For the past few weeks after the awful Sandy Hook school massacre I have observed with concern and some anger the actions and arguments of gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts. Concern, because a legitimate issue that should rightly and reasonably be discussed immediately devolved into a polarizing slugfest of the ignorant and the irrational; and anger, because the Truth has been trampled on by irresponsible persons of influence and authority on both sides of the debate.
This blog is nonpartisan and I have studiously avoided wading into political commentary or hot button issues that do not obviously pertain to the military or its veterans. In the case of this most recent gun control debate, I have seen enough angry social media posts by veterans convinced that their government is going to infringe upon their Second Amendment rights, that I feel this topic is worth addressing from the perspective of a veteran.
For me, the extremes of this issue were brought home – quite literally – when I visited family in Maine for the holidays. On the day before Christmas the Portland police department was flooded with 65 frantic calls about a man carrying an “assault rifle” in residential neighborhoods and along a popular jogging trail. When the police investigated, they found a young Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, who had slung his loaded, Bushmaster rifle on his shoulder while running errands. Because it is legal in Maine to openly carry a loaded weapon, the police refrained from stopping the young man, although they did continue to observe him until he went home.
Even gun rights leaders were disturbed by the actions of this young veteran, coming as they did 10 days after the Sandy Hook shooting. Jeff Weinstein, President of the Maine Gun Owners Association, summarized many peoples’ opinions when he said, “While I fundamentally support the right to openly carry firearms, that right is accompanied with the responsibility to employ sensible behavior during the exercise of the open-carry right. Alarming people unnecessarily is not the intended purpose of open carry.” The young veteran, in subsequent interviews, was unapologetic about his actions and vowed to openly carry his rifle again.
I remember as a Marine platoon commander in 2010 dealing with similar brazen and inelegant behavior by young Marines who had decided that the good people of Seattle needed to gain an appreciation for their right to openly carry weapons. Strapping on personally-owned pistols (their military-issued weapons were secured in a locked armory on base) the Marines strolled about town, reveling in the consternation and discomfort that the sight of four muscular, well armed men evoked from a decidedly liberal public. Eventually they were questioned by police and word got back to me about the incident.
Needless to say, my conversation with these Marines after the fact was along the lines of just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean that you SHOULD. What was the reason behind your action? The Marines abashedly admitted using poor judgment and agreed that their Second Amendment right was most appropriately exercised through concealed carry permits, which allowed them the capability they desired without needlessly alarming private citizens and law enforcement officers. With power comes a need for responsibility.
Responsible power should similarly be exercised by those on the opposite side of the gun control debate. A few days after Christmas I opened the Portland Press Herald – the most widely circulated paper in the state – and leisurely thumbed my way through World and National news items before coming to an op ed about gun control on the last page.
In the opinion piece Greg Kesich, the editorial page editor, mockingly attacked as “full out crazy” those who defend the right to own military-style weapons. His facts were often anecdotal, his reasoning facile, and his tendency was to prop up straw arguments for the
pleasure of sarcastically knocking them down. The piece did little in the way of furthering responsible debate about a controversial issue. Unfortunately, as editorial page editor, Mr. Kesich has considerable influence on many thousands of Maine citizens. The sarcastic column probably allowed him a satisfying release of emotion, but it cost him credibility as editor because it was an irresponsible abuse of his influential position.
Unlike Mr. Kesich, there are many in America who cannot rely on the comfortable magnanimity of their neighbors, ultra-low crime rates, or the proximity of well-trained police to protect them from the intentions of evil men. For those people, gun ownership is a matter of considerable gravity and gun control is a highly emotional topic. Even so, the recent rash of mass killings perpetrated by crazed young men armed with semi-automatic weapons is a matter of real concern that begs the larger question of appropriate gun control in a country that loves its unfettered access to weapons.
Clearly, there is a reasonable middle ground for responsible gun ownership somewhere between the extremes of irrational gun enthusiasts and intolerant gun control activists; one might wish, in fact, that such a middle ground could be found in the greatest governing document in the history of the world. Happily, the US Constitution does indeed speak to the issue of gun ownership by American citizens.
Amendment II of the Constitution of the United States (ratified on December 15, 1791):
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.
It is not within my capability (I am no expert on Constitutional law) to fully enumerate the historical context and possible interpretations of this Amendment. With that caveat, there are a number of important points contained in this legislation, the consideration of which should inform a healthy national debate on gun control.
First, even in colonial times the Militia was not a random collection of anyone with a gun. The militia was loosely organized at a local level, minimally trained, and generally led by
amateur officers who were civilian men of influence rather than military professionals. Nevertheless, the militia formed a body of men who were modernly armed and at least nominally trained and organized for service in time of invasion or civil unrest. Any comparison between colonial militia and today’s National Guard, Reserves, or private citizens does not account for the gigantic changes in American governance and culture over the intervening 220 years. The Militia, in a word, is obsolete.
Second, whatever the Amendment confers as a right is “necessary to the security of a free State.” The framers of the Constitution could have omitted the modifier “free” but they did not. Why? It is helpful to consider the historical context of this document: the American colonies had just (eight years before) won a long, brutal war for liberation from the imperial troops and mercenaries of a British monarch. As such, the memory of tyranny by a powerful head of state was fresh in the minds of the Constitutional committee members, whose loyalty lay first with their respective States, not with the infant Nation. It is unlikely that the security envisioned by the framers was meant solely in relation to frontier attacks by Indians or foreign powers. No, the state representatives wanted to ensure that the means to dissuade or defeat National tyranny were available to the People.
Third, the means to keep the State free from tyranny is provided by “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” that right which “shall not be infringed.” Sounds pretty ideal for gun enthusiasts, doesn’t it? In the current debate on gun control I have seen that phrase – shall not be infringed – used pretty profligately by those who decry regulation against certain types of fire arms or sources of ammunition. From the text, I do not believe the right to bear arms was ever intended as a wholesale license for private citizens to own and operate whatever weapons they could make or acquire. If that was the intent of the Amendment, why qualify the right with the phrase “A well regulated Militia”? The legislation could have read, “Being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This leads to my last point.
Fourth, even though Militia is obsolete, the concept of responsible gun ownership implied by the modifier “well regulated” is not. The Founding Fathers, who firmly believed in the enlightened concept of individual liberty, also had a nagging distrust of base human nature – hence the establishment of a representational government rather than a pure democracy. To secure the rights of many they were willing to curtail the liberty of a few. It is in error to suggest – as some gun rights activists have – that the possession of fire arms should not be controlled because the government cannot “infringe” upon the right to bear arms. For months Congress rigorously debated every word in the draft Constitution; there is a reason “well regulated” made it into the final version of the Amendment, and at such a point as to influence the interpretation of the conferred right to bear arms.
Part of the Constitution’s brilliance is that it was intentionally written as a general guiding document, the actual application of which would be wrought in practice through the interaction of the three branches of government – a government that is duly elected or empowered by its citizens and which therefore can introduce (legislative), implement (executive), or interpret (judicial) law to fit the national mood, changing technology, and cultural trends that never could have been envisioned by the Founding Fathers. In practice, We the People have decided not to allow the civilian procurement of grenade launchers, anti-aircraft weapons, and tanks. As the Second Amendment permits, we now have the opportunity to consider civilian possession of semi-automatic weapons, to evaluate whether possession of such weapons should be unfettered, or whether common sense and the common good require greater regulation for weapons with a greater potential for harm.
So what does this all mean for the current debate about gun control? First, I think it means that we need to establish as a society what weapons should be available to what types of people, with a careful consideration for the mental health, criminal background, age, and experience or training of the potential buyer. Admittedly, some of the recent mass shootings were perpetrated by men who legally possessed weapons, others by men who illegally possessed weapons. Clearly, regulating who can legally procure what type of weapon will not eliminate the possibility of future mass shootings. But the ease with which an M4A1 Carbine can be purchased (as I did recently) by any civilian with a credit card and clear background check, hardly fits the intent of a “well regulated” right to bear arms.
Second, I am in favor of limiting semi-automatic weapons- as the weapons with the greatest potential for effecting extraordinary harm in the hands of an irresponsible person – to those who through a mandatory licensing and training process show themselves to be most responsible. Military veterans, of course, have already been thoroughly trained with such weapons and therefore could be licensed without additional civilian training. For nonveterans, mandatory training of a few hours could encompass the safe handling, effective operation, and proper maintenance of the weapon, resulting in a safer, more enjoyable experience for the new gun owner.
Two examples of mandatory state training and licensing are familiar to many of us. Most states require a hunter education course to be completed by citizens prior to issuing a hunting license; millions of hunters complete those courses every year and the country is a safer place for it. The operation of motor vehicles always requires a training and licensing process because vehicles have such potential for harm and do, in fact, contribute to tens of thousands of fatalities every year. The idea of not regulating motor vehicles on our public roads and highways would be ridiculous – the common good and public safety require it. Similarly, the possession of semi-automatic weapons by private citizens should be regulated for the public safety.
Appropriate regulation, established through public discourse and the power of the vote, is the proper next step in the current gun control debate. To enable legislation that is influenced by facts and information, rather than fear and ignorance, gun owners have every interest to stop frightening their neighbors and fellow citizens with rash comments and strident threats, and instead educate them on the facts of responsible gun ownership and how to prevent the misuse of legal weapons while working aggressively to reduce the supply of illegal weapons. Gun bans will happen if the loudest voices in this debate are also the least rational.
I myself own a Colt M4A1 Carbine. The weapon is exactly the same type that I carried during my tours in Iraq. It is a weapon designed for fighting and I am glad to have it. It is highly probable that my carbine will remain safely locked in its case for the rest of my life, never used except for occasional target practice and to instruct others on handling procedures. I hope so. But if bad things happen, if the government is unable to guarantee my security or the security of my loved ones, I am confident that in a very real way I will be able to provide security for myself and help ensure the security of a free State. That is responsible gun ownership.