In the aftermath of another senseless shooting spree in Santa Monica last week, the outcry was somewhat subdued. Have we become immune to periodic episodes of violence?
What better time to offer a judicious analysis of the Constitution's most debated amendment?
The Second Amendment that is housed in the National Archives reads:
"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."
It is important when conducting a close read of any text that one ask fundamental questions no matter how simplistic they may appear. This process has been sorely lacking from the Second Amendment debate.
The preferred modus operandi is to latch onto the part of the Second Amendment that fits one's preconceived notion.
Those who support gun rights understandably focus on "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Those supporting gun control look to the first part of the amendment that states: "A well regulated militia."
If the Constitution is to have any bearing on this discussion, shouldn't we give the Founders the benefit of the doubt and take the amendment in its totality?
Though the founders are often portrayed as unanimous, the gun debate in their day possessed a variety of viewpoints.
But there was wide consensus that the founders were opposed to a standing army, preferring instead a militia; and if there was to be a militia, it was important to put in the Constitution the right to bear arms.
But Shay's Rebellion, an armed uprising in western Massachusetts by farmers in 1786 was also cause for concern because they were a militia but not under government control. In 1791, after the adoption of the Second Amendment, the "well regulated" militia that was supported by the state put down the Whiskey Rebellion, a militia who took up arms under similar pretense as Shay's Rebellion.
America does not have anything today that rivals a militia. The National Guard may come close, but it too can be federalized.
The part of the Second Amendment debate that seems to fly under the radar is the term "well regulated." There is no 18th century understanding that differs in the 21st century.
Well regulated meant then as it does now -- government has a role in the gun debate. In fact, the original intent was far more intrusive than most gun advocates care to admit today.
Those who embrace a Jeffersonian/anti-Federalist argument that the militia could conceivably take up arms against the government must also know that debate was settled at Appomattox in 1865.
The right to bear arms in the 18th century was a civic responsibility. There was no standing army. Today, the Department of Defense has no peer globally.
Each generation bears the burden to understand the Constitution through the lens of what was written but also by what it means in their lifetime. Relying solely on the intent of a group of individuals who could not possibly comprehend the world of today is shortsighted at best.
Applying the Second Amendment today is neither a civic duty, as it was when it was originally adopted, nor an unfettered individual right.
There is a right to bear arms in this country; that's undeniable. But with that right comes responsibility and regulation.
Why isn't the aforementioned position that is consistent with the values of the Constitution at the epicenter of the current debate?
The Constitution cuts both ways. It is not designed to be fair as it is just.
Could it be the document where we derive our public morality is used today more so as a convenient smoke screen to justify other goals?
Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.