Loyalty to the Second Amendment is misguided

Matt Telleen

The sniper attacks this month near the nation’s capital might or might not be the acts of terrorists, but they are certainly terrifying. No matter what the motives behind the attacks might be, the shooter has exercised the power to determine who lives and who dies, and this power has left the residents of the region and the nation feeling helpless, defenseless and panicked.

Because the assassin is using a firearm, these shootings cannot help but inflame discussion and debate over the laws and policies that govern the use of these deadly weapons. Just as Sept. 11, 2001, naturally led to a discussion of the laws and policies that govern both access to the airways and access to this country, the re-emergence of this debate is only natural. How could we not address how the sniper has the gun and how to prevent similar events in the future?

The Second Amendment of the U. S. Constitution guarantees citizens of this country the right to keep and bear arms. However, there is debate in the courts and in commentaries as to whether this amendment actually was meant to be applied to individuals or to the states to form militias. Let’s assume for a minute the right was meant to apply to individuals. The legislative history certainly would indicate that the framers had two main concerns when passing the Second Amendment: first, the nation be able to defend itself against other nations, and second, the citizens of the nation have a defense against a tyrannical government with a standing army of professional soldiers that would encroach on civil liberties.

This assumption leaves us with two options: We can honor the words of the Constitution and the intent of the framers, in spite of the fact that the situation our nation faces today bears almost no resemblance to the circumstances that led to the passing of the Second Amendment. Or, we can take a pragmatic approach to both the words and intent of the framers and construct gun legislation that balances the new role guns hold with the ability to provide increased security.

How can we honor the words and the intent of the Constitution? Simple – no limits on who can own weapons and no limit on what weapons they can own. The words are very straightforward: The right to bear arms is not offered with exceptions, so why would it mean that we can own some arms and not others? Yet there are laws that prevent the average citizen from owning fully automatic machine guns and rocket launchers. And what about biological and chemical weapons?

Shouldn’t the Second Amendment expand to keep up with the times? The framers didn’t envision armor-piercing bullets, but it’s been argued that the Second Amendment should protect our right to own them.

Here is where this argument dissolves into absurdity. If we want to honor the words and the intent of the Constitution, scenarios such as the ones above are the only way to be consistent. Remember, the Second Amendment was passed in order to allow ordinary citizens to defend the country in case of invasion. This made sense at the time because the citizens didn’t want a standing army of professional soldiers, and the weaponry of citizens and soldiers was exactly the same. Today this would require the right of citizens to own everything from stealth bombers to nuclear weapons. And as long as our nation continues to build the strength and size of its armed forces, we will not be honoring the intent of the Second Amendment. Yet you rarely see the National Rifle Association protesting the expansion of the military budget. Incidents such as Waco and Ruby Ridge should prove that there is little to be gained by ordinary citizens taking up arms against the government because the technology of weaponry and the size of the U.S. Army have made this impossible.

The Second Amendment as envisioned by the framers is no longer relevant or practical. So this leaves us with just one option – a pragmatic approach to gun ownership and gun laws. Does this mean

the end of the family hunting trip or the loss of the ability to defend your home against burglars? No. But it might mean registration of guns and identification procedures that allow police to trace bullets. This might seem like an inconvenience to law-abiding gun owners, but two-hour waits and complete luggage searches is an inconvenience too, and it still makes sense if it allows us to feel more secure.

We have surrendered some of our personal liberties in order to allow our government to defend us from terror. President George W. Bush’s USA Patriot Act is a prime example of a request by the government that we sacrifice some of the freedoms we enjoy to ensure we can recover some of the security lost by Americans to terrorists. Incidents such as the recent Washington-area sniper shootings also require that we make some sacrifices to ensure our security. If the only hesitation is some misguided loyalty to the Second Amendment, then we need to re-evaluate what the framers were trying to protect and what we as Americans need to protect today.


Matt Telleen’s biweekly column appears alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]