Federal law requires all colleges and universities to observe Constitution Day on September 17. On Constitution Day 2013, I invited members of the Trinity community to share their thoughts on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, particularly in light of the Navy Yard shootings and other mass shooting incidents in the past year. I asked the community to respond to three specific questions:
Does the Second Amendment prohibit serious gun control?
Does the Constitution stand in the way of effective regulation of guns in this country?
What other options do we have to stem the violence?
As usual, our community has many opinions, and students, faculty and staff share their thoughts with conviction. Below are the comments that I have received thus far.
Given the volume of replies, I edited some of these comments for length:
Criminal Justice Assistant Professor Thomas Mostowy provides an excellent legal framework for this discussion:
“Prior to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decisions in Heller v. District of Columbia, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 3025 (2010), there would have been no legal (as opposed to policy) dispute. The law was clear and unambiguous. In the last 2nd Amendment case before the Supreme Court prior to Heller, United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939) a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the National Firearms Act did not violate the 2nd Amendment, stating:
“In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a “shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length” at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.”
“Miller also cited similar precedent dating to the 1870’s.
“The ruling in Miller and the ability of National and State governments to regulate firearms was not seriously questioned until the 1970’s, (perhaps in response to gun-control legislation passed in response to the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.) when a small but well-funded group of legal scholars began to assert an individual, fundamental right to bear arms (the first example of this argument in a law review came in 1974, in a note authored by law student David Hardy, whose unorthodox positions were soon echoed by 2nd Amendment absolutists like Gary Kleck and David Kopel, among others).
“In 1991, former Chief Justice Warren Burger (appointed by Richard Nixon) reacted to these new 2nd Amendment arguments on the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” saying that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud — I repeat the word ‘fraud’ — on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” He was referring to the campaign by pro-gun organizations since the 1970’s to create an interpretation of the 2nd Amendment as a fundamental right that could not be subject to regulation by the federal government or the states. In contemporaneous articles, Burger also addressed the meaning of “a well-regulated militia” and the history of gun ownership and regulation in American society from colonial times until the 20th century in support reasonable firearms regulation. With the Heller and McDonald decisions, however, Chief Justice Burger’s “fraud” has now become the law and the McDonald decision seems to allow very little room to regulate beyond prohibitions against sawed-off shotguns, or possession by felons and the mentally ill.
“Does the Constitution stand in the way of effective gun regulation in the country? The answer is that the Constitution, by any fair reading, does not but the current Supreme Court, by ignoring decades-old precedent, does. That said, it is also time to seriously question whether this Supreme Court, with its willingness to ignore settled law and create unique interpretations of the Constitution by the slimmest 5-4 majorities, is closer to losing its legitimacy than at any time since “the switch in time that saved nine.” “
From Naomi Smith, student:
“I do not think that the Second Amendment prohibits gun regulation. In fact I would argue that it regulates against the possession of guns by untrained individuals because the Amendment calls for a well regulated militia, and for the people to bear arms to protect the state; therefore, if the guns are not being used for this purpose they are not within the context of the Second Amendment’s purpose. When the Second Amendment was included America was less populated, more spread out, and had far less National, State, and local law enforcement. Gun owners should be required to show proof that they are part of a State sponsored Militia that is dedicated to protecting the people. People always argue about changing the U.S. Constitution but when it was written there was no 12th, 13th, or 14th Amendments, and the18th and 21st Amendments prohibited then rescinded the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.
“As a DC resident, I voted for gun control. I was upset and disheartened when one resident, disgruntled about having his illegal gun taken, (who was not a native Washingtonian, and did not care about our violent history), prevailed in a lawsuit in the U. S. District Court to overturn this important, lifesaving legislation. The proliferation of guns in this country has more to do with money, profit and political power than respect for the Second Amendment.”
From Sarah Phelps, Trinity’s General Counsel:
“…it seems this debate comes down to which awkward clause of the Second Amendment you wish to emphasize – the well- regulated militia and state security part or the right of the people to keep and bear arms part. Gun control advocates stress the amendment has nothing whatever to do with shooting sports or hunting (as Gary Wills said, “one does not bear arms against a rabbit”), or even personal self-defense. It was an olive branch to anti-Federalists who feared the new power of the federal government and its standing army. In late 17th century America, a well-regulated militia was indeed an unremarkable security strategy, but most of those guns were kept in a central storage facility, and not with individuals.
“Among gun advocates, there are some who believe the fears of the anti-Federalists are real today, and that an armed citizenry still serves to deter federal tyranny. Others believe that banning military-style weapons, which are ill-suited to hunting or personal defense, will eventually allow all privately owned guns to be banned. Most likely believe sincerely in the irrevocable right to own a gun.
“It is generally accepted that there are approximately 300 million guns in the United States, and there are approximately 32,000 deaths from gunshot wounds annually, and over half of those are suicides. This is the routine, outside of the public horror of mass shootings. It is hard to see how this 2013 tableau fits with the 17th century idea of state defense, a check on governmental tyranny or a well-regulated anything. I also believe the authors of the Second Amendment would react with horror and sorrow if presented with these figures.
“Nonetheless, while I would personally like to see the end of handguns and any firearm with the word “automatic” in it, I think this is no longer even remotely possible. If it is not fair to say that Americans love guns, it is fair to say that a majority of us love the idea of guns, bound up as they are in our beliefs about ourselves as mavericks, scrappy individualists or resourceful pioneers. I have come to believe this national narrative will not go away, even if James Madison himself returns to beg for the repeal of the Second Amendment.
“So what should a gun control advocate do? I think we should focus more on the First Amendment, which is far less cryptic and more useful to civic engagement – we should “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Many momentous disputes about legal rights come down to an effort to balance competing interests in some equitable way, and the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” is with us forever. On the other side must be demonstrably aggrieved citizens enraged by the runaway influence of lobbyists awash in money that control our legislatures and prevent all but the most modest change. People sick of the endless carnage must be as much of a threat to the careers of legislators with our votes as the other side is with their threats to withhold campaign money and support. It seems to me that the only hope of changing our appalling gun violence statistics is to accept the hardest assignment of all: personal and creative civic engagement. Without it, the next Newtown shall be upon our heads.”
From Tawana Kinney, student:
“I believe that the Second Amendment stands in the way effective regulation of guns in this country, I personally know what it feels like to have a loved one injured and murdered because of gun violence. In 1978 my husband was shot in the head in an attempted robbery, thank God he survived, but On July 13, 2007 we lost our 26 year old son Jason to gun violence on the streets of Washington DC. Every time I hear about someone losing their life to gun violence it breaks my heart all over again, I feel the pain of what their loved ones will go through for the rest of their lives. My heart goes out to all of the people that lost loved ones on yesterday at the Navy Yard. I believe that we need better gun control laws in place and better background checks for people purchasing guns.”
From James Risse, graduate student:
“I personally believe that the Second Amendment was a magnificent piece of statecraft. I also believe that the original intent and purpose has been, and continues to be, convoluted for political purposes to support the inequities of our society. The original purpose I think was for every citizen to be involved in their community and the political process – much the way Israel is today. If one knew that one might be called at any time to serve in the militia, or army, one might take a more active interest in what is going on. The problem, however, arose early on when the powers that be realized that the people might rise up at any time against an unjust system [as they did with Shay’s rebellion]; thus, a standing army and by extension the police force was established to protect property and powerful interests. The problem then, is how do you change the system? Firearms are no longer necessary with a standing army, but firearm sales in the United States contribute to the support of weapons manufacturers [and by extension war making] around the world.”
From Cherron Murray, student:
“The common citizen/civilian should not have the right to bear arms when there is a well regulated militia, which the amendment clearly states. We have to be able to adjust the constitution for the present times especially when there are lives at stake and the common person who maybe suffering from the stresses of life or other mental illness and unable to cope and use guns to solve their problems. It made sense then, but it truly does not make sense now. Once a person is out of the military or police force they should not have access to guns because they are now considered a civilian.”
From Jasmin Corbin, student:
“I feel that guns are only one instrument used for violence. If we take away or limit gun rights, its only a matter of time before other instruments are discovered and used. Ex. knives, bombs, rocks, bricks. We must first answer the question, why do people feel the need to armor them selves with deadly weapons?”
From Brian Easeley, graduate student:
“Protecting the traditions and honoring the legacy of the Founders’ vision for this country should not come at effectively writing a blank check on the numerous ways our fellow citizens could possibly harm each other. I’m a combat veteran. I’m a Texan, as well, and I have owned weapons in the past. But even I can see that so many people in this country love to forget the “well-regulated” portion of the Second Amendment, choosing to only glorify and pontificate about the “keep and bear arms” portion, like some kind of thoughtless catchphrase. Talk about entitlement issues; so many would spend their lives and careers denying every American the chance to have health care, yet they would defend and promote ways to send their countrymen to the emergency room in a second. Keep in mind, I used to have a very hands-off approach to at least this issue, but not so much after so many recent tragic events.
“Much stronger regulation is absolutely necessary, where registration and thorough (a word which should always be underlined or in bold on this issue) background checks become more prominent. Yes, psychological screenings should be a part of this (if the costs were covered and talked about in what has recently been nicknamed Obamacare, I think Republicans and the NRA would immediately jump on board and claim it was their brainchild). A cultural shift needs to take place, where lawmakers and celebrities take issue with those who celebrate or promote gun violence. The Cold War is over. We will not be invaded by the Bogeyman. Big gun manufacturers need to be pressured to shift their marketing campaigns and production back to traditional hunting rifles and shotguns with family and patriotic themes, instead of zombie hunting and global war-surviving assault weapon fantasies.”
From a staff member:
“I don’t think banning all guns is the answer because legal gun owners are not the ones committing the crimes. I think there needs to be more regulation, such as not being able to buy guns at gun shows, and I think you should have to register and insure your gun just as you would a car. With that said, people will still find ways to illegally obtain guns, just as they do drugs, and just as they did alcohol during the prohibition. In my opinion you can’t stop crazy people from doing harm to others, whether it be with a firearm, a car, a knife, etc. Drunk driving kills so many more people than guns but you don’t have anyone protesting to ban cars or alcohol.
“Also, I hate how the media covers events like this. People are being killed every day at an alarming rate in Chicago, why don’t they cover this on a national scale? This quote is from a Huffington Post article “The war zone-like statistics are not new. As WBEZ reports, while some 2,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, more than 5,000 people have been killed by gun fire in Chicago during that time, based on Department of Defense and FBI data.” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/16/chicago-homicide-rate-wor_n_1602692.html). That’s an astounding number, yet have you ever seen it make national news? Does anyone go on record saying there is a gun epidemic in Chicago? “
From Sarrinna Graham, student:
“Unfortunately we must bear arms to protect life, in many cases often in a split second.To lose such a right would be an injustice for our people to defend life. Please note that a gun is a tool that is, when used properly is to protect, and deter individuals from vicious acts of violence. Legal gun owners must go through a lot of paperwork, a class on how to operate a weapon, a background checks, fingerprinting and ballistics testing on there weapon prior to being approve for any weapon in The District of Columbia. Every two years gun owners of the District of Columbia have to have their weapons reinspected and must be re-approved to keep there weapons.”
From Alex Sotos, staff member:
“…whenever we as a nation find ourselves in this position I can’t help but feel that we’re missing the bigger gun violence picture. The conversation remains focused on preventing the recurrence of these events through gun regulations. And while certain proposals, such as those regarding gun shows or assault weapons, seem common sense to me, I also feel that our narrow focus on this issue results in us being poor social doctors, treating the symptom rather than the disease. Gun regulation alone will not eliminate gun violence. Real progress could be made if we critically examined policies and institutions that lead to the development of gun violence. We must examine a range of issues from lack of access to mental health care for many, to the flaws in our judicial system including racial bias, favoring incarceration over rehabilitation, and mandatory minimum sentencing, to failed drug policies that inadvertently promote the growth of organized crime. If we had the courage to face these and other social issues that create a fertile ground for gun related crime then we could begin to make real progress on this issue without a single bit of constitutional controversy.”
From a student:
“Here’s what meaningful gun control looks like to me: educate about firearms, don’t treat them like a taboo so people remain ignorant. Ignorance is never a solution. Embrace training of gun owners rather than fear that someone practicing with their rifle is practicing to start a revolution. Incompetence is never a solution. Recognize that if someone wants to commit a mass murder then they will find a way to do it, even in secure areas such as Navy Yard and Ft. Hood, and plan for it as though it were an eventuality. Fear is never a solution. Most importantly, I believe that gun owners and non gun owners need to understand each other a little better. Being a gun owner, my perspective on this particular issue is inherently lopsided.
“For those who don’t own guns: please understand why gun owners like myself don’t like the idea of our names and personal information appearing in a master registry of firearms, because you wouldn’t either. I don’t like the idea of someone having a list of all of the books I’ve ever checked out at the public library, let alone a detailed list of some of my more valuable, dangerous, and generally sensitive possessions. Please understand how ridiculous it sounds when you want me to undergo a background check when my father passes one of my grandfather’s rifles down to me, even if we all agree in principle that we should be careful who we trust with a gun. Please know that most gun owners believe like I do; a gun is no more than a tool to be used for good or ill, but I also wouldn’t trust just anybody with a jackhammer. And please, don’t punish me or my friends when some poor soul decides to misuse a gun and kill innocent people. Certainly don’t punish us when someone is simply irresponsible with their property. Are there a lot of people who shouldn’t own a gun? Probably. There are also a lot of people who shouldn’t be driving, but we don’t take that out on all of the good drivers on the road.”
What is your opinion? Click on the comment link below to share your thoughts….