I am liberal in many things and conservative in others with a strong streak of independence. I am a gun owner (121 of them to date) who shoots at least three times per week and reloads 18 different calibers. I have been around guns my entire life and used to hunt but currently don’t because of an aversion to taking a life — any life — except in self defense or defense of others. I have concealed carry permits that are valid in 43 states and appreciate the technology represented by firearms from an aesthetic perspective but deplore the supremely tragic and repugnant actions of a few people who use firearms inappropriately.
Probably some of the more sensitive issues for most Americans are those surrounding gun ownership, the accessibility of guns, the various types, and whether controls of all the above should or should not be implemented. I frequently find myself immersed in vigorous arguments with proponents of draconian restrictions of firearms and even those who support the total elimination of all firearms. These discussions have generated a need for me to answer a couple of questions. Who should own a firearm, and what are some of the constitutional and legal guidelines for gun ownership?
The issue of ownership is arguably informed by what the National Rifleman’s Association interprets in the wording of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution — “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”— and relies on a focus of the wording, specifically of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms,” as the basis of the association’s political position.
The Second Amendment suffers somewhat from being dated; that is, the rhetoric reflects the times and circumstances of 1775. It’s not clear that the literal interpretation of the Second Amendment has direct application to gun ownership today. Let’s deconstruct the rhetoric a bit: A “regulated militia” in 1775 was the foundation of an army made up largely of volunteers, individuals who already had access to firearms as a daily necessity. This militia was conscripted to combat English troops and their governmental representatives and establish this country’s independence. The U.S. armed forces basically evolved out of this foundation. Today, that militia is essentially the modern National Guard — not average citizens like you and I conducting our daily affairs but men and women who have enlisted in order to serve a National Guard mission.
However, supportive language also exists in sources other than the Constitution to allow for the freedom and ability to protect each other, ourselves, and our property from a criminal element (which, by the way, exists in every culture and society). An excerpt from Wikipedia might prove useful here:
“For modern theorists, the question of self-defense is one of moral authority within the nation to set the limits to obedience to the state and its laws given the pervasive dangers in a world full of weapons. In modern societies, states are increasingly delegating or privatizing their coercive powers to corporate providers of security services either to supplement or replace components within the power hierarchy. The fact that states no longer claim a monopoly to police within their borders, enhances the argument that individuals may exercise a right or privilege to use violence in their own defense. Indeed, modern libertarianism characterizes the majority of laws as intrusive to personal autonomy and, in particular, argues that the right of self-defense from coercion (including violence) is a fundamental human right, and in all cases, with no exceptions, justifies all uses of violence stemming from this right, regardless whether in defense of the person or property. In this context, note that Article 12 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.’”
One problem emergent in this excerpt is the inherent subjectivity of what constitutes “moral authority within the nation.” Morals, by design and application, are quite individual or subjective. For example, the morals of Las Vegas are generally different than the morals of St. George. Note here that I’m not saying “better or worse,” just different! One can visit local communities and see marked differences in acceptable moral behavior. The concept of moral unity is delusional, and most religions and other agencies struggle mightily to establish and sustain that unity and inevitably experience defeat as a consequence.
Thus, the Second Amendment applies to the “security of a free State” — that is, the survival of the country and not necessarily the individuals within it. One could make a reasonable assumption that it does, but an assumption is not necessarily factual. Legislatures, both state and federal, are responsible for the establishment of moral-driven definitions of self defense, etc. That means it is a moving target (please pardon the pun) within and between states and is essentially unrelated to the Constitution.
The dilemma of who has the “right” to own a firearm demands close scrutiny. The writers of the Constitution also explored and developed both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and therein might be found language supporting a national moral with regard to self defense. A panel of nonpartisan educators undertook an analysis and explanation of early American documents and published their results:
“While the rights listed in the Declaration of Independence — life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness — were inalienable, the Founders understood that individuals are often stopped from exercising them. Indeed, this was the very purpose of the Declaration of Independence: to explain that King George III’s violations of the colonists’ inalienable rights justified the American Revolution. The Founders knew full well that while we are born with rights, we need some protection in order to have the freedom to exercise those rights. This principle helps explain the difference between “natural rights” and “legal rights.” While natural rights are innately part of being human, and exist prior to any culture or society, legal rights are those that are acknowledged and protected by a given government. So, in the Founders’ understanding, natural rights would include the right to life itself, the right to think for oneself, the right to self-defense, and the right to keep what one has worked honestly for, among others. Legal rights would include the right to vote, the specific methods by which fair trials are conducted, and copyrights and patents–all of which might be defined and protected in different ways in different countries or states, based on their particular customs and beliefs.”
An important distinction between “inalienable” (natural) rights and “legal” rights that are constructed by people is made in this excerpt. It is important to keep these two types of “right” separately identified and defined.
Okay, so now Joe Public wants to buy a firearm to protect himself, his family, and his property from threatening elements, whatever or whoever they may be. Does he have the “right” to buy one? The NRA argues that any American citizen has the right to purchase, own, and utilize a firearm to service the criteria supportive of the “right.” This would be an example of a “legal right,” and because legal rights can be adjusted by people, it opens the door for further review of for whom and under what conditions the “right” to own a firearm exists. The NRA’s position is void of any controls over obtaining a firearm. The NRA is attempting to establish firearm ownership as a “natural right.” This cannot be sustained under the definitions as provided.
Does the NRA’s position suggest there are no “controls” already in place, both at the state and national levels? On the contrary, each state has is own interpretation of the “right.” Here again, this is an example of the subjective nature of a legal right as opposed to a natural or inalienable right. Compare California to Wyoming if you want an illustration of the subjective differences between legal rights as presented by two states. The assumption by many people who demand gun control in effect reflects trepidation at the NRA’s “no control” position. This is an example of informational ignorance and/or misinformation circulated by those who prefer elimination of all firearms.
So what does Joe experience here in Utah? He has to have a valid state-issued ID. He chooses a weapon to his liking, The clerk calls the state agency responsible for clearance. The state clerk reviews all records pertaining to Joe’s history in Utah and finds no infractions that would keep Joe from owning a legitimately obtained firearm under current law. The state clerk informs the store clerk, Joe pays for the firearm and probably buys some ammo and a holster if it’s a pistol, and he happily goes somewhere to shoot it. The point here is that controls currently exist; however, the question of adequacy of those controls emerges almost immediately. For example, is Joe’s past history of anger management issues, alcoholism, road rage, problems with PTSD, etc. included in the state clerk’s review? Not if those behaviors occurred in some other state. I know of no mechanism that promotes cross-state sharing of this type of information. A criminal record from other states can be obtained, usually through the FBI. Potentially, then, Utah could issue a clear background check for an otherwise sketchy individual. Other states have no background checks at all and are examples of the NRA’s “no controls” position. Joe can slap his money on the counter and walk out with a firearm.
In my opinion, people with clear national backgrounds should be allowed to purchase firearms. In other words, there should be tighter controls but not elimination of the basic freedom as reflected in an applicable legal right. This would mean that people must conduct themselves in a responsible and socially acceptable fashion, because then follows the assumption that they will own and utilize firearms in a socially and acceptable fashion. This would include what I define and label as a “National Clearing Agency,” one that collects all records of each individual and then makes these available to any state agency performing a background check. If Joe has a nationally clear background, Joe’s freedom to arm himself is not abridged.
But this all begs the question: “What constitutes an unacceptable background or current personal conditions that might potentially invalidate the legal right?”
It might be useful to explore a few examples of what might constitute invalidating criteria. How about an older person living alone with modest means who is afraid of being burglarized and/or physically harmed in some way? This person in this hypothetical example cannot figure out how to balance his checkbook, frequently gets lost when driving around his community, and reacts with a somewhat blank stare when asked a complex questions. Should that person be allowed to own a dangerous weapon? In my opinion, no. An inability to monitor and control intentional behavior that threatens others abrogates the freedom to own a firearm. His safety would thus fall under the control of family members and/or an agency designed to do so.
Then there’s the returning veteran who is highly trained in weapon use, quite aware of a weapon’s destructive power, and likely has one or more in their possession. However, the Vet suffering from PTSD, the effects of which interfere with rational decision-making, should not be allowed to own or operate a firearm in the domestic scene. This is not an attack on the veteran; it is a recognition of the effects of PTSD on the individual.
Then there’s the angry spouse who takes out his or her troubles on the person they “love.” An inability to control emotions and their potential effects should also disqualify that person from gun ownership.
Then there’s the individual who is demonstrably sociopathic, or even psychopathic, who hates people or has invented instances of past hurtful treatment by others. A recurring example is the somewhat younger male who has been rejected by a desirable woman and takes out his angst on an audience of victimizable people — that is, those who are surprised in close quarters and unable to defend themselves adequately. This type of individual leaves a trail of behaviors leading up to the violent event that, if closely monitored, clearly indicate a potential for mayhem.
The point is to identify those who pose a danger to themselves and others and then restrict their ability to possess a firearm. To extend the point, the gun is not the problem; the problem is the individual who has the gun in his or her possession. The gun is inanimate and will do yeoman service as a paperweight until a person picks it up and operates it. Its functionality is dependent upon the person.
Finally, in my opinion, the NRA publishes tomes containing rampant hysteria, misinformation, hyperbole, and emotional diatribes geared to ramp up people’s fears in order to sustain their lobby influence in state and federal political arenas. As a result, in my opinion, the organization creates more problems than it solves.
Thus, I call for stricter controls, more effective and detailed background checks through a national agency designed and implemented for that purpose, and a movement away from the blanket rejection of guns. Accurate information and usage familiarity about firearms will go a long way to reduce ignorance about gun ownership in those who reject gun ownership entirely.
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