When did guns take over our lives? As I was growing up, I do not recall that guns ever entered the daily parlance. We were obsessed with voting rights for 18 year olds (if they could be drafted they should have a right to vote), Haight Ashbury and the drug scene, the loosening of the Hays Code, and Vietnam. I do not remember a community mass-shooting, or a non-stop public outcry that there was not just a “right,” but a “Constitutional right” to own a gun. In fact, to the extent that any discussion about guns arose, it was within the context that they inevitably led to unnecessary tragedy because gun-related murders (at least most of them) were crimes of passion, rage, and anger, and had the gun not been so accessible, a life would have been saved.
Now the scene has shifted so much that the topic of guns as killing devices competes with the topic of guns as a consumer product for the masses. In the past three weeks, The New York Times has run articles on the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, supposedly the most desired gun in America; how more women then ever are embracing gun ownership; and marketing guns to our children’s children, and this is mere icing on the cake. The question is: How, why and when did the national psyche change from a general consensus that guns were “bad,” to this new world that does not seem to even blink at marketing guns as fashion accessories. The Times article on the escalating number of women purchasers reported that pink guns are a favorite. Like the color of Pepto-Bismol. This whole idea makes me nauseous.
Certainly Columbine, in 1999, was a major catalyst. And pile on all of the other mass shootings over the past 14 years, and you arrive at an understanding of why guns take up front, and center, stage. But I think the underlying shape-shifting phenomenon that brought the “right” to own a gun to the forefront has been the twisting of the Second Amendment. In its entirety the amendment 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.
My theory is that some strategist in some gun-loving coalition latched on to the 14-word phrase, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” to push a platform of deregulating any type of government control over gun ownership and sales. In so doing, the meaning of the amendment was distorted beyond recognition. The comma that follows the word “arms” was conveniently dispensed with and the preface about the “well regulated militia” was disposed of as an unnecessary nuisance.
There is a glaring problem in this interpretation, and I know I am flying in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. However, one cannot divorce a phrase such as the right to bear arms from the entirety of the sentence, nor can one ignore the preamble which explains that, “a well regulated Militia” is “necessary” to ensure that we the people remain safe and secure in a “free State.” The Second Amendment sanctions a military that has a right to bear arms, not the individual’s right to bear arms.
This makes so much sense when we think about the world the founding fathers were living in when the Constitution was adopted in 1787. The colonies, as subjects of England, had fought in a bunch of wars even before the eight year battle to secure their independence from England. The militia had been indispensable to the colonies’ successful separation from King George III and his irksome taxes. They had just won a revolution so it was completely logical that the men who drafted the Constitution would have wanted to ensure that “a well-regulated militia” would be allowed to “bear arms.” They had first-hand knowledge that it was “necessary” to the security of the “free State” they had just formed and wanted to maintain. Ergo the Constitution granted the people a right to bear arms for this purpose. It wasn’t an inalienable right, like those accorded by the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Had the founding fathers believed that the right to bear arms was unfettered, they would have added it to the First Amendment, a simple addition, such as “Congress shall make no law restricting the right to bear arms.” But they didn’t. They drafted an entirely different Second Amendment prefaced with the phrase: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.”
So I consider the debate over the Second Amendment as the turning point and tipping point of the shift. The reinvention of the amendment has fueled the NRA. It has the Constitution on its side to relentessly and shamelessly push for unregulated gun sales and the liberty to carry a handgun into a movie theatre. It seems to me their Constitutionally sanctioned efforts are successfully ripping apart the security of our free state.