Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Are guns "froofy"? A "well regulated" post on the 2nd Amendment

I think I've written a fair amount in the past about the 1st Amendment, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to write a bit on the 2nd Amendment, as it's probably the most controversial section of the Bill of Rights. Generally, I consider myself to be pro-2nd Amendment, but I'm pretty sure most of the opinions I have on the matter would be less than palatable to the average NRA member. No matter; if there's disagreement, I hope it can spark dialogue.

So first, on a very basic level, I do think that people should have the right to protect themselves, and if they choose to do so with a gun, then in general, the Constitution says that's okay. At the same time, I personally have no desire to own a gun; they don't appeal to me in any manner. Perhaps it's my distaste for guns that leads to my nuanced views of this law, although I think if I did want to own a gun, I'd still expect some reasonable boundaries to my rights.

Just because the founding fathers wanted to guarantee us certain rights about guns doesn't necessarily mean that they intended ordinary citizens to own fancy automatic assault rifles. I've heard some people say that the argument that the founding fathers couldn't have imagined the sorts of guns we have today is invalid because you could draw similar parallels to the 1st Amendment: that the founding fathers couldn't have known about things like the Internet, so maybe we should curtail freedom of expression with respect to media types that are more modern than the 18th century? This is supposed to sound ridiculous, but I don't think it is. Why? Because the Internet really has changed the way we communicate and express ourselves.

Let me tell you a story. Back around, oh, I think probably 1995, I had a friend that had one of the first home PCs I'd seen that was web ready. He had AOL. One day I was at his house, and he was showing me all the cool things that he could do on AOL, and he paused. "Do you want to see something scary?" he asked me. I wasn't sure I was, but I was curious as to what he meant. He popped into a chat room and typed, "Can anyone send me nudes of 13s?" Before I could parse what that meant, his computer chirped repeatedly "YOU'VE GOT MAIL!" and he opened up his inbox. There he showed me that he had just been sent several nude pictures of underage girls, including one of someone having sex with what was claimed to be a 12-year-old. I'm feeling pretty confident that the founding fathers never intended the 1st Amendment to protect that sort of artistic expression. I would suggest that when technology changes, our understanding of the world changes with it.

So back to guns. I don't see why an average citizen would have a practical need for guns of a certain firepower. (I'll admit freely that I'm a person who knows very little about guns, and I don't feel I have the confidence to say that I can draw the arbitrary lines between acceptable and unacceptable guns. I do feel that there are lines that are reasonable to be drawn, however.) I don't think people should have machine guns, and I have a hard time believing that the average citizen has a need for armor-piercing rounds, for instance, but this is just my personal view.

Perhaps we should take a look at the 2nd Amendment?

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.
I think a lot of people, myself included, are confused about the meaning and significance of the first half of this law. I mean, if the 2nd Amendment were simply the text that follows the comma, it would be pretty simple, but the stuff before the comma leads to so many questions. What precisely is a "militia"? What does it mean for one to be "well regulated"? What's the real meaning of "the security of a free state"? Let's deal with these in turn.

Going to the dictionary for the first question, we find various definitions of "militia". The first definition given is "a body of citizens enrolled for military service, and called out periodically for drill but serving full time only in emergencies." This sounds like a group of people who are serving and protecting the government. But look at the fourth and final definition: "a body of citizens organized in a paramilitary group and typically regarding themselves as defenders of individual rights against the presumed interference of the federal government." This sounds like virtually the antithesis of the group in the first definition to me. While surely there are a lot of people today who believe it to be their right to be in a militia of the latter type, is there any evidence that the founding fathers meant that definition? Yet even if they didn't, does that make it wrong?

When something is "regulated" in any official sense (whether "well" or not) it's usually regulated by the government, isn't it? Once again, that would seem to rule out the latter definition of "militia", but I don't know I could say so with 100% surety.

The thing that's funny to me is how with all that lack of specificity so far, there is still more lack of specificity to be found in the last phrase, "the security of a free state". If the militia is guarding the security of the state, then it seems that it's working for the government, but I'm sure some would argue that the addition of the word "free" in there could imply that the militia could be fighting for a "free state" against a state that is not free. While that seems like an admirable cause, it's also quite open to differing opinion, and when people with (arguably) excessive guns are fighting to protect the right to have said guns, isn't the logic sort of circular?

Anyway, it's just awful strange. The 1st Amendment, as well as most if not all of the others in the Bill of Rights, doesn't give a reason why the people are given rights, it just gives them. Why does the 2nd Amendment give a reason, and unfortunately a reason that is, in the end, quite confusing? It's the difference between saying, "All children should get a lollipop on Friday," and saying, "Seeing as lollipops are so froofy and the well-being of children is dependent on overall froofiness, all children should get a lollipop on Friday." You find yourself suspecting that if you knew what "froofy" really meant, you'd have a better idea as to the validity of a weekly lollipop, and without that meaning, you might suspect the whole thing's garbage.

But there are a lot of people who defend the right to own a seemingly (to many) ridiculous amount and kind of gun with the argument that it does serve to keep us safe from an oppressive government. I'm not sure that I buy this in the end, for two reasons. The main reason is that if the government is truly going to turn on you and take away all your beloved freedoms, I don't think it matters what kind of guns you have. The government has tanks and bombers and chemical weapons and if they decide to come for you, guns just won't be enough, no matter how many you have.

The second reason is one that may just appeal to me as a person who doesn't love guns: The world has repeatedly been changed by a group of citizens who armed themselves and fought against oppressive governments, this is true, but the world has also been changed by people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela who never picked up a weapon, but were simply willing to lay down their lives for the cause of freedom. I'd just like to believe that the world can be changed without having to kill people to advance worthy causes. There are those who have shown that it can be done.

They say that guns don't kill people, people kill people; and that's true. But a gun is a tool that is specifically designed to cause harm, and while I respect people's right to defend themselves, a gun is something that I'll never be 100% happy with.


Tim Robison said...

Well said for the most part. However...

The First Amendment does not cover kiddie porn and your friend could have been prosecuted for having it in his inbox, so I think this example breaks down at the gate.

Also, banning this kind of gun or that kind of gun is terribly misguided - it's the ammunition that makes one firearm different from another. The AR-15 fires a small-caliber round (.223) at a high velocity so it pierces light armor. Ban the AR, right? No point - any other gun, even handguns, that can fire the same rounds are just as dangerous as the AR-15. In fact, a lightweight handgun that can be hidden easier is more dangerous than a heavy rifle that can't be smuggled under a hoodie.

Brucker said...

But that's not why the example breaks down, that's precisely why the example is so apropos. We all understand that the 1st Amendment protects freedom of expression, but child pornography is an exception. The 1st Amendment also protects free exercise of religion, but I'm guessing the local church couldn't get away with tossing virgins into volcanoes. We accept that there are exceptions to the 1st Amendment, so why not exceptions to the 2nd?

As I said, I'm no arms expert, so I couldn't say what ought to be banned with any authority, but sure, maybe it is more than one kind of gun or another, maybe it's certain kinds of ammunition? Maybe we shouldn't allow concealed carry? I don't know, I'm not suggesting anything specific, I'm just saying that I think suggesting the 2nd Amendment means that any person can have any weapon of any sort and number seems excessive.

Brucker said...

Here is a great (but lengthy) article on gun control that someone shared with me on Facebook.

Brucker said...

The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery