The urban legend of the right to bear arms
The more something is repeated, even if untrue, the more it will be believed. This is particularly true of the belief that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives individuals the “right to bear arms.”
The Second Amendment, passed by Congress in 1789, consists of one poorly crafted sentence: “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
For 200 years, it was understood that the Second Amendment only gave an individual the right to bear arms within an organized militia.
This changed in the 1970s after a methodical political campaign by the National Rifle Association [NRA] led to its being reinterpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Read on to understand how this came about.
According to the Huffington Post, last week’s mass shooting in Oregon was the 265th mass shooting in the U.S. in 2015. That’s not a typo.
Most mass shootings don’t even make the news any more – they have become that commonplace.
A study by the University of Alabama Department of Criminal Justice found that countries with higher rates of gun ownership recorded more mass shooters per capita. The U.S. ranks first in gun ownership per capita in the world.
The history of the NRA and the “right to bear arms”
The NRA was originally formed after the Civil War by a group of Union officers in order to sponsor better markmanship.
The NRA’s principal focus was spelled out on it’s headquarter’s building:
- firearms safety education,
- marksmanship training,
- shooting for recreation.
According to Michael Waldman’s well researched article: “How the NRA Rewrote the Second Amendment,” there was a revolt in the NRA in 1977 when the organization moved its headquarters to Colorado from Washington, which was interpreted as distancing itself from politics. Over a thousand dissenters voted out the leadership, and activists from the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms took over.
Today, the NRA’s Virginia headquarters has an incomplete sentence on a wall of the building: “…the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
The reference to a “well-regulated militia” has been omitted.
Every law review article on the Second Amendment indexed from 1888 through 1959, concluded it did not guarantee an individual the right to bear arms.
Starting in the 1970s, the new NRA funded articles, contests, grants and endowments to promote its re- interpretation of the Second Amendment.
In addition to politicians being swayed, so was the public:
In 1959, according to a Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans favored banning handguns; that dropped to 41 percent by 1975 and 24 percent in 2012.
By early 2008, according to Gallup, 73 percent of Americans believed the Second Amendment “guaranteed the rights of Americans to own guns” outside the militia.
Bending to political pressure, in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court re-interpreted the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v. Heller and guaranteed individuals the right to own a weapon.
Should we arm teachers?
Many of these tragic mass shootings take place in schools, and some gun activists advocate arming teachers. I believe this is a very, very bad idea.
“While there are no specific data regarding having armed adults in schools, an analysis of U.S. mortality data found that people with guns in the home are at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide there. There is no reason to think schools would be any different: the more guns there are, the more opportunities there are to use them.” Time Magazine: 12/21/12: http://ideas.time.com/2012/12/21/viewpoint-arming-teachers-isnt-the-answer/
Research shows that the only way to make good decisions under pressure [such as facing a gunman], is to be under such pressure on a regular basis and learn to thrive under it.
I think school teachers have better things to do, and probably don’t have the temperament, to want to thrive under such pressure.
The definition of insanity and the right to bear arms
Stephen Colbert, host of the Late Show, said this on the Oregon shootings:
“I can’t pretend that it didn’t happen. I also can’t pretend to know what to do to prevent what happened yesterday all the times it has happened before. But I think pretending is part of the problem. These things happen over and over again and we’re naturally horrified and shocked when we hear about them, but then we change nothing, and we pretend that it won’t happen again.
“Some say the answer is stricter gun laws and others say the answer is mental health care, that we need better treatment, or to keep the guns out of the hands of the insane. Maybe it’s both, I honestly don’t know.
“But I do know that one of the definitions of insanity is changing nothing and pretending that something will change.”
Here are two successful examples of change as the result of tragedy:
- There was a time when all refrigerators in the U.S. could only be opened by the handle on the outside, and many children died by being suffocated in abandoned refrigerators. So laws were passed requiring manufacturers to make safer refrigerators and consumers to safely dispose of their refrigerators. At no point did the National Refrigerator Association step in and try to stop this. And now refrigerator deaths aren’t a problem any more.
- A 1996 gun massacre in Australia left 35 dead. Australia then banned semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns. The gun homicide rate fell by 59% and the gun suicide rate fell by 65%, without a parallel increase in non-firearm homicides and suicides.
In 1991, Conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger had this to say about the gun lobby’s re-interpretation of the Second Amendment:
“The Gun Lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American People by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies – the militia – would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.”
I would suggest it’s time to change the interpretation of the Second Amendment back to how it stood for the first 200 years. And let’s see how many lives are saved.
Sources for this article:
Dead or Alive: Originalism As Popular Constitutionalism in Heller” by Reva B. Siegel http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2132&context=fss_papers
Molly Larkin is the co-author of the international best-seller “The Wind Is My Mother; The Life and Teachings of a Native American Shaman.” She is passionate about helping people live life to their fullest potential through her classes and blog at www.MollyLarkin.com