I’m writing this because my high-school age child asked me to speak out on this issue.
His request was really touching. I felt it in my heart. I could not ignore such a request, and therefore I am speaking out.
I’m campaigning for the Oregon State Legislature to represent the largely rural House District 18, where conservative voter registrations significantly outnumber liberal voter registrations. Ever since January, when I first filed as a candidate, I have tried to keep my message not only generally positive but also focused away from hot-button issues, where I doubt I would persuade anyone and where impassioned arguments risk turning off the essential moderate voters who are the key to my plan for winning this election.
But as my teenager reminded me, this is a point worth taking a stand on.
My teenager has a reason to feel strongly about this issue. As a public school student, he is a member of the demographic most likely to be targeted by this insidious wave of despicable terrorist violence being perpetrated against America’s children.
America is at war with itself.
But there is no organized insurgency. This is not a civil war in the conventional sense. The people who do the killing are not united by any ideology whatsoever. These acts incite terror, but they are not motivated by any political objective. Their only purpose is to spread as much pain as possible to as many people as possible.
Spreading pain is the sole purpose of these acts of terrorism.
Military-style assault weapons are the tools used to commit these heinous crimes.
Reasonable people conclude that we as a society must crack down on the sale of military weapons to civilians.
There used to be a law that did that. From 1994 to 2004, there was a Federal assault weapons ban in effect: and during those years, mass shooting casualties declined dramatically.
That ten-year ban simply prohibited the sale of new assault weapons to civilians. During the decade when the law was in effect, it survived multiple Supreme Court challenges. It was a good law, and it saved lives.
Unfortunately, the “Brady Bill” had a sunset provision. Ever since the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, both the frequency and the deadliness of mass shooting events has skyrocketed.
Reasonable people – and, according to the polls, this includes a majority of Americans – agree on the course of action we must take to address this crisis.
We must immediately re-institute the Federal assault weapons ban, and we must implement reasonable regulations such as background checks and waiting periods.
Until we have an assault weapons ban in place, the God-given right of the people to be secure in their persons and homes will continue to be violated.
In order to ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to ourselves and to our posterity, we the people of these United States must immediately ban the sale of these weapons of mass destruction to civilians.
That’s my main point here. The remainder of this post is largely a series of supporting statements and legal arguments.
Argument 1: This is not normal
My children have to participate in “active shooter drills” at school. Random strangers armed with guns have become the greatest threat to the health and safety of children.
When I was a kid, we used to participate in fire drills, and occasionally earthquake drills. Nobody had ever heard of “active shooter drills,” because “active shooters” were not a threat. When I was a kid, there was not an epidemic of gun violence targeting school children.
This is new. Frequent mass shootings were not always a part of American life. And we must not simply accept them as part of American life.
Argument 2: This is not acceptable
Surveys show that a core group of fringe extremists believe that we should all just accept frequent mass shootings as a fact of life. However, we must not allow the extreme fringe to dictate policy for the majority. The vast majority of Americans agree that we cannot and must not tolerate these intolerable terrorist attacks on our schools and public areas. These acts of terrorism are themselves a violation of the fundamental liberties which we hold dear.
My conservative friends argue that we really need to fix our society so people won’t feel so hopeless that they go out and commit these sorts of terrorist attacks. How could I possibly disagree with that point? When people are positively engaged in life, when they have hope, when they feel they are working towards achievement and participating in the American Dream: they they don’t go out and commit these kinds of atrocities.
But the sad fact is, there’s always somebody who feels like an angry outsider; and until we all, on both sides and in the middle, until all of us learn to be more loving and less contemptuous, and to work together to create a more equitable economy: then our society will continue to create angry, disaffected, cynical, vindictive, nihilistic loners with previously unrecognized tendency to violence.
The question then must be this: “Should such individuals be able to easily gain access to military weapons?”
To answer this question, consider the logic involved.
Look at it this way:
Should individual civilians be allowed to buy nuclear bombs?
Yes, this question is relevant.
Should individual civilians be allowed to buy nuclear bombs?
This question is relevant because if you believe that individual civilians should not be allowed to gain access to nuclear bombs, then you and I agree that there should be some reasonable limit to an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.
So then we must ask, “How do we define that limit?”
And to answer that, let’s talk about the legal doctrines of “originalism” and “strict constructionism.”
Argument 3: This is not what the Framers intended
“Originalism” and “strict constructionism” are analytical frameworks utilized by Constitutional lawyers and scholars – especially conservative lawyers and Supreme Court judges – to interpret the United States Constitution. Conservative judges use these doctrines to refute the more modern “living document” framework favored by liberal lawyers when interpreting the meaning and intent of the wording of that august document.
Of course, I myself personally tend to favor a more liberal interpretation. For example, I interpret the archaic use of the word “men” in our nation’s founding documents to mean “all people” in a modern legal context.
But we’re not going to win this particular debate by simply shouting, “You’re wrong!” at other people.
Instead, we must use their own arguments to find a place of agreement. Finding a place of agreement is the cornerstone of our democratic system.
The current disagreement is this: Extremists insist that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to keep and bear arms without exception; whereas you and I agree that there must be some reasonable limits to that right (because, if nothing else, we agree that civilians must not be allowed to keep and bear nuclear bombs).
So let us consider the Second Amendment, using the frameworks of originalism and strict constructionism.
Originalism and the American Revolution
First, let’s back up a bit. As long as we’re talking about originalism, let’s consider what originally led to the revolt of the colonies against the British government.
One of the key events that led to the American Revolution was an incident that came to be known as the “Boston Massacre.” In that incident, five civilians were shot and killed by British soldiers during what could fairly be described as a riot.
Five dead rioters became the rallying cry of the American revolutionaries, two and a half centuries ago.
Now, how many innocent school children have been massacred in the past two weeks alone?
If five dead rioters were worthy of violent revolution against the British monarchy, then surely dozens of dead children are worthy of overthrowing the Second Amendment.
As currently construed, the Second Amendment runs contrary to its originally intended purpose.
Originalism and the word, “Arms”
The “arms” referenced in the Second Amendment by the Framers of the Constitution were flintlock muskets.
Flintlock muskets could only be fired once, and then they had to be painstakingly reloaded. They were frequently inaccurate, prone to misfire, and would not work when damp. Furthermore, the projectiles fired by such weapons often lacked lethality: soldiers struck by the lead balls that were fired from flintlock muskets often survived their wounds.
The Framers could not have intended to guarantee a right to carry modern military automatic rifles, because the Framers had no conception that such weapons would ever come into existence.
Therefore, under the doctrine of originalism, we may state conclusively that the Second Amendment guarantees only the right to keep and bear flintlock muskets. The Second Amendment has no bearing on modern military weapons, because such weapons had not yet been invented when the document was written.
One might argue that the Second Amendment also protects the right to keep and bear cannons, which were also in existence at the time when the Constitution was ratified. However, one must recall that the cannons of the eighteenth century were fabulously heavy and difficult to operate. It took a team of draft animals to move them from place to place; it took a team of soldiers to load and aim them; and like the flintlock muskets, they were slow to reload, and would not work when damp. Such weapons are a world away from our modern military weapons of mass destruction.
Originalism and the Intent of the Second Amendment
When the Second Amendment was written, the United States had no standing army. At that time, many people were strongly opposed to the idea that any standing army should ever be created by the United States government. Permanent institutions of professional armed forces were widely seen as a tool of oppression: the cause of conflict, rather than its solution; and the source of extravagant costs which must be paid by the people in the form of unjust taxation, a tax burden the more unjust because it was largely borne by the middle and lower classes. Such age-old arguments still sound familiar to modern progressives, although they have been generally abandoned by conservatives in our time.
Rather than create, equip, maintain, and fund a permanent military institution, the fledgling United States intended to repel invasion – and possibly overthrow the new government – by means of hastily organized militias. Assembling such ad hoc militias would only be possible if people already owned their own weapons.
In its historical context, the Second Amendment was proposed and ratified from a place of fear: both the fear of invasion by a foreign power, and the fear of unjust rule from a domestic government.
The newly united States had only recently won their independence from England by means of many years of turmoil, bloodshed, upheaval, and tremendous expense. They needed a new Constitution because they needed to levy taxes so they could pay off their war debts (which is stupendously ironic, because it was the taxes levied by Parliament to pay off the war debts of the Seven Years’ War that had primarily incited the colonists to rebellion in the first place).
But at the time, many people feared that the newly minted Federal government might turn tyrannical, wantonly imposing unpopular laws against the will of the people. Having recently relied on their own hunting weapons to take potshots at British soldiers, the backers of the Constitution felt some measure of security in relying on their own armaments, if it became necessary to overthrow their new government.
Furthermore, during the American Revolution, British soldiers had sometimes searched individual people’s residences without a warrant, and seized contraband items: anything from smuggled tea to guns. The First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution were all written in direct response to the actions of British government and its soldiers before and during the war. But (with the exception of a few radical extremists on the far left of Twitter) nobody is currently proposing that we should actually take anything away from anyone. You and I, and most reasonable people, simply want to ban the sale of new automatic weapons to civilians. That’s very different from telling people that they may not “keep” the hunting rifles they already possess.
The point here is, in the context of originalism, we must consider the purpose of the Second Amendment. The purpose was twofold: to repel foreign invaders in the absence of a standing army; and to overthrow the newly created government, should it prove tyrannical.
With regards to the first purpose, we no longer rely on hastily assembled ad hoc citizen militias to repel foreign invaders. For better or for worse, we have a permanent professional military force. The security of our free State is protected by that professional military force; and therefore common citizens do not require military weapons for the purpose of repelling foreign invasion.
As for the tyranny of the Federal government: no matter what flavor of the political spectrum you tend to prefer, you probably believe there is some degree of tyranny embodied by our government. Nonetheless, our government has persisted in more or less its present form for well over two centuries now. Its tyranny is too subtle to justify violent overthrow. It’s a legal problem, and it requires a legal solution. Guns are not the answer.
What is the purpose of military-style assault weapons? Nobody uses them to hunt deer. Assault weapons are exclusively designed for killing people: lots of people, in a short time. That is their sole purpose. That’s why they are named “assault weapons.” Why would a civilian need a military weapon? Are you planning to commit treason, mount an uprising against the United States government, and/or start another civil war? Or are you planning to commit mass murder? Those are the only reasons you might want to buy one of those weapons; and those reasons are simply unacceptable in a civil society.
To anti-government extremists, I would pose the following questions: No matter how much you may dislike government, do you really believe that violent revolution would ever be a reasonable solution to your problems? I hope not. Violence is not the answer. I propose that it’s generally always better to talk things over and grumble about a few necessary compromises than it is to go around killing people over questions of economic policy. And even if you are so unreasonable as to side with the unspeakable reprehensible deplorable irrational violent neo-fascist anarchists, do you honestly believe that violent revolution against the modern American government could ever be successful? They have tanks, helicopter gunships, and F-16s that can drop tons of explosives on your head before you even see them coming. They would swat you like flies, man. Assault rifles are no match for the Air Force. Puny small arms only give you an advantage over unarmed civilians. And as long as you are just a civilian, then you have no right to maintain that kind of advantage over other civilians. We are all equal under the law. You are not a god. Lay down your weapons.
Let us briefly consider the wording of the Second Amendment.
“A well-regulated militia”
The Second Amendment quite specifically protects the right to bear arms only within the context of a well-regulated militia. A well-regulated militia is regimented, it is hierarchical, it operates for the purpose of achieving a military objective against a military opponent, and it consists of trained soldiers who follow orders. Following orders is what makes a militia “well regulated.”
Contrary to the lunatic fringe, the Second Amendment did not somehow create a “right” for a “lone wolf” terrorist to sneak into a crowd of civilians and go on a wanton murder rampage shooting spree. As discussed above, the death of just five civilians was considered sufficient to justify a revolution against Britain. The Founders of the nation and the Framers of the Constitution certainly did not intend to create a system where the populace must live in constant terror of mass shootings. Far from it. The opening words of the Constitution state specifically that its very purpose is to “ensure domestic tranquility.” Mass shootings are the opposite of domestic tranquility!!! We must restore domestic tranquility by limiting the bearing of arms to a military context, as the Framers clearly intended.
“keep and bear”
“Keep” means you may possess the weapon. This clause does not guarantee the right to purchase new arms. It only protects the right to own existing arms. We are not here proposing house-by-house search and seizure in times of peace. We are proposing a renewal of the expired “Brady Bill” ban on the sale of new military weapons to civilians. As the Supreme Court has already ruled, such a ban is allowable under the Second Amendment.
“Bear” means you have a right to carry weapon onto a field of battle. But here’s the thing about a field of battle: the other combatants are also armed, and they are actively trying to kill you! Once you go around bearing arms, you have declared yourself a combatant, and you should expect other people to shoot at you. The presence of your weapon is a threat to the safety and welfare of others. If you carry your weapon into a crowded place, you have just declared war on every other human being in that place, and you should expect one or more of those other people to kill you in self-defense. You do not have a right to go around menacing others without expectation of consequences. When you threaten others, you should expect to be threatened in turn.
I believe I have sufficiently discussed this above. By “arms” the Framers meant flintlock muskets. Civilians do not have a right to buy military-style automatic assault weapons, any more than civilians have a right to buy nuclear bombs.
Argument 4: The right to change one’s mind
We are not forever bound by the decisions of the past.
Whether or not you agree with my Argument 3 above (and I think it’s a pretty damn fine argument, myself) I hope you will agree that as human beings we all have a fundamental right to change our minds sometimes, especially when we are presented with compelling new evidence or changing circumstances. The refusal to change one’s mind in the face of irrefutable evidence is known as a “fixed mindset,” and it leads to stagnation and ultimately to regression.
In order to adapt to a changing environment, we ourselves must adapt and change. The ability to adapt is the key strength of the human species. That’s why we can survive in deserts, rain forests, polar regions, equatorial climates, at high elevations, on ships on the ocean, and even in space capsules. We have an incredible ability to adapt and change. We must build on that strength. In the current context, we must protect ourselves and our families from unreasoning hatred and pointless violence.
Some fourteen years ago, I self-published a sort of politico-philosophical treatise titled, Principles for a Self-Directed Society. In the first edition of that book, I offered an argument in opposition to the regulation of gun ownership. At the time, I took that position because I was raised in a rural area. My family owned guns, my neighbors owned guns, and when my friends came over on weekends we used to go out and shoot tin cans for fun. To my way of thinking, guns were used for the purpose of hunting; and hunting was tied to the necessity of basic survival. Gun safety was essential, and the misuse of guns was unthinkable. Furthermore, the guns I knew personally were small caliber; they only fired one bullet at a time; and they had limited ammunition capacity. At the time when I first wrote my book, I could not conceive of a world where people would walk into a gun store, purchase an automatic weapon with a large-capacity magazine, then use it to commit mass murder all within a few hours. When I first began writing my book, the “Brady Bill” automatic weapons ban was still in effect; and when I self-published it in 2008, the ban had only been expired for a few years. Like the Framers of the Constitution, I could not then imagine how the epidemic of gun violence would spiral out of control.
A decade of mass shootings caused me to see things differently.
When I re-released the book as a Second Edition in 2020, I revised my entry on gun ownership to call for the regulation of military-style weapons. I gave myself permission to change my mind on this issue, based on new information and changing circumstances.
I give you permission to do the same.
If you have favored extremist arguments regarding the Second Amendment in the past, you are not alone. This doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It also doesn’t mean that you have to always believe what you used to believe. You are allowed to change your mind. That’s what freedom means. You are free to change your mind.
If you have children, then you love your children, and you wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them. Even if you don’t have children, you are a part of a society that includes human children. You recognize that children are precious and innocent.
Protect your children, and everyone’s children, by supporting reasonable regulations on the purchase of military weapons by civilians. Let us work together to end this reign of terror.
Photo by Pixabay: https://www.pexels.com/photo/army-burial-cemetery-cross-262271/