“There was so much to write. He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.” – Ernest Hemingway, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
“Junkies and alcoholics are interesting to watch for about five minutes, and then the tedium of their bottomless need, their self-aggrandizing defensiveness, sinks in, and you want to tun screaming for your life—because they’ll suck it out of you, given the chance.” – Hilton Als, “Down but Not Defeated”
“Editorial writers can seem the most insipid and helpless of the scribbling class: they sum up anonymously the ideas of their time, and truth and insipidity do a great deal of close dancing–the right thing to do is often hard but seldom surprising. Good editorial writing has less to do with winning an argument, since the other side is mostly not listening, than with telling the guys on your side how they ought to sound when they’re arguing.” — Adam Gopnik, “Facing History”
“When you have two people who love each other, are happy and gay and really good work is being done by one or both of them, people are drawn to them as surely as migrating birds are drawn at night to a powerful beacon. If the two people were as solidly constructed as the beacon there would be little damage except to the birds. Those who attract people by their happiness and their performance are usually inexperienced. They do not know how not to be overrun and how to go away. They do not always learn about the good, the attractive, the charming, the soon-beloved, the generous, the understanding rich who have no bad qualities and who give each day the quality of a festival and who, when they have passed and taken the nourishment they needed, leave everything deader than the roots of any grass Attila’s horses’ hooves have ever scoured.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
There is these days much discussion in the United States regarding the Second Amendment to the Constitution. The text of this amendment is short: “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.”
There has been much debate over the years as to how this sentence is to be interpreted. The debate is now very prominent. It is now, as it generally has been, characterized by passion, anger, accusation, fear, and often no small amount of confusion.
I don’t know what we, as a nation, are to do. In the wake of the Newtown, Clackamas, and Aurora and other shootings, and against the background of constant gun violence–I read the front page of the Chicago Tribune nearly every day and it seems that city is under siege from gun violence–it is clear that we must do something.
It is important that what we do is as right as we can make it. Some people would ban private ownership of firearms altogether. Others would find some way to “amend the Amendment.” Still others will tell you that they will accept no change and that you “can pry their firearms from their cold, dead hands.” Somehow all, or the significant majority of, these people must be brought together in agreement for any change in current law to succeed.
It may be significant that the Second Amendment does not specify what type of arms the people have the right to keep and bear; nor does it specify what keeping and bearing may mean. I’m not trying to split hairs here. The flexibility available in defining these terms may be the key that unlocks the troubling question of what are we to do now?
I am of a military background, was raised in Texas, and have been a gun-owner since my father bought me my first rifle when I was fourteen. I was an officer cadet through all four years of high school, qualified on what was then the U.S. Army’s regulation bolt-action, single-shot .22-caliber target rifle, and fired the M1911 pistol, M16 assault rifle, and M60 machine gun during advanced training. I note this to demonstrate that I have a certain acquaintance with and knowledge of firearms.
It is forbidden in the United States for private citizens to own most types of military weaponry, including the M16 and the M60. The firearm I currently own is a .22-caliber bolt-action, magazine-fed rifle. What this means is that it does not fire a bullet every time I pull its trigger. It has to be operated with two hands in a simple but specific manner in order to fire a bullet. It could conceivably be operated with one hand, but this would be slow and unwieldy.
My point is that there are types of firearms that the citizenry is currently allowed to keep, and types that we are not allowed to keep. Semi-automatic firearms, which fire a bullet every time their trigger is pulled until they run out of bullets, and which can be and often are fired single-handedly, have been used in all the mass slaughters and are used in most urban gun violence. They are a type of firearm that, within certain restrictions, private citizens are currently allowed to own and use. It may well be time for us as a nation to consider semi-automatic weapons to be weapons which possess a power which should be reserved to the state and not placed in the hands of private citizens.
Yesterday’s tragedy at Newtown is not the first time our nation has faced the horror of a mass shooting. It may not be the last. It can’t help but make any thoughtful person consider the role of firearms in society.
When considering what the Second Amendment meant or was intended to mean when it was written two-and-a-quarter centuries ago, and what it may still mean to us today and what its function in society could continue to be, it may be helpful to consider the ways in which firearms and society have changed over time.
A fundamental fact about firearms is that their origin is as weapons of war. They were not developed for hunting. They were not developed for sport. Their original role was not for use by homeowners in protecting their families and property against criminals. They were not invented, refined, improved, and made more and more deadly and easy to use so that citizens could employ them in militias from the well-ordered to the little more than rabble. They were not for the people to protect themselves against the state. They were for people under orders to kill other people at the behest of governmental authority–one king’s soldiers shot at another king’s soldiers in order to kill them.
By the time of the adoption of the Second Amendment, firearms had reached a certain level of development. They were single-shot weapons. What they fired were not bullets as we now know them. The vast majority of firearms at that time were what is known as smooth-bore muskets. They fired balls of lead of about a half-inch in diameter. They were wildly inaccurate at ranges greater than fifty yards. And they did not fire quickly. The most skilled, experienced, well-trained musketeers–who were almost invariably soldiers or men who had received military training–would be hard-pressed to fire even four shots per minute. Rifled muskets–the ancestors of today’s rifles–existed, were highly accurate at ranges of 400 yards or more, but were difficult to load. A rifleman might be able to fire two shots every three minutes if he were competent in using his weapon.
Nowadays, due to the pressures of weapons development among nations, firearms are significantly more powerful and accurate than they were two-and-a-quarter centuries ago. Only hobbyists any longer fire smooth-bore single-shot firearms. Pistols and rifles–including assault rifles and machine guns–are all capable of firing bullets at high velocity accurately at long distances. Furthermore, firearms nowadays routinely are capable of firing ten or twenty or more bullets rapidly before needing to be reloaded.
As for the militia, the nature of that has also changed significantly since the adoption of the Second Amendment. The Founding Fathers would probably not recognize our National Guard as being what they meant by a militia, though our National Guard is descended and derived from the militias referred to in the amendment. The militias essentially ceased to exist in the wake of the Civil War of a century-and-a-half ago.
A large part of what the Founding Fathers intended in the Second Amendment was for the people to be able to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. I myself own a rifle because I believe in the wisdom of this interpretation of the amendment, and I believe it my duty as a citizen to own a rifle and know how to use it. But I know that the instances of an armed populace successfully revolting against a central government absent that government’s own regular military forces fracturing and assisting the rebels, as we are seeing happen in Syria now, are extremely rare. And I know that the American military possesses weapons of fearful devastation that make my rifle look like little more than a foolish gesture.
The Second Amendment as it is currently interpreted is a dangerous anachronism. Whatever the solution to the problem it presents our society is to be, it should be clear at this point that a solution needs to be found.