Fifty years ago, I had a heated conversation about guns with one of my cousins. We were both gun owners and hunters.
He said that the main reason to bear arms was to protect yourself from the government. I said it was to protect yourself from criminals and crazies. Besides, as a soldier at the time, I was the government, and not anybody’s enemy unless they were threatening me or the nation.
“You’re not the government,” he insisted. “Politicians are.”
“So it’s not the fire department or the police or Fish and Game?”
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We finally agreed to disagree.
He and I also disagreed about what the Second Amendment of the Constitution guarantees. “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.”
I believe that “militia” is a reference to organized military groups – the National Guard, for instance, or the Marine Reserves, or the sheriff’s posse, etc. In 1939, the Supreme Court seemed to agree with me in United States v. Miller.
In 2008, though, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court decided that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of all citizens to possess firearms. That decision has since been reinforced, so I guess I was wrong. (That Supreme Court is part of that supposedly untrustworthy government, by the way.)
So what can be done in the light of recent shootings? The NRA is certainly correct when it says that our mental health systems must be aggressively funded and revitalized. That to me is a no-brainer. But mental health problems by no means guarantee that purchasing a gun will lead to homicidal shootings, and there’s no guarantee that drunks will have traffic accidents. But it’s prudent to control them, just as it’s prudent to control, and to treat with compassion, the mentally ill. It is certainly not prudent for them to have 13 weapons to express their frustrations, like the Oregon shooter.
On the other hand, the Founding Fathers who wrote the Second Amendment did not conceive of the firepower of today’s weapons. No one did. I was a well-armed soldier a half-century ago, but I can barely grasp the enhanced firepower now available to citizens.
It is unlikely that the founders imagined a mentally disturbed man like the Oregon shooter being allowed to carry six guns and a bag of ammunition into a school. To say he was armed understates it; he was a walking armory.
If you think that was the founders’ intention, then you need to consult the aforementioned mental health system. That overabundance of weaponry in private hands must be addressed, and a buyback of excessive firepower hardly seems to threaten American freedom.
But attempts to eliminate great numbers of weapons in one swoop – “get guns off the street” – will be fruitless. It is too late.
A few men I know like to flash a full holster or a shotgun in their pickup window as code for their independence. You’re not dealing with guns but with what guns mean, especially to those with little power otherwise. Guns have become symbols of their worth.
Most of my own gun-owning pals, on the other hand, are hunters, and that’s the only time they use their weapons. Most of them are also professionals, and none of them feels powerless or owns an arsenal of military-grade weapons out of fear of our government. They are not loners living in an illusion of power derived from guns.
Both sides in the gun control debate have some valid arguments, but each should begin to show good will by gradually surrendering their most extreme positions in the quest for common sense. That’s not too much to ask.
Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.”