This past week Everytown for Gun Safety, a group advocating greater gun control, reported that in the 18 months since the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, there have been 74 school shootings in our nation. The U.S. has now become the world leader in this category. And if we were to include all firearm-related incidents, we would find that more than 30,000 people in our nation die each year from these.
It is increasingly evident that gun violence has become one of our nation’s most important public health and safety issues and that we need to find a way to bring it under control. One place to begin is with our Constitution’s Second Amendment: “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.” What was its intent?
It’s important to know that our founding fathers began that crucial sentence with an “ablative absolute,” a grammatical construction that was familiar in their day but not so much in ours. Its function (up to the comma) was to give the conditions under which the rest of the sentence was valid. Justice John Paul Stevens has suggested that adding five words would make it clearer: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms when serving in the militia shall not be infringed.”
The main purpose of this particular ablative absolute phrase was to provide (in the absence of an army or national guard) for a well-regulated militia to protect the security of our nation. This meant that bearing arms was originally perceived to be a collective right rather than an individual one.
In fact, this meaning of the Second Amendment was upheld in three Supreme Court decisions in 1876, 1886, and 1939, when it declined to rule that the Second Amendment protected individual gun ownership outside the context of a militia. The justices believed that the founding fathers never intended to create an unregulated individual right to a gun. Chief Justice Warren Burger was especially blunt, describing the idea that the Second Amendment gives an unfettered individual right to a gun “a fraud on the American public.”
In 1960, however, this interpretation began to be weakened and broadened when a law student, Stuart R. Hayes, argued that the amendment supported an additional, individual, right to bear arms for the purposes of self-defense and the “right of revolution” such as during “The War Between the States.” That started a deluge of articles arguing that the traditional collective rights view was wrong and had been a colossal constitutional mistake. Finally in 2008 (in District of Columbia v. Heller) a conservative Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to own a gun.
This brings us to a second topic for our national conversation on how to improve our nation’s public safety and security. The National Rifle Association was founded after the Civil War by a group of Union officers who had been disappointed in their soldiers’ poor shooting and wanted to sponsor marksmanship training. In the 1970s the NRA developed a more political and influential role, emphasizing the individual right to keep and bear arms, opposing gun control, and undergirding it all with a deep distrust of the federal government and any control it might exercise over an individual’s right to gun ownership. Its answer to the problem of mass shootings is to have more guns in public hands.
In recent years the NRA has been leading the battle to eliminate the Second Amendment’s ablative absolute phrase and retain only the last part: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” In fact, the NRA has already gone ahead and made this Constitutional revision on its own. Its abbreviated version of the Amendment is now prominently displayed on the wall of the lobby in the NRA headquarters building in Fairfax, Virginia, giving it an official imprimatur. NRA members have endeavored to justify this elimination by claiming that the first part of the Second Amendment was merely “prefatory” or “preambulatory,” even though Chief Justice John Marshall had previously stated, “It cannot be presumed that any clause in the Constitution is intended to be without effect.” (Marbury v. Madison, 1803)
One major advantage for the NRA in eliminating the pesky ablative absolute is that it removes from the national conversation the highly disliked subject of regulation: what it would mean for firearms and their owners to be well-regulated. Over the past twenty years its individual rights viewpoint has been used to block the passage of gun control laws or, in some cases, to undercut them. Unfortunately, protecting individual liberties through gun ownership and use, and the availability of using a defense of “standing one’s ground” (with a gun) to escape punishment have come to take precedence over the more difficult task of creating communities of trust, security, and empathy. This is why NRA members would be important participants in such a national conversation.
In the meantime we are left with a probing question: “Why are we, as a society, willing to put up with mass shootings as the price we must pay for the right to carry a gun?”
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This column by local writers is dedicated to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world of peace and justice. Opinions expressed in “Lion and Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, column coordinator, at 277-5135.