A meaningful national conversation on guns will require setting aside the tired battle positions in favor of a more honest debate. The stereotype of gun-rights advocates as clueless paranoids or gun-toting good-ol’ boys does a disservice to the millions of gun owners who take great care to use their firearms safely and securely.
Another offending phrase to put to pasture is “pro-Second Amendment.” What the phrase generally describes is an American who opposes further gun-control laws. However, using “pro-Second Amendment” goes too far. The Second Amendment has been a part of U.S. rights since its approval in 1791. No credible effort to repeal it exists, nor is that likely anytime soon, the fevered conspiracies of the National Rifle Association notwithstanding.
Better for all sides to agree that the heart of the debate centers on the practical application of the amendment, 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.”
Those words, like others in the U.S. Constitution, are subject to interpretation.
The First Amendment’s free-speech rights don’t allow someone who yells “fire” in a crowded theater to escape consequences.
The application of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unnecessary searches and seizures has evolved as means of searching now include high-tech gadgetry unheard of in the late-18th century.
The question of whether the death penalty should be covered by the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” has been a longstanding debate in top legal circles.
For that matter, until the Supreme Court’s 2008 Heller decision regarding the Second Amendment, the guarantee of an individual’s right to bear arms (as opposed to exclusively militias) was at best a murky legal point. In fact, the Heller decision remains controversial among legal scholars.
Which brings us back to the current post-Newtown massacre debate. A public-policy debate cannot ignore the Second Amendment. However, it should set aside the fantasies of the absolutists who presumably would not mind if their neighbors viewed the Second Amendment as an invitation to own a rocket-propelled grenade launcher or a ballistic missile.
The basic argument is more realistic. How can the nation do a better job of keeping firearms out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unbalanced? What gun-control policies might lessen the likelihood of future mass shootings? Should there be more regulations on who can buy assault weapons?
These and other policy questions are neither pro- nor anti-Second Amendment. They are merely considerations to be made.
The nation has been stirred in the days since Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., school with enough firepower to take on a hostile Afghan village. Americans, sad and frustrated at the growing death toll of gun violence, are posing deep and serious questions. The public desperately wants to see the senseless bloodshed of mass killings end. Those who would stifle that conversation with unthinking and wholly uncompromising Second Amendment boosterism add nothing to the debate.