The History of the Second Amendment, NRA Distortions, And How We Have to Do Gun Activism

A fascinating read about the history of the Second Amendment is available at Politico.

There’s a lot of things to add to this article, which is a vital corrective to our national debate about gun laws.

First of all: No right in the Constitution is absolute. Period. Freedom of speech is limited not just by libel and slander laws but also by rules against obscenity and indeed many situations where either a substantial or compelling state interest operates. The same is true of freedom of religion, freedom against search and seizure, etc. The rights of the individual have always since the start of the Republic been balanced against the rights of the many.

In fact, for those conservatives who want to look back to an idealized past where rights were more strongly protected, I have to say, “Learn the history of the First Amendment”. With the Alien and Secession Acts, and the imprisonment of Eugene Debs, it’s fairly clear that even a nominal right for free speech only really began to be protected in the 1960s. Which means the kind of truly libertarian world these people imagine is a heritage not of the Founders, but of the civil rights movement, hippies, peace activists, etc.

Second: While I do imagine that the Framers did consider that the average person might own a weapon of some kind, since that made sense in the politics of the day, I doubt they ever intended people to own rocket launchers or assault rifles.

Third: The idea of the militia has changed in the United States. Look at other countries with a militia system, like Switzerland. They do not have our laissez-faire attitude towards guns. The Constitution was always intended to be a living document. It was designed to allow adaptation to new social circumstances.

Finally, even the most expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment doesn’t justify not having bullet fingerprinting, or gun registration, or any number of other regulations. All the Second Amendment, no matter the version, says is that the right to “keep and bear” arms shall not be infringed. Making it so that your gun can be traced to you if you commit murder does not infringe upon that right one iota.

Of course, the Constitution is always a red herring in these debates.

Someone who believes in a society where people own guns can argue that we should defend the right to own guns beyond what the Constitution would dictate. I make the same argument when it comes to public welfare, or labor rights, or rights for women, or civil rights: Our rights go beyond the Constitution, which even in theory merely sets a floor below which we shall not go.

Transforming that belief, that we should have a society where people run around with AK-47s, requires us engaging with people’s fear, anger and resentment. It requires engaging the empathy that’d make someone care that their assault rifle might be stolen and end up in the hands of a gangbanger or a cartel. We have to unmask the race and class fears that motivate this desire to hold onto guns. We have to engage with and help dispel those fears that lead us to want guns at a rate no other industrialized country does, even industrialized countries that may have quite serious crime problems.

We also need to point out, as I did to Dan Gainor earlier, that every moment that someone is fighting for their right to have guns in a playground is a moment that they are not fighting for the right of someone to eat, or be free from the fear that their intimate partners will beat them, or to be confident that their workplace won’t kill them. We have to call out the people who want to have their guns and ask, “Why is this right so paramount you aren’t going to fight for other ones?”

Luckily, many NRA members are quite reasonable, even liberal people. The NRA leadership may be insane, but the rank and file are worth talking to. There’s always opportunities for meeting in the middle ground, or at least making clear to those on the other side that we do not have any interest in seeing them, our neighbors, shot or burglarized.

Just because you may in theory have the right to own a gun doesn’t mean you have to exercise it. Rights enable us. They do not justify our actions.

And adults need to be teaching the next generation how to settle conflicts without needing to point to a nine millimeter pistol.


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