You can expect the gun control debate to shift into high gear following president Obama’s recently announced proposals for gun control. I do not own a gun, have no intention of ever buying one, and have never even fired one (apart from an air rifle as a child). But I am not one who offers unqualified support for a total ban on gun ownership. I think a case can be made for the private ownership of some guns by some people who have a reasonable need of them and I have written on this topic earlier (see here and here). But what types of guns could be owned depends on what one means by ‘reasonable need’ and it is clear that there is a wide divergence of views on this.
I can understand why hunters would want to possess guns and do not see why they should be restricted if they have demonstrated that they know how to use them carefully. I can also understand those people who are genuinely fearful of their safety (because they live in dangerous or remote places or are being specifically target for harm by others) and would feel safer if they had some means of defending themselves, though having guns in the home or on one’s person also carries the risk of accidental injury to innocent people. But neither of those reasons requires semi-automatic or other forms of assault weapons that can fire a huge number of rounds in a short time so one would think that people would be able to agree on banning the sale and possession of those items. This move is fiercely opposed by those who seem to think that any restrictions on gun ownership is a form of tyranny.
But no freedom is absolute and as I said earlier:
Where I disagree with the extreme pro-gun groups like the NRA is in their desire to view even reasonable restrictions on gun possession as evil. I can see the need to make sure that people who buy guns are screened in some way to weed out criminals and the mentally ill and that they be required to undergo firearms training to show that they know how to handle them. The right to own a gun should be treated like the right to drive a car. Just as we are willing to give ordinary people the right to drive vehicles (which can be lethal weapons) provided that have shown that they have had training in how to use it and handle it responsibly, so it should be with guns.
I can also see the need for long waiting periods to buy guns to screen out those who buy them in a fit of rage to attack someone and a registry to more easily identify those who use guns in crimes.
What I think is far-fetched is the idea that ordinary people carrying guns can thwart a criminal if they happen to come upon a crime scene. The kind of training that one requires to respond coolly in such a situation is quite rigorous, and goes far beyond mere technical competence with the weapon as this report from ABC news points out. It also requires mental discipline that is not acquired easily and only comes as a result of extensive and continuous practice. Even people who are skilled with a weapon get rattled by a sudden crisis and fall apart. Furthermore, when lots of people carrying guns are at a scene, it becomes confusing for the police and others to know who is the criminal causing the problem and who are the armed persons who just happened to be there. Frankly, it seems unlikely that gun-carrying citizens would be able to stop an armed assailant except in rare cases. I can’t recall ever hearing of successful citizen vigilante actions of this sort.
But there is a catch to this interpretation of what constitutes reasonable possession and that is the US constitution. The second amendment says in its entirety:
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.
The amendment makes it clear that a blanket ban on the private ownership of all guns would be unconstitutional so those who want one would have to essentially repeal it. But at the same time, the language also makes clear that the right to own a gun has restrictions and is a limited one. But where that limit is drawn is the tricky point, depending on what is meant by a ‘well regulated militia’ and what is within the boundaries of its purpose of preserving the ‘security of a free state’.
Writing in the National Review Online, Kevin D. Williamson makes a good point:
The purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions. The Second Amendment is not about Bambi and burglars — whatever a well-regulated militia is, it is not a hunting party or a sport-clays club. It is remarkable to me that any educated person — let alone a Harvard Law graduate — believes that the second item on the Bill of Rights is a constitutional guarantee of enjoying a recreational activity.
There is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to secure our ability to oppose enemies foreign and domestic, a guarantee against disorder and tyranny.
I agree with Williamson that my idea of what constitutes reasonable reasons for the possession of guns is not what the framers of the constitution had in mind and that the only real purpose of having an armed citizenry is to defend against a tyrannical government. But times have changed. The US government now has a staggeringly vast array of weaponry at its disposal. It is absurd to think that a ‘well regulated militia’, however large and even if it possessed all manner of semi-automatic (or even automatic) weapons, could resist for long a government that had a huge supply of trained soldiers, tanks, planes, ships, drones, bombs, and missiles at its disposal.
If some dictator happened to take over the country and decided to suspend the constitution, the US military could wipe out any internal opposition easily. The only chance of overthrowing such a dictatorship is if there is a mutiny within the ranks of the military from those who oppose this move or there is a popular mass uprising of people so large and widespread that it could not be suppressed by force and so would make guns superfluous. Those supposed patriots who think that having some people roaming the woods with assault weapons can deter a government bent on tyranny are doing nothing more than indulging their paranoid fantasies derived from comic books and video-games.
So we have the paradox that the gun ownership right that is seemingly protected by the constitution has become useless in this day and age while the reasonable reasons to own guns (at least as I see them) have no constitutional protection.
This seems to leave us at an impasse and as long as it is not resolved the US will continue to have levels of gun-related deaths that are absurdly high when compared with other countries. Cartoonist Jen Sorenson cynically suggests that maybe the only way that gun-related violence will decrease to acceptable levels in the US is after it reaches catastrophic levels because of the widespread availability of guns in the hands of people who should never have them.