I realize that I run the risk of alienating friends, neighbors, and maybe even family members with this post, but as I so often confess, I’m pathologically incapable of avoiding conversation. So, I can’t resist contributing to our society’s ongoing conversation about guns and their place in our nation and homes.
Over the past couple of weeks, firearms have all-too-tragically figured prominently in our societal dialogue, first as Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins before killing himself, later as a seven year old boy died outside a Pennsylvania gun store, apparently the victim of the accidental discharge of a firearm by his own father, and most recently when Jacob Tyler Roberts opened fire in the Clackamas Town Center mall in Oregon earlier this week.
Because Belcher happened to be a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, sportscaster Bob Costas addressed the tragic murder/suicide in his weekly commentary during halftime of NBC’s Sunday night NFL game with predictable results. Costas quoted FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, who had written, “What I believe is, if he didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”
We’re all aware of the “debate” that ensued. I use the quotation marks here because I’m convinced there really is no meaningful debate about guns in our society. Very quickly, any attempt at conversation about guns diminishes into barb trading, finger pointing, and insult lobbing. As a society, we seem to lose our civility completely over the subject, probably because the conversation is about topics near and dear to our hearts–topics like freedom, liberty, safety, and security. Conversations about those topics inevitably elicit emotional responses, so we should not be surprised that we have such strong feelings about guns and gun control.
May I please try to (re-)frame the debate? May I invite us all to a genuine conversation, rather than a shouting match, about firearms in our society? Toward that end, let’s take a look at the parts of the conversation that cause us to feel so strongly.
The Second Amendment
Of course, the pillar upon which all gun rights rest in our nation is the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads:
“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.”
Though I suspect that many Americans are completely unaware of the first portion of this amendment, the latter part is vigorously defended and debated. Much ink has been spilled, much breath has been expelled, and many keystrokes have been struck in an effort to determine what exactly the Second Amendment means. Of course, one’s reading of this amendment depends heavily upon the theory of constitutional interpretation to which one ascribes.
For instance, a strict constructionist or textualist might read the amendment’s last fourteen words and conclude that there should be absolutely no laws limiting gun ownership or possession. From such a perspective, any legislative effort to curb or limit (or “infringe”) a person’s right “to keep and bear Arms” is unconstitutional.
My impression is that the National Rifle Association subscribes to this point of view and believes that almost every law limiting gun ownership or possession is an unconstitutional violation of individual rights. After all, the organization’s official website lifts up “24/7 defense of your Second Amendment freedoms” as the primary membership benefit, suggesting that those freedoms are regularly jeopardized, or constitutionally speaking, “infringed.”
A reasonable person can certainly understand the NRA’s zeal. “[T]he right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” is a very strong statement, and it places a heavy burden of proof upon anyone–any legislator or any legislature–who would seek to limit the people’s right to own or possess firearms.
Anyone who is fundamentally or even partially opposed to guns needs to understand this. So, if you favor toughening gun ownership laws, outlawing certain kinds of firearms, or stricter laws concerning possession of firearms, realize that you are contending with the last fourteen words of the Second Amendment, which prohibit the infringement of the right to keep and bear arms.
Clearly, however, there’s more than one way to interpret the Constitution. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have this debate. Where the strict constructionist or textualist tends to read the text literally and find the text’s meaning by discerning what the words mean to an intelligent, reasonable reader, an originalist or purposivist might try to look through the text to see its original intent or purpose–the situation the words seek to address. These other means of interpretation focus on the context and purpose of the Second Amendment, rather than zeroing in on the words themselves.
Why was it so important to our nation’s founders to protect the right to keep and bear arms? What convinced the framers of the Bill of Rights to amend the Constitution to protect the right to bear and keep arms? The answer to these questions may lie in the first thirteen words of the Second Amendment. Perhaps the original purpose for securing the right to keep and bear arms was to ensure that the state could have that well regulated militia.
Consider the context–during the American Revolution, the local militia units bore the brunt of the fighting before the establishment of the Continental Army and even thereafter, militia often fought alongside the “regulars.” In 1786 & 1787, only months before the Constitutional Convention, militia troops were necessary to bring about an end to Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, and in 1794, only a few years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, militia troops would be essential to end the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania.
The framers of the Bill of Rights understood the need for organized, state-sanctioned military units to protect the common good and to ensure the common peace. In search of the Second Amendment’s purpose or original intent, a reasonable person can read the amendment in such a way that the last fourteen words are a means to the end described in the first thirteen words. According to such an interpretation, the people’s right to bear and keep arms shall not be infringed so that a regular militia (necessary to the security of a free state) might be maintained.
According to this interpretation, the Second Amendment is not so much about an individual’s right to bear and keep firearms as it is about the collective right of the people to assemble as militia for their common security. This is a common sense interpretation against the backdrop of the Revolution, before and during which the people’s collective rights were abridged by the British government and troops, and in the context of the fledgling republic, when the people’s common security was threatened by armed, rebelling mobs.
In his book Young Patriots: the Remarkable Story of Two Men, Their Impossible Plan and the Revolution That Created the Constitution, Charles Cerami suggests that the Second Amendment is best read in conjunction with Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which gives congress the authority to call forth, organize, arm, and discipline “the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” Cerami writes:
This last phrase, incidentally, adds great clarity to the much-abused Amendment II of the Bill of Rights when the two are read together. This amendment does not deal with a generalized “right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” but pointedly stipulates that this right “shall not be infringed,” because arms are required for “a well-regulated Militia” which, in turn, is “necessary to the security of a free State.” Bearing arms for any other purpose is simply not mentioned (211).
Considering the amendment in context and paying attention to its introductory phrase, a reasonable person could legitimately conclude that the right to keep and bear arms in the Bill of Rights is solely for the maintenance of common security. In our nation today, the National Guard and state defense forces have taken the place of militia, and for that reason, one could argue that the need to protect individuals’ right to keep and bear arms is less crucial than it was in the late 1700s.
If you believe that any gun control law is a bad law, you need to understand this. Patriotic Americans who love their Constitution and Bill of Rights as much as you do are legitimately interpreting those documents–just as you are–and coming to a different conclusion. You may disagree with them, but they make a valid argument and point.
Safety vs. Safety
Beyond the fact that we look at the same Bill of Rights and draw different conclusions, we need to acknowledge that our society has a difference of opinion over how best to ensure citizens’ safety. Let me call our attention to this fact–we all believe that a safe society is something for which we should strive. We merely disagree over how best to achieve or maintain it.
Perhaps the primary reason that the NRA and other proponents of gun rights so vigorously advocate for the individual’s right to keep and bear firearms is a conviction that the individual is safer when he or she is allowed to keep or carry a firearm for personal protection. According to this point of view, the best deterrent to crime is an armed citizenry. In the wake of the Perkins/Belcher murder suicide in Kansas City, the NRA’s CEO & Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said, “The one thing missing in that equation is that woman owning a gun so she could have saved her life from that murderer.”
From that same point of view, La Pierre and other advocates of gun possession rights would likely assert that the Clackamas Town Center would have been a safer place for everyone if someone in the vicinity of the shooter had a concealed handgun and could have neutralized the shooter before he took others’ lives.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that the mall would have been safer if the AR-15 Roberts used had not been so accessible. Admittedly, Roberts reportedly stole the semi-automatic rifle he used in last week’s shooting, but military-style semi-automatic rifles are available for legal purchase, and many believe that the availability of such weapons is the real threat to public safety.
And how about in the home? Is a home safer because it is protected by a firearm or because it has no firearms in it? It is difficult to adjudicate, simply because statistical evidence is hard to obtain. How many home invasions are thwarted or even deterred by the presence of firearms in the home? We just don’t know. On the other hand, published medical studies suggest that there are increased risks for child mortality by firearm in homes with unsecured guns and that there is a higher likelihood of suicide (because it is so frequently an impulsive act) in a home with a firearm. So it’s just not clear whether we’re safer with or without guns in our homes.
We come from different directions–some of us think the world needs less guns, and some of us think the world needs more people carrying guns–but we seek the same destination. We all want to live in a safe society. That’s our common ground.
How much is too much?
That’s a question I believe we have to answer as a society, and I believe it’s a question we can legitimately ask in light of the Second Amendment. How much firepower ought one person have? How much firepower is or ought to be protected by the Bill of Rights? How much is too much?
Whatever their intentions, whether simply to ensure the availability of militia or to protect every individual’s right to keep and bear arms for any other purpose, the authors and ratifiers of the Bill of Rights could not have imagined the weapons available today. The “Arms” about which they thought and wrote were primarily single-shot, muzzle-loading muskets or long rifles. In that era, there was little difference between and among firearms designed for sport, hunting, and combat.
One wonders how the founding generation would look upon semi-automatic weapons with clips or belts full of ammunition. In possession of a firearm from their era, an assailant might discharge one or two shots in a crowded public space before being apprehended by fellow citizens. By contrast, a semi-automatic rifle with several clips of ammunition is a weapon of mass destruction on the interpersonal level. Armed with such a weapon, an assailant can wreak havoc, as we have too often seen in our society.
Does and should the Second Amendment protection extend to such weapons? I understand the appeal to gun enthusiasts, to people who exercise diligent firearm safety and simply enjoy shooting for sport. There is a rush and thrill accompanying the safe, sportsmanlike discharge of a powerful weapon. There is something exciting about the experience of great power under control, whether it is in an automobile or with a firearm. But the mass shooting phenomenon compels us to ask whether we can continue to guarantee one person’s right to sport at the potential expense of others’ right to life.
God and Guns
I’ve seen several versions of the bumper sticker that says something like, “God, Guns, and Guts Made America Great. Let’s Keep All Three.” I wonder how God feels about those bumper stickers. Surely God is delighted that we ascribe to him some portion of America’s greatness, but at the same time, I bet God yearns for a greater separation from guns in our hearts and minds.
The bumper sticker reduces God to an ingredient. God becomes one component of a recipe for American greatness. As people with great allegiances in two directions, we American Christians have to discern our loyalties very carefully, lest we come to love one master and despise the other. Because faith and armed conflict have been components of the establishment of our national identity, we can forget that they are incongruous. We can see them as complimentary, or even necessarily intertwined.
In truth, it’s hard to love one’s neighbor as oneself when we view our neighbor as one from whom we might need to defend ourselves with firearms. I’m convinced that armed confrontation, interpersonally or internationally, is heartbreaking to God. And though warfare may indeed be unavoidable in international affairs, individual disciples have to contend with Jesus’ haunting words: ““You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39).
Rather than allowing our society’s ideas about firearms shape our faith, followers of Jesus should allow our faith to shape our ideas about weapons.
In search of civility . . .
As I’ve already said, I’m not convinced that we have much real conversation about the right to keep and bear firearms in this nation, simply because we become so defensive (and occasionally offensive) about the subject. No wonder. As I’ve suggested, most of us enter the conversation from concern for our safety and for the safety of our loved ones. Because the topic affects our sense of security, our “fight or flight” instinct engages. We very quickly assume our defensive positions and are ready to attack anyone who might have another perspective.
Whether our sense of security is compromised by gun violence itself or by conversations about restricting rights to own and/or possess firearms, we rush to defend our own perspectives and to demonize others’.
This has to stop if we are ever going to make progress together toward our common goal of a “more perfect union” and a more secure, peaceful society. We have to trade soundbites for substantive conversation. We have to abandon condescending, trite witticisms for one thing that has really made America great–compromise.
You’ve heard some of the catchy slogans:
- “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” Well, presumably law enforcement and the military would still be armed. Seriously, I believe this slogan is meant to prey upon our fears, to suggest that the only thing between ourselves and chaos is our firearms, reinforcing the idea that any gun control is a bad thing. Taken too far, the idea that our security is solely in our own hands (or firearms) nearly invites us to vigilantism.
- “If you’re going to blame guns for murder, why not outlaw spoons for making people obese?” I understand that the gun is a tool of destruction in the hands of a person who is choosing to use it in a willful act of violence. In the same way, a person uses a spoon in a willful way to feed himself or herself. But here’s where that comparison breaks down completely–how many spoons are used to murder others? How often does a person in another room get injured or killed when someone is cleaning their spoon in the adjoining room? Has there ever been a drive-by spooning in a gang turf war? Clearly, this comparison oversimplifies–almost to the point of absurdity–a very complex societal dilemma, and this kind of caricature shuts down meaningful conversation or debate.
- Most recently, a picture has made its rounds on Facebook depicting an M-16 or AR-15 in the center of the frame, surrounded by everyday objects like a rock, a stick, a golf club, a knife, a hammer, etc. The caption says something like, “Any of these can be used to commit murder. Why is only one unfairly labeled an ‘assault weapon?'” Again, there is a valid point that a person bent on murdering another can perpetrate that murder with any variety of objects. Nevertheless, every other item pictured has another primary use, but the gun is literally a killing machine. For crying out loud, the very word “gun” comes from a Middle English phrase that roughly means “engine of war.” Sure, the individual is ultimately responsible for whatever he or she does with a gun or any other weapon, but it is simply not true that a gun is basically the same as a golf club, knife, or rock in the extent to which it is lethal. It’s labeled an “assault weapon” because it was created to do damage to another human being. Muhammad and Malvo could not have carried out their reign of terror as the DC Snipers with the rock, the baseball bat, or the golf club.
Clearly, we need a new lexicon for this conversation. We have to do better than the language that seeks to vilify, disparage, and demonize the other, thereby envenoming or ending the discussion. It’s time for civil, intelligent conversation.
Where do we go from here?
I’ll be glad to share where I am at the moment in my own wrestling match with this subject. I believe that responsible hunters and sport shooters should always have the right to own firearms. I believe that military-style semi-automatic firearms are too readily available in our society. I believe that no common citizen needs Kevlar-penetrating, armor-piercing, “cop killer” bullets. I believe that we should be very careful about issuing concealed carry permits. I believe that sentencing guidelines for gun crimes should be as tough as (if not tougher than) the sentencing guidelines for drug crimes. I believe that every parent or other responsible adult should ensure that every gun in every home is secured from the reach of children.
Those are some of my beliefs, but I don’t have the final answers. That’s something for our society to discern together. But, as I hope I’ve pointed out here, I believe there are some questions that are key to the conversation. Clearly, these are complex questions. If the solutions were simple, we would have found them by now.
But we must continue to pursue them, and–this I believe with all my heart–the only effective route to those answers is through constructive, intelligent dialogue. Let’s seek the answers through civilized, cooperative communication, rather than assuming we already have the answers and defending them against all threats. We’re better than that.
Author’s note— Less than twelve hours after I released this post, over twenty school children and teachers were killed and others were wounded in yet another tragic, heartbreaking mass shooting. I join with you in prayers for all whose lives were ended or changed forever today in this senseless display of violence.
Author’s note #2— Acknowledgement and thanks to my high school friend Ernie Odum, who pointed out an inaccuracy in my original post. I had mistakenly referred to “military-style automatic firearms,” but as Ernie pointed out, the AR-15 and similar weapons are actually semi-automatic firearms, rather than automatic. My thanks to Ernie for catching this error and helping me to write more accurately.