Not long ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the so-called “right to bear arms” amendment to the Constitution is in fact a guarantee of the individual’s right to arm himself. My first reaction to this ruling was that the justices shared a common malady: the inability to read and interpret dependent clauses; in this case, the first part of the Second Amendment, which reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State.”
How on Earth the leap was ever made from a collective right — the militia — to an individual’s right — the culprit in the recent grade school shooting in Connecticut — is, at first blush, mystifying. But when one considers that domestic policy regarding firearms is directed by the National Rifle Association, rather than Congress, everything becomes clear: The ghost of the late, addled Charlton Heston, aka Moses, is running the show.
School shootings having become almost as reminiscent of America as apple pie, and considering the inability of the citizenry — and the justices — to understand the meaning of the Second Amendment, the time has come to directly address the source of the controversy.
Why be coy? The Second Amendment should be repealed. Once it is gone, meaningful firearms legislation will finally be possible — converting gun possession from a right to a privilege, like a drivers license — and the NRA will be relegated to background noise, a hysterical mob with no constitutional basis for its oblique philosophy that the more firearms the better.
For an insight into what the Second Amendment really intended, it is instructive to refer to the Constitution’s predecessor — the short-lived Articles of Confederation. Take a look at the sixth amendment of that document, which, in part, reads:
“Every state shall always keep up a well-regulated and disciplined militia, sufficiently armed and accoutered, and shall provide and constantly have ready for use, in public stores … a proper quantity of arms, ammunition, and camp equipage.”
It is clear that when the Constitution was drafted, the Second Amendment was basically a contraction, or summary, of this lengthier passage in the Articles, but the emphasis on a militia remained. The National Guard is the militia, not the mass of the citizenry arming itself against the advent of a government invasion of their premises.
The case for an individual’s right to convert his home into an arsenal, and thereby ensure peace and tranquility in the land of the free, has often been based on comparisons with Canada and Switzerland, both of which enjoy widespread gun ownership and yet have strikingly low crime rates.
To me, this is not an apt comparison at all. Canada and Switzerland are not only populated by mature, well-educated adults — there are no Canadian or Swiss “birthers” demanding to know where their leaders were born — but there is a social safety net that makes them “we” cultures, rather than the “me” culture of the United States, a sort of free-for-all where “In God We Trust” is interpreted to mean, “Every man for himself.”
And so we have created a country where we would be better off being ignorant of the whole of the Constitution rather than conversant, more or less, with only one of its amendments, and actually only a piece of that amendment, its independent clause, which reads, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
This out-of-context fragment may be pleasant poetry to the American mind still obsessed with the idea of the frontier, and it may form a neat rallying cry for those who delight in arming themselves to the teeth — once again, in case the government invades them, in which case my money is on the military’s tanks, aircraft and precision-guided missiles, as opposed to the individual citizen’s M-16. But it is not what the Second Amendment says. Others, of course, feel that the meaning is debatable.
When in doubt, throw it out.
Robert Klose teaches at UMA-Bangor. He is the author of “The Three Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching” and is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association’s annual award for opinion writing.