Counterweights: Bearing Arms: Public Safety and the Second Amendment

June 27, 2012

The subject of this issue’s Counterweights is gun control, a controversial and emotionally charged topic with strong critics and supporters on either side.  Tackling this prickly piece of the Constitution are Dr. Steve Blankenship, assistant professor of history, and Shea Mize, lecturer in political science.  The Second Amendment reads thus:  “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.”

So the question becomes, what is this amendment protecting – a right to have a military force protect the state and bear arms to do so or the right of individual citizens to protect themselves with firearms?  Constitutional experts have interpreted the passage in different ways.  Here’s our faculty take on the two sides, including the Second Amendment as well as current events that may influence philosophy about firearms in America.

Blankenship takes the pro-gun position and Mize the gun-control position.  The positions don’t necessarily reflect the personal opinions of the authors.  Please feel free to continue the debate in the blog section below their conversation.  As always, remember to post respectfully and civilly.

Mize: According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2009 there were 10.27 gun-related deaths for every 100,000 people in the United States.  That equates to roughly 31,300 gun deaths per year – deaths that could be prevented.  It includes intentional and accidental homicides as well as suicides by firearms.  That 10.27 firearm-related death rate is much lower than countries like El Salvador (50.36), Honduras (46.70) or Guatemala (38.52).  But we usually consider those countries Third World, or to be more politically correct, less developed.  When compared to American counterparts in developed countries around the world, the United States is a veritable death row.  Firearm-related death rates of our allies put us to shame.  Consider: Canada is 4.78, Israel is 3.00, Australia comes in at 2.94, Germany at 1.57 and England at a very civilized .46.

Blankenship: That may be true, but there’s a reason for the lower numbers of the countries you have identified.  Those countries are made up of rather homogenous populations.  That U.S. firearm-related statistic is higher than the nations you cited because the great diversity of our demography often blends myriad ethnic communities together in a cauldron that boils over into violence.  Whole portions of urban African-American youth have been alienated from mainstream American goals, and have consequently chosen a life inherently more violent.  The myth of American exceptionalism will hardly persuade young men whose lives revolve around drugs, prostitution and other vices that are enforced by gunfire.

Mize: You make a good point, but let’s consider why those lives revolve around violence enforced by guns.  Much of the debate over gun control is fueled by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is quoted above.  To understand fully the intent of the amendment we need to understand the history behind it.  That history originated with Shays’ Rebellion in 1786.  Daniel Shays was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who led a band of disgruntled citizens of central and western Massachusetts in a rebellion against post-war economic depression and aggressive tax and debt collection by the courts.  Protesters initially shut down the courts so they couldn’t hear any other debt and tax collection cases.  Later the group became radicalized because of the arrest of some of their leaders, and began to arm themselves.  They marched to the armory in Springfield to seize weapons to use against the state government.  To stop the rebellion and secure the safety of the people of Massachusetts – and unable to recruit a national militia – the governor called on the merchants and elites of eastern Massachusetts to pay for and provide a state militia, which ultimately stopped the rebellion.

These events happened just about the time the general feeling was that the Articles of Confederation needed a good update.  The events of the rebellion have been widely accepted by historians as an influence in the debates that took place at the Philadelphia Convention where the Constitution was drafted.

And that brings us to the Second Amendment.  During the early years of our new nation, many of the founding fathers believed that having a standing army was an imminent danger to our democracy. So the states relied heavily on the citizenry to volunteer for defense of the state.  Citizens had to have arms to fulfill this role because they could be called out at any time.  As time passed, the federal government took over the organization and management of the armed forces for the defense of the country, but states still maintain “a well-regulated militia” for emergencies called the National Guard.  Because we no longer rely on the citizenry to take up arms for matters of defense, the right of the people to keep and bear arms is no longer needed.

Blankenship: Shays’ Rebellion did influence the Constitution, but it only tells part of the story of the Second Amendment.  The Founding Fathers imbibed a heady brew of republicanism that has been handed down for generations, shaping and influencing our national character.  Republicanism is a radical English ideology brought to America by British dissenters who opposed the rule of a monarchy.  At its heart, republicanism emphasizes the danger of power concentrated in the hands of a few.  Certainly this fear of concentrated power animated both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and drove them to insist on the inclusion of the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights.  They believed that the greatest possible danger to the American people lay in their own government, and that the right of the people to bear arms would protect them from a domestically grown tyranny.

Mize: And there, I believe, we’ve defined our differences most clearly.  We each interpret the Second Amendment’s meaning differently.  We’re not the only ones, of course.  Academics have been arguing these fine points for years.  So let’s just agree to disagree for now and move onto other related and current issues – the stand-your-ground laws that exist in 25 states and community watch organizations.  What do you think of them?

Blankenship: Here’s what I think.  All persons have the right of self-defense.  Criminal acts may or may not occur in the exercise of that right.  This remains true regardless of where the act takes place or whether firearms are used.  That’s what the courts, judges, juries and lawyers are for: to determine criminal liability.  Stand-your-ground laws merely make literal a figurative understanding possessed by all – when attacked, you may defend yourself.  If your defense is not proportional to the assault – for example, using a shotgun on teenagers who have rolled your house – you may face criminal charges.  As for community watch organizations, their role seems pretty straightforward to me.  American society has always existed within two metaphors: community and jungle.  In times of national stress we act as a community as we pound our collective chests in nationalistic fervor.  Once the danger has passed, however, we revert to our more comfortable roles as predators seeking advantage in a jungle we call the market economy.  With this predatory concept in mind, vigilante justice should be condemned.  If in doubt, simply do an online search for the key word lynching.  Then click on images for numerous depictions of so-called community justice.  I assume your opinions are different on these two subjects?

Mize: In some respects they are.  I think we need to distinguish between stand-your-ground laws and the Castle Doctrine.  Some states have the former law on the books, and some have the latter.  The Castle Doctrine actually dates back to our English ancestry, to the concept of a man’s home as his castle and the philosophy that everyone has the right to defend his/her home from potential invaders.  This doctrine was created to exempt people from criminal and civil liability in the event that the home invader was injured or killed during the commission of the invasion.

Some states have taken it to a higher level with the stand-your-ground laws.  While they vary from state to state, the basic concept is that if a person feels in imminent danger, regardless of the location, that person has the right to defend himself from the potential danger – sort of like a mobile version of the Castle Doctrine.  But the stand-your-ground laws take reasonable defensive measures to such an extreme they are no longer reasonable.  After all, that’s why we pay taxes, to ensure that we have trained law enforcement agencies to protect the population.  As for protecting one’s home, there are many other – and sometimes far better – ways of doing so than using firearms.

As for community watch organizations, they are only as effective as their members.  Some work well, but there’s an alarming trend within communities where neighbors don’t know each other.  Such conditions are a fundamental breakdown of community that can lead to these community watch groups being composed of paranoid personalities who need to prove to themselves and others how tough they are.  That unpleasant result can, in turn, lead to the overuse of law enforcement resources or to these overzealous members taking the law into their own hands.  The current case of Trayvon Martin’s death is a classic case of the latter.

Blankenship: And that’s exactly what I meant by saying that the defense better be in proportion to the offense.  Your comment about having better ways than the use of firearms to protect oneself I certainly don’t agree with.  There are confrontations that are sudden and unpredictable in which a gun is the best defense.

Mize: Well, that’s certainly the way the National Rifle Association wants people to think.  I find it a bit disturbing that the organization dramatically influences the policymaking process in both state and national legislatures.  On the other hand, that is a result of the nature of the modern political climate in which the involvement of electorate has been declining since the 1950s.

Blankenship: Come on.  The American political marketplace is open for business and any citizen or group of citizens may gather there to protect their interests – including the NRA.  If American apathy leads to tyranny, then we will at least know whom to blame – ourselves.

Mize: You’re certainly right about that. But this trend of apathy has created a vacuum in the world of politics, and to fill it, interest groups have become increasingly involved.  Yes, interest groups provide a service to their constituencies by creating a stronger voice, but they also render harm to the democratic process by providing more influence than the average citizen.  If voters would simply step up and fulfill their civic duties the need for interest groups would fade away.

Blankenship: On that point we can agree.  So let’s wrap this up by discussing two more related pieces of the debate – the availability of assault weapons and the requirement for background checks before purchase.  I think we may again be in agreement on one point.  I think that assault rifles, or any military-style weapon, should be severely restricted to the average consumer who has no legitimate reason to be so heavily armed.  Again, proportionality should prevail.  After all, should we sell tanks and rocket-propelled grenades to civilians?

I’m not as enthusiastic about background checks, and here’s why: instinctively I feel that background checks are largely a waste of time.  Someone intent on mayhem will not be deterred by official regulations.  That said, if background checks can prevent even one tragedy, it is difficult to argue against them.

Mize: I concur that background checks are at best a joke.  The federal government allows the states too much leniency in setting the standards on firearm purchases.  Most abide by the required three-day waiting period, but some don’t.  The Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which required all states to conduct background checks.  The result?  Some states ended mandatory checks.  We need to standardize the gun laws.  A good proposal is to require people who want to purchase firearms to take mandatory gun safety and training courses before they can obtain these products.  Or we could mandate psychological evaluations for those who want to purchase.  I know you’ll probably say that law-abiding citizens already adhere to the laws, and criminals just bypass them, buying their guns out of the trunks of cars illegally.  But instead of leaving it at that, federal and state governments should pass laws with tougher penalties for those who don’t comply.

As for assault rifles, let’s get a clear picture of what that is:  fired from the shoulder, with selective firing capability (automatic to semi-automatic), having an intermediate-power cartridge (more powerful than a handgun but less powerful than a standard rifle), having magazine-supplied ammunition (not belt-fed), and having a firing range of 300 meters.

Many advocates for these weapons have used the arguments that they are for hunting or defense purposes only.  But seriously, the primary purpose of these rifles is to disperse large amounts of ammunition in short bursts.  Frankly, if you need that much ammunition to hunt you need a lot more practice.  And if a person feels that threatened, I say he/she needs to seek professional counseling.

Blankenship: We could obviously argue this all day, but let’s get to the heart of it.  The gun-control issue goes back to French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville’s shrewd observations about the 19th century character of America.  He stressed the American obsession with individuality, with the notion that any man might grow up to be president, that the country was populated with people who believed they were as good as the next guy, and that every man stood as a monument to personal autonomy and independence.  The right to bear arms confirms this freedom to act as we wish as long as it is within the law.  American mythology is based on the virtues of the armed settler civilizing the West with his Bible in one hand and his Winchester in the other.

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