Friday, January 18, 2013

The US Gun Debate: Contentious, Spirited and Long Lasting, Part One

"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."--Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. 

Probably the most interesting thing about the recent return to a national gun debate (executive orders by President Obama and proposals pending now for Congressional action) is in how the nation is clearly and hotly divided into very different camps. The view on the majority in firearms legislation depends more and more on several factors, regional, cultural,  party affiliations,  et al.  This makes the making of any legislation on weapons for a national standard more difficult than almost any domestic issue,  second only to budgetary and tax issues.  

Whereas big-city mayors like Michael Bloomberg of New York, Rahm Emmanuel of   
Chicago and Antonio Villaregosa of Los Angeles and millions of ordinary citizens are in support of legislation to ban further sales of  assault-weapons, limit the bullets in magazine clips to  ten rounds, and tighten up background checks for all gun sales in the nation others are less than pleased  and feel this will somehow lessen freedom for citizens.  It is a divide that is both rural and urban, Southern and Northern, West versus East and ultimately an effort than will likely end in most of the President's proposals being nullified  by the Congress. 

Too many Republicans worried about being targeted and Democrats in conservative "red states" like Arkansas and Montana  simply will not dare buck the National Rifle Association, which represents a percentage within the group itself of hard-core gun owners loathe to give an inch, even  in the aftermath of the mass shootings. (to the left: A study published in the Washington showing the amount of gun violence by region of the country.)  

In my own part of the country, southern Oregon, the divide is seen by the support given to President Obama's proposals from the police chief of the largest semi-metro area in the region, Tim George of the city of Medford, and the opposition to same from Sheriff Mike Winters and other sheriffs who have a more rural focus on gun issues.  
The Second Amendment to the Constitution is not one of the less ambiguous measures even to see the light of day.   In one sentence the phrases "well-regulated militia" and "the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" occur in separate clauses of the same extended sentence.  Where should the emphasis lie--in regulation or lack of infringement?  

  A look back at the post-revolutionary past of the 1780-90s and the American Constitution shows us that the Amendment was interpreted differently by different Founding Fathers who generally argued on the same side for passage of the new Constitution.  Alexander Hamilton of the emerging Federalist Party sided more with the idea of an actual organized militia.    Hamilton was more concerned about foreign invasions, Native-American uprisings or putting down armed insurrections by those who refused to pay taxes or heed laws.  Here is Hamilton writing in The Federalist Papers.  (below, from Wikipedia)  
In Federalist No. 29, Alexander Hamilton suggested that well-regulated refers not only to "organizing", "disciplining", and "training" the militia, but also to "arming" the militia:
This desirable uniformity can only be accomplished by confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority. It is, therefore, with the most evident propriety, that the plan of the convention proposes to empower the Union "to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by congress."[49]
A tolerable expertness in military movements is a business that requires time and practice. It is not a day, or even a week, that will suffice for the attainment of it. To oblige the great body of the yeomanry, and of the other classes of the citizens, to be under arms for the purpose of going through military exercises and evolutions, as often as might be necessary to acquire the degree of perfection which would entitle them to the character of a well-regulated militia, would be a real grievance to the people, and a serious public inconvenience and loss.[49]
"If a well regulated militia be the most natural defence of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security...confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority...(and) reserving to the states...the authority of training the militia".[49]  

 Others, like George Mason and Patrick Henry, anti-federalists who despaired  federal control over the states and did not sign the Constitution, thought that an armed citizenry was necessary to defend freedom itself.          There is also evidence that men like George Mason, who were slave-owners, wanted the state militias not because of fear of invasion or tyranny but the more clear and present fear of a slave insurrection, as was already happening on the island of Santo Domingo in the Caribbean.  Slave uprisings were not unusual in the Southern states, especially in partss of Georgia and South Carolina where slaves outnumbered whites.  George Mason for instance owned 300 slaves.  It would certainly be in the interest of he and his peers to have a "well-regulated militia" of white citizens to gather  periodically and make their presence .as an armed force known to unarmed and unpaid field hands.       

Unlike other early amendments,  the first ten of which are designated "The Bill of Rights", the Second Amendment has increased greatly in debate just over the last few decades while being almost dormant for much of the 19th and most of the 20th Century.  


  1. This is one of those subjects much like abortion where people have very strong beliefs and opinions and it is very difficult to have a peaceful discussion on this subject. Most people are either very much against guns, and they could not care less about the 2nd Amendment, or they are so pro gun and 2nd Amendment that they don't want any part of any discussion that involves limiting their right to be armed.
    In a perfect world of course there would be no need for guns, but this is not a perfect world and even if we took away all the guns, it would still not be a perfect world. If someone is determined to kill a lot of people, they will find a way. Oklahoma City is one example.

    I always enjoy your posts Doug. You seem to take the time to research and back up what you are saying rather than shooting from the hip of emotions :-)

    1. Thanks Lia. I do try to come up with some historic background before plunging into a blog like this. There is so emotion and frank propaganda from the NRA on these issues

      You are right that we are far from a perfect world, and people will find all sorts of ways to kill. I suppose the gun can be both an easy way for people to kill a lot of people on impulse or a way to defend a person or persons. I could cite anecdotes on both sides and I'm sure you could too. The high rate of firearm killings in the USA certainly calls on us to examine these issues not throughly. This is just my smidgen of a contribution to this current debate. My main goal in this first blog in the series was to put the Second Amendment in some sort of historic context and try to track forward a bit to see what brought this nation to have such contentions over individual gun ownership versus common safety. I hope to learn more by doing this as I try to educate. Your comments are always informed and rational. Thanks.

    2. I meant to say "examine these issues most throughly" in that last paragraph obviously. Sorry for that.

  2. I must confess to be of the opinion Doug that pigs will fly before any "well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State" would take action to overthrow tyranny, in the United States ...otherwise you could argue .... that they would have already done it by now.

    I simply don't believe that there is any connection between the 2nd ammendment rhetoric and the existence or non-existence of 'freedom' in the United States of America.

    We have had a few gun lobby spokesmen on BBC radio recently after Obama#s announcement, usually getting exasperated because here it is a 'no-brainer'.... if you have widespread distribution of guns more people will get shot, simple as that.

    These US BBC radio commentators were mostly 2nd Amendment enthusiasts who in emotional terms try to tell us that it is an American 'tradition' to bear arms and part of the very fabric of American society etc,etc.

    This usually has me shouting at the radio "bullshit! grow out of it" or words to that effect I'm afraid Doug, because if we are talking "traditions"... these NRA apologists don't seem to understand that history is not static, laid down once and for all by classical liberals... nor stuck in an Enlightenment groove forever.

    As Wikipedia kindly points out:-

    The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was heavily influenced by the English Bill of Rights 1689, which restricted the right of the English Crown to interfere with the personal right to bear arms.
    The 1689 Bill of Rights restricted the right of the monarch to have a standing army and to interfere with the personal right to bear arms....... That isn't true here anymore though.

    In my view it is time for America to grow up as a nation and let go of the 'comfort blanket' of the Founding Fathers, as if the Constitution was delivered in tablets of stone in the late 18th century.

    The English Bill of Rights firmly established that regulating the right to bear arms was one of the powers of Parliament, and did not belong to the monarch.

    Its time to move on, America can't keep playing the 'young nation' card after more than 200 years of fevelopment into the global unipolar power, things have to change eventually and the time is coming for America to move on.

    The gun lobby sound like crybabies to me who want the comfort of a stable national self image in's impossible and profoundly ahistorical perpective in my view.

    This American "tradition" argument simply doesn't wash in a country where King Henry II, sometimes considered the father of English common law, promulgated the Assize of Arms in 1181.

    This required all British citizens between 15 and 40 to purchase and keep arms and to carry swords for the protection of the realm....we gave that up quite sometime ago and now its time for America to do the same thing I think.

    So the Second Amenmdment I would suggest is not so much an American tradition but an obsolete English one, discarded because it no longer makes any sense in modern society. We gave up our swords and our guns and now it's time for America to do the same.

    That's my view of the issue anyway Doug.

    1. I'm glad you mentioned the 1689 Rights Act about limiting the Power of any present or new kings after William of Orange, AA, because it is important to remind people the United States was not founded in a vacuum. I feel much sympathy with your opinions on this matter. My parents didn't have guns and where I grew up in San Jose none of my friends talked much about guns--we played games with balls and sticks. My parents didn't have guns in the house and I hope to never live in a neighborhood so unsafe that I would even contemplate such a weapon in the home.
      But the sheer volume of guns in this nation and the culture of fear they arouse make it difficult for me to see anything to make a major dent in the gun culture. On the other hand, I can see that parts of the United States are more amenable to bans of certain types of weapons so an incremental approach may carry further than I imagine at this juncture.

      As one Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, a Democrat and member of the Black Caucus, said: "The British aren't coming anymore!" I think you and Mr. Cummings, who lost a nephew to a gunman in a street shooting recently, would be, in large part, in agreement on this subject, along with myself. There are a lot of paranoids and crybabies on this matter. I think the fact that people want to possess guns for home defense or personal protection in a country that already has 280-300 million guns out there has an unfortunate but admittedly practical ring to it.
      But those who talk about having guns to protect themselves from some imaginary attack by the central government are, to me, arguing from a "tradition" that is far, far outdated for a number of reasons not least of which is the fact that the Pentagon already has the civil authority by the short hairs and gets all it wants from the budget!
      We may not be able to regulate gun sales and prepare all law-biding people for the responsibility of gun ownership properly, but I still feel we have to move forward and not stay stuck trying to make an 18th Century idea of an Amendment fit in the 21st Century. Thanks for your input AA. I hope we'll all have more to say to this .

  3. good read Doug
    Maybe those who insist the second amendment can’t be changed should look at the word ‘amendment’ and consider what it actually means.
    Seriously though, Aarons right, to us it’s a no brainer, more guns in circulation equal more injury and death by gunshot wounds. Total no brainer; but there again, I don’t live in fear of being shot by an intruder. It never occurs to me that someone may break into my home while I’m inside and shoot me. I’m not afraid of my home being broken into at all, and if my home were burgled it would most likely be when I’m not in it. And in the unlikely event of my home being broken into while I’m actually inside, the chances are the intruders would not be armed. Guns frighten me, I don’t like guns, I feel no need to own a gun and I would feel terrified knowing there was a gun in my house. The first time I saw a gun was at an airport, and it didn’t make me feel safe, it scared me. In my mind keeping guns inside a home is dangerous and irresponsible, who in their right mind would want to keep guns and children in the same place? But that’s how I feel and not how most Americans I talk to feel. From what I’ve read most Americans feel threatened at the thought of not having a gun in the house. I would be scared keeping a gun in my house but most Americans are equally scared of not keeping one. They seem to live in fear for their lives; they seem to feel as if the only way they can guarantee the safety of themselves and their family is to be armed and ready to shoot. I’ve seen women argue they need a gun to defend themselves and their children.
    What I am beginning to understand is that; if the average American thinks his rights to gun ownership are being threatened, he feels as scared and vulnerable as I would if I thought every one in my street owned a gun. I’m beginning to feel empathy, not for gun ownership, I still hate guns and don’t want them any where near me, but I do feel empathy with the fear expressed by the American people. People who are terrified of being threatened with guns and terrified of having their guns taken away and being left unable to defend them selves. I know no one is actually proposing to ‘take away the guns’; the only real proposals are some sort of tightening up of controls and possibly limiting the type of guns owned, but I guess if you are that scared any deviation from the present free for all is perceived as threatening.
    I guess I just think it’s a shame there is so much fear about because all the while people are that scared a change in gun law is virtually impossible.

    1. Thanks Loretta. I think you hit the nail on the head--this is mostly about fear and vulnerability, and that's way many sides in this matter are so animated in their arguments. I've often wondered what makes the USA different from other nations of the (mostly ) English-speaking world. Was it the violent break with the British Empire, the Civil War, a frontier mentality where authority is always seen as far off , or the more modern problems of drug gangs and a hard emphasis on individuality above all in civil matters. What I do know is--there are a hell of a lot of frightened people over here, and I identify strongly with your feelings on how odd it is that many people seem so comfortable with weapons in their houses, even in the face of evidence that they are more likely to be used in a heat of passion against family of friends (or a suicide attempt) than against a criminal. I don't want to imply that all gun-owners are irrational, not at all, but I do want to say I'm perplexed how many people get heated up when it is proposed to stop selling a certain type of ammo magazine or a type of weapon. How many guns does anybody need? It's not like they are bananas that go bad if you don't eat them, right? :-)

      Thanks for your bringing up the element of fear. I think that is the key to this issue.

  4. when you say 'how many guns does anybody need'?, maybe you should direct that question at the people at the top who make vast fortunes from gun and ammo sales and who deliberatly spread fear among the population.

    1. Yes, Loretta, one of the things we all as concerned citizens need is to focus more sunlight and public responsibility on the corporate and family-owned private gun empires in the USA.