CONTROL OVER the safety and distribution of firearms has long been one of the most central and divisive issues in American politics. Few issues combine intense rhetoric, powerful lobbying and deep constitutional implications in the way that the gun control debate has. As with many topics in political discourse, however, the debate has gotten muddled because several issues have been drawn into one intellectual battle. In reality, the question of gun control comes down to two different concerns. The first problem, a philosophical one, centers on justifying the availability of guns. The second, a practical matter which I will leave to be discussed another time, hinges on the control of the guns that we do allow.
It cannot be reasonably disputed that the founding fathers of this country intended its citizens to have at least some access to firearms. The inclusion of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights proves this point well enough. The Second Amendment does more than just tell us what the founding fathers intended. It provides a barrier to the strongest gun control laws. The NRA's legal defense of gun ownership hinges in large part on this segment of the Bill of Rights.
One can reasonably ask, however, whether the founders' intent in adding an amendment protecting the rights of the people to bear arms still applies. The America that existed when the Constitution was written bears little resemblance to the modern nation. In the late 1700s when the Constitution was written, hunting was more central to the lifestyle of the former colonists, and security was less certain.
The Second Amendment states, "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." This reflects the fact that the safety of the country was at the time threatened continuously on all borders. Maintaining the integrity of the state required that all citizens be willing and able to protect it from armed invasion by its enemies at a moment's notice. This was an outgrowth of the strategy that won the colonies their independence from the British crown.
The situation obviously has changed. The United States has such a powerful standing military that it no longer faces any reasonable fear of mass invasion from a neighbor. America has the longest undefended border in the world to its north, and a second border patrolled more by law enforcement than by military units to the south. A militia of armed citizens has less relevance to national security now than it did in the past. As such, one could argue that the Second Amendment no longer has so much weight.
Even on its own terms, however, that argument has less impact than one might expect. In the first place, while armed invasion no longer threatens this country, the character of war has changed in such a way that guns might be relevant. National security now faces a threat from invasion by small, dedicated terrorist groups instead of large armies. Against infiltration of this kind, private citizens with firearms may be of aid to national security.
Furthermore, the nation ought to be concerned about the possibility of future war, not just its current absence. Having familiarity with the use of firearms reduces the amount of time needed for basic training in the event of a crisis in which the draft must be reinstituted. That we hope such a situation does not arise is no reason not to prepare for it. So the Second Amendment still has at least some relevance.
Proponents of firearms availability frequently argue that the Second Amendment is meant not to protect national security per se but rather the security of the citizens from general tyranny. Guns, they argue, are meant to allow the people to protect themselves from an oppressive government. This seems dubious from a practical angle. If the United States government decided to physically oppress the people, an unlikely prospect, then small arms fire would be unlikely to overcome tanks, planes and bombs.
On another level, though, the NRA and others argue that guns should be available for personal protection from criminals. The common idea along this line is that some homeowner, threatened by a burglar, could defend himself with a gun. This image is in many respects mistaken, but that issue belongs to practical considerations and not to the justification of possessing guns generally. If people have a right to defend their property, then one cannot reasonably argue that they must do so with sticks and rocks. Given that guns are widely used in the pursuit of criminal activity, the victims deserve a chance at the same firepower.
Ultimately, the Second Amendment still has relevance to modern society, despite the changed condition of the country. That, taken with a reasonable concern for the safety of private citizens, is enough to continue the availability of handguns in the United States. With that answer, the question of how the availability of guns should be controlled is still open.
(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)