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Armed and Dangerous: The Gun Debate


line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Does this sound familiar? It should. The same argument is being made today by that organization and other pro-gun groups. The only way to prevent a police state, which many people claim is in the works — in secret, is to allow the wide and unregulated distribution of all sorts of weapons.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>A related argument is that the federal government should not be allowed to regulate guns, and that this is a matter best left to states. And if a state wants to do nothing, perhaps because the gun lobby can defeat candidates who back even modern reforms, or because the crime rate isn’t soaring or no mass shootings have recently occurred, people in neighboring states must simply spend more money to crack down on crime and violence. It’s simply the price of freedom.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Considering this context, it seems reasonable to ask what is more threatening to freedom and security, unrestrained gun ownership or some government oversight? The arguments against regulation tend to fall into three categories: 1) the right to bear arms is constitutionally protected, 2) gun control won’t reduce violence in society, and 3) gun laws are a serious threat to freedom.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The roots of US ideas about the relationship between weapons and society go back to the Florentine political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, who noted that military service should be the responsibility of every citizen, but soldiering the profession of none. Basing his ideas on the Roman suspicion of professional soldiers, he concluded that military force should only be used to assure the common good. This idea of citizens bearing arms in defense of the state, to avoid the potential tyranny of a standing army, was translated by the authors of the Bill of Rights into the Second Amendment and helps to explain its unusual wording: “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.”

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>This dynamic was made clear in various declarations of rights predating the Bill of Rights. For example, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, adopted on June 12, 1776, said that a well-regulated militia, trained to arm, was the safe defense of a free state. That and subsequent variations adopted by other states made it clear that the idea was trained citizens, organized in militias, providing for a common defense. The word “people” refers to this collective role, contrasting a militia to a standing army.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Vermont’s Article 9, which dealt with the matter of conscientious objection to military service, made it clear that “bearing arms” meant military service. It said that no one could be compelled to carry or use a gun, even though rights also involved personal service. The solution was that those who chose not to serve would pay an appropriate sum of money. Bearing arms was directly linked to the collective responsibility for defense.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The great constitutional commentator of the period, Justice Joseph Story, noted that what the Second Amendment actually guaranteed was a “well-regulated militia.” The fear was that without one the country might be vulnerable to invasion, domestic insurrection, or a military takeover by some ruler. We needed a militia, Story said, because it was impractical to keep people armed without some organization.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Despite the endless repetition of claims that individuals have a constitutional right to be armed, this is not consistent with the weight of legal opinion. In fact, a series of US Supreme Court cases have made the situation quite clear. In U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876), the Court ruled that the right “of bearing arms for a lawful purpose is not a right granted by the Constitution.” Ten years later, in Presser v. Illinois, the Court noted that although states have the right to form militias, they are also free to regulate the circumstances under which citizens can carry weapons. This view was upheld in an 1894 case, Miller v. Texas.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>On June 8, 1981, the Village of Morton Grove, Illinois passed an ordinance banning the possession of handguns, except by police, prison officials, members of the military, recognized collectors and those who needed them for their work. Predictably, the National Rifle Association challenged the law. Both the Federal District Court and a Federal Appeals Court rejected their argument, saying that there is no individual right to bear arms, the ordinance was reasonable, and the right to have weapons applies only to well-regulated militias.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Sentiment in favor on some form of gun control fluctuates, but has tended to grow for decades. In 1968, 71 percent were in favor, peaking at more than 90 percent in 1981. In one Gallop Poll the Brady Bill won 95 percent support. Most people obviously see some connection between the availability of firearms and the rate of crimes involving guns, and a variety of studies support these views. Nevertheless, opponents insist that stronger laws won’t have an impact.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Leaving the matter in the hands of individual communities or states may sound appropriately populous. But it avoids the issue. In 2011 guns were involved in more than 32,000 US deaths, 11,100 of them murders, as well as thousands of rapes, hundreds of thousands of robberies, and about a half million assaults. The vast majority of people convicted of violent crimes obtained their weapons either at a gun shows or on the black market. That suggests, of course, that background checks alone will not make a huge dent in the problem. But a reduction of twenty percent would be significant; perhaps one less child killed every day and fewer rapes and murders.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The NRA is fond of saying that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s a tidy little argument but let’s get real: people with guns can kill people far more effortlessly than people with knives, deadly fighting skills or poison. The FBI has assembled evidence on whether stricter laws make a difference. For example, after Massachusetts passed a law requiring a mandatory jail sentence for carrying a handgun without a license murders involving handguns dropped by almost 50 percent. Robberies went down 35 percent.  After South Carolina tightened its handgun purchase requirement in the 1990s, the murder rate dropped 28 percent.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>No freedom is absolute. Even in the most decentralized and self-managed society, people must accept some social responsibilities and limits in exchange for liberty.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>“Total isolation is intellectual, moral and material death.” he wrote.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Allowing the government to take any step, argue the opponents of gun regulation, is the beginning of tyranny. From this vantage point government is the enemy. It would be naive to argument that the government always uses its power wisely. The political system cries out for change, if not transformation, if we are ever to have a society that promotes real equality, justice, respect for diversity, and self-management. Yet achieving this, empowering people and making step-by-step progress, requires an appeal to hope rather than fear. Arguing that the only way to be free is to oppose and resist government, in other words knee-jerk rejection, plays into the hands of the most reactionary forces in society.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>In the 1970s a Trilateral Commission study candidly concluded that a central objective of corporate planning in the coming era would be to lower expectations. People needed to be convinced to expect less, to accept a reduced standard of living and stop demanding that government solve all their problems.  Reagan was not a Trilateralist, but he was an effective spokesman for the same position. The Clinton administration, although committed rhetorically to “activist” government, embraced a similar social and economic agenda.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The debate over guns is not about restricting rights. That’s the cover story, an assumption promoted by the gun lobby to shape public perceptions. It’s not even about “control,” any more than the fight for affordable housing is secretly a fight for rent control. The goal is security, freedom from the fear and anxiety sweeping across this over-armed society.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>In Switzerland, most adults between 20 and 30 males become members of a militia. They receive training, rifles and ammunition from the government that are kept in homes. However, handguns are tightly controlled and anyone who wants one must have a background check and obtain a permit.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Greg Guma is an author, editor and the former CEO of Pacifica Radio. He lives in Vermont and writes about politics and culture on his blog, Maverick Media (http://muckraker-gg.blogspot.com).

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