by Bruce Dunlavy
           (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

Well, it’s happened again. There has been a multiple shooting. As usual, the gun-control issue blew up all over the place, with each side placing the blame on the other. The same arguments leap to the top of broadcast and print media reporting, and the same arguments are re-hashed. Eventually, nothing is done to resolve the issue.

It is my belief that it is better to fix problems than to fix blame. I think both gun-control proponents and opponents sincerely want to see fewer mass shootings and fewer deaths of innocent people, and that they sincerely believe that the solutions they argue for will accomplish that. What is unfortunate is that the arguments – for and against – are based largely on myths, and these myths distract from the ability to find a solution to a problem everyone agrees must be solved. Let’s demolish some of them here by stating the following:

The Second Amendment is neither explicit nor absolute.
“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.” Everyone knows the second half of the Amendment, but the first half is rarely mentioned. What does it mean? Why did the authors of the Amendment put it there? For the first 217 years, the first half of the Amendment defined the second half. The right to bear arms was a collective right – held by the people as a whole – and not an individual right. In 2008, that changed with the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which found that individual handgun ownership for self-defense is a Constitutional right. You can read a summary of the majority and dissenting views here. This was extended to State governments in 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago.

This means that the Court has eliminated – at least in regard to handguns – an argument the gun-control people have relied on for a long time, namely, that the Second Amendment refers only to State militias – something like the National Guard. Since Heller, this argument is fruitless unless the Court changes its mind.

With that established, it is still important to note that Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the five-to-four majority, acknowledged in the decision that,”like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” In that regard, the wording of the last phrase of the Amendment can be understood in two ways. The key words are people and arms. Those words might mean “some people” and “some arms” or they might mean “all people” and “all arms.” If the latter, then the Amendment is absolute. However, no one but the most extreme anarchist would take that position, for it would mean that anyone – a child, an insane person, a felon, someone in prison – literally anyone – could possess and carry any weapon, including a nuclear bomb, in any place at any time.

If the words mean “some people” and “some arms,” then there must be limitations, and the dispute then becomes about what those limitations are. That seriously diminishes the role of the Second Amendment in the gun control argument. It means that at best the Amendment gets the presumption of approval so that in cases of dispute it is the gun-control side that must have the more cogent and meaningful evidence on its side.

It also means that the issue of gun ownership and use comes down to where you draw the line between the two extremes of “no weapons for anyone” and “all weapons for everyone.” Could or would anyone make a solid case that it is a good, morally justifiable public policy to let an insane, violent, eight-year-old with anger issues and poor impulse control possess and carry a military-grade assault rifle unhindered onto a privately-owned pre-school playground?
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No one is coming to confiscate guns; no one is proposing to ban guns.
Despite the rhetoric of the extremists among gun proponents, no one in any position of authority is proposing banning or confiscating guns. First of all, there are well over 300 million essentially uncontrolled firearms in the United States today. Rounding them up and carrying them away is an impossible task. The idea of banning guns from private hands is a ship that sailed decades ago. If there is anyone on the fringe of the gun-control side who wants to confiscate all guns, s/he must discard that idea. It’s not going to happen.

Yet the threat of confiscation is the default reaction of gun proponents whenever any form of gun control is suggested. Such a position is pointless, because it’s not going to happen and nobody is trying to make it happen. It does, however, result in getting a certain segment of the population stirred up enough to demand protection from this nonexistent threat. Historian Richard Hofstadter, in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, recounts how in 1964 a few men traveled from Arizona to Washington, D.C., to testify at a Senate hearing on a proposed law to tighten controls on the sale of guns through the mail (this in reaction to the assassination of President Kennedy with a gun purchased in that way). The men’s testimony included the belief that such a law was “a further attempt by a subversive power to make us a part of one world socialistic government.”  In that regard, not much has changed in the last 50 years.

That the fear of government confiscation of firearms remains strong is demonstrated by a law enacted in Florida in 2011. The law prohibits doctors from asking their patients (or, in the case of pediatricians, their patients’ parent) if there is a gun in the patient’s home and, if so, whether it is inaccessible to children. Punishment is set at a fine of $10,000 for the first offense and $100,000 for subsequent offenses. The patient is required neither to answer such a question nor to answer truthfully if s/he does. But the law forbids the doctor from even asking the question. Perhaps the authors of the law feared that some unsuspecting gunowner might feel intimidated into acknowledging firearms ownership, thus being set up for confiscation. [Update: After years of back-and-forth court rulings the law was overturned by a Federal court in early 2017.]

The argument made by the law’s proponents is that the Federal government could/would use these doctors as a spy network, having them report to Washington the names and addresses of people who own guns, thus facilitating the confiscation of them. If that is what the government has in mind, it seems a notably inefficient way of collecting information. If I were a government wanting to know who has guns so I could take them away, the first place I’d look is the lists of those who have applied for concealed-carry permits.

Barack Obama is the best thing that ever happened for gun proponents.
Although Obama, like Al Gore before him, has been held up as the enemy of all gun ownership rights, constantly exploring new ways to confiscate everyone’s guns, no one can argue with the fact that gun rights have expanded considerably during his administration. Never before in American history have there been more laws enacted to allow more people to obtain, possess, carry, and use firearms in more places than during the Obama administration.

The last holdout States forbidding concealed-carry have passed laws of approval, and those that already had them have been expanding the places where the permits are valid – schools, churches, hospitals, even bars.  Those States previously without open-carry laws have been enacting them with alacrity. “Stand-your-ground” laws proliferate, making it easier to justify the use of firearms in situations where it might be avoided. As long as Obama and the rest of the “liberals” can be portrayed as fanatical gun-confiscators, the ownership and use of guns will continue to be facilitated.

Whenever there is a mass shooting of innocent people, the first obstacle to a sensible discussion of whether and how such a thing can be prevented is the immediate leap by the adversaries in the gun-rights war to their default positions. Each claims their answer is the one that will fix the problem, and both are intractable. Deaths by gunfire are a very complicated matter without a simple solution. “More guns” and “fewer guns” are simple – and insufficient – solutions, but they overwhelm the discussion of any other. While the number, availability, and regulation of guns remains the overbearing dispute, the necessary deeper understanding of the problem and advancement of solutions that address the complexities will not be given the attention it must have.

[Note: “Guns, Deaths, and Myths, Part 2” is now available.  Find it here. It is followed by Part 3 and Part 4, and a more general analysis here.]