What’s Right?

…when you’re talking about our Rights, does being a right make something not wrong?…

“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


In the light of yet another public shooting tragedy, we have found ourselves back at the beginning on the issue of firearms. Can they be regulated (constitutionally-speaking of course)? Should they be regulated? Would it matter? What can we do to prevent further tragedies, be they stemming from terrorism or hate or mental illness or just plain madness? Many politicians and large monied activist groups would tell you that it’s not firearms that kill people, it is people that kill people. And while that may certainly be true on an ontological level, the reality behind that reality is that without such extremely unfettered access to firearms, many of the worst tragedies could have been mitigated or averted entirely. At main issue, of course, is what the Founding Fathers actually meant when they wrote the Second Amendment, and what the language they left us means in terms of legal interpretation. And in that case, despite whatever one of these interest groups may tell you, things are more complicated than they are letting it appear.

So let’s deconstruct this particularly mythologized amendment. Firstly, there is this emphasis on a well regulated Militia before we even get to the mentioning of the fundamental “right” that is enshrined here. Today, militias do not exist in the form that they did when the Founding Fathers wrote this amendment, and they are certainly not what any historian would call well-regulated from a colonial perspective. The type of militias in question are more akin to today’s state’s National Guard, i.e.: the Florida National Guard or the Alabama National Guard, etc etc. Where Governors and elected state leaders and even national ones can call up an armed and regulated force to deal with state or community issues that require some kind of emergency response, yes, up to and including some kind of agreed-upon oppression by the “big” overarching federal government. They had a good reason for including this. The de-armament of the individual colony’s militias had been a build-up to the English sending of armed troops to subdue the colonies by force. The bigger issue here is, when all the colonies “bought” into the federal government and its Constitution they effectively signed us all up in perpetuity, until that government is gone. Something the closing of the Civil War has also decisively concluded- the individual states are now components of the *UNITED STATES* and therefore agreed to not rebel. The colonial dynamics no longer apply as they once did. And the meaning of the term Militia, or at least what the Founding Fathers meant by it, does not apply to groups that simply feel like referring to themselves by that name. Hence “well regulated”.

Let’s go to part two: “the right of the people to Keep and Bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” So does that mean that we can never make laws respecting the keeping and bearing of arms? That is what some of these big money groups would tell you. Their response to these tragedies is “hey we can’t do anything about it, our hands are tied”. Which is all sort of abjectly ridiculous. Firstly, we have other rights that the government has made laws clarifying and elaborating on. Because one of the fundamental principles of any rights is that your right to do anything only goes as far as someone else’s rights extend. And guess what, the fundamental right to stay alive or you know, not be killed in a public place randomly, vastly outweighs the rest of the rights outlined in the Bill of Rights or any other part of the Constitution. Does this mean the government can round up all your guns? No, obviously not. What this does mean is that the government can enact legislation that keeps people from USING a fundamental right to ABUSE the fundamental rights of another person. You know….like being able to have a life, liberty, and pursue happiness….because you’re not DEAD.

Also, let’s use free speech here to compare and contrast the disparity with which we are treating some of these rights. We all have the right to free speech, which isn’t allowed to be abridged. But guess what, you cannot for example yell “FIRE” in a crowded building and incite a public emergency. If you do that, you’re going to head straight to jail, and not collect $200. You know why, because free speech doesn’t mean you can run around saying whatever you want whenever you want. Similarly, you cannot spread vicious, false lies about someone that cost them their livelihood or ruin their reputation and say “oh well free speech”, if you do that, you can find yourself paying out lots of money in civil suits because that kind of speech isn’t protected.

At the end of the day, we are supposed to have the right to free speech and religion and the right to bear arms. And lots of other things. But that doesn’t mean that the government cannot draw lines around these rights that enable you to exercise them while also keeping people from abusing them. Having to wait to buy a gun doesn’t restrict your right to bear arms. Not permitting felons or known terrorist sympathizers or domestic violence perpetrators or any other number of people to purchase firearms does not restrict your right to bear arms either. Requiring a background check, also not restrictive. Just as it’s not restrictive to be really really sure someone is a child molester before you decide to publish it on the front page of a newspaper. Because just like you can’t just say whatever you feel like, you can’t just bear firearms however you feel like it. That’s not what “keep and bear arms” means nor is that what something being a fundamental ‘right’ means. Because the biggest right that supersedes them all is the one that never needed enshrining at all-it’s your right to live freely without being abused by your fellow neighbors or government. That’s why governments exist, that’s why there are civil rights at all, and that’s the whole point of human societies having rules and laws in the first place. Nothing entitles you to just do whatever you feel like. No part of the Constitution, no part of the Bill of Rights, no part of the US Code. And any special interest group that tells you that that’s what an amendment “means” is just plain lying to you for reasons that are plain beyond this historian. At the end of the day, peoples’ right to LIVE trumps everything else.

*Res Publica*

And an additional aside- if you think what the second amendment is getting at is some kind of need to stack an arsenal to protect yourself from your own military and government, you have other things to be worrying about. Allowing civilians to own assault weapons absolutely WILL NOT save you if the American military or law enforcement comes for you. These groups have tanks, rockets, better assault weapons, mortars, bombs, drones, airplanes, and the list goes on. They don’t need to sit and wait while you mow down 50 soldiers or SWAT team members with an AR15, they can just use a rocket launcher from 500 feet away into you and your home arsenal and you will be totally wiped away before you even get the chance to fire that assault weapon. Realistically, the same is true even if some foreign country with an effective military came to invade your neighborhood. What you are expecting to keep you safe from those things is the oath that every military member and law enforcement officer swears to “uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies, both foreign and domestic”. Which means that if they were given an unlawful order to kill innocent law-abiding civilian members of the population, you are trusting these fellow citizens to never do that. The right to bear arms cannot keep you safe from some sort of government assault, nor would it if you think that the ability to purchase a certain kind of weapon can give you that safety. Only respect for the fundamental basis of these laws-that everyone deserves life, liberty, and happiness, can do that.

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