permit to anyone. In order to obtain this permit you have to pass a safety class and show that you can actually hit the target with your gun. It may not seem like much, but the pass rate is about 96% – which is to say that 4% of all applicants were screened out as not suitable. That’s a win.
Training, in general, gets us back to the militia standard of the original intent of our founders. They couldn’t have made it more clear, either. It’s not about guns, per se, but people with guns who know what they are doing.
I am always reminded of a documentary I saw long ago on Bryan Kremer, who made one of the longest sniper shots ever in 2004 while stationed in Iraq. When talking about the incident he only mentioned his NM140 MP 50 calibre rifle in passing – but spoke at length about his training. And when he got to the moment when he made the shot, he spoke mainly of his target. “I felt sorry for the guy, he should have trained harder. He should have trained harder.”
The issue is not guns and it never will be. All we can talk about are the guns when what matters the most are the hands that hold them. The founders knew this and the experts in our military know this. Gun control advocates need to focus on this if they are ever going to make any headway.