June 22, 2018
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From Gouldsboro to Newtown: Time to reconsider the meaning of the Second Amendment

By Roger W. Bowen, Special to the BDN

Editor’s note: This OpEd was originally sent as a letter to Newtown First Selectperson E. Patricia Llodra. It does not represent the views of other Gouldsboro officials.

To write you a condolence letter, regrettably, only refreshes the memory of Newtown’s dreadful tragedy, but I take the liberty because the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre serves as a “teachable moment” for our own small town and many other small towns across the nation.

Two weeks ago, Gouldsboro’s select board spent a half hour discussing school safety, gun violence and the peculiar American culture that embraces firearms. I was distressed during our discussion when one of my colleagues defended his ownership of an assault rifle. He likes hunting — indeed, Maine is a hunter’s paradise — and believes an assault weapon is appropriate for hunting. I quipped upon hearing this, “Well, you must not be a very good shot,” making the point that high capacity magazines make sense only if your aim is poor. A lousy joke, I recognize, about a serious topic, but this topic’s very seriousness at this very sad juncture in our nation’s history seems the only way a proponent of gun control can make a point in an ongoing debate whose terms have largely been set by the National Rifle Association and Second Amendment absolutists.

I grant that his owning an assault rifle is his constitutional right as today’s jurists interpret the Second Amendment, even though the founding fathers, of course, had no inkling of the technological capacities of today’s firearms when penning the Second Amendment. If only they had described the right to bear arms in terms of what was then the state-of-the-art firearm — the muzzle loading, single shot musket. Had they done so, the Newtown tragedy might have been measurably less tragic, probably more like the similar attack of elementary school students in China on the same day as the Newtown massacre when a madman used a knife to harm 23 students but not causing any loss of life.

Mea culpa: I grew up learning to shoot guns — my father taught marksmanship to Army recruits during World War II — and today I own a gun that I use to kill porcupines, only porcupines. I shoot them with some regret, but justify the killings because porcupines girdle precious trees that would otherwise thrive next to my house located at the ocean’s edge — “Schoodic Pines,” jack pines, actually, that grow bonsai-like into nature’s incredibly twisted artistic creations that we prize more than we do porcupines.

At the risk of making a self-centered argument, I need to ask why shouldn’t every would-be gun owner have to justify the need for a gun before being allowed to purchase one (or two or three)? If such were the case, then each town would have to devise rules and regulations, the bane of Second Amendment absolutists, regulations that would be appropriate in light not of 18th century conditions but 21st century conditions. What would the Newtown gunman’s mother have said to town officials as justification when she applied to purchase an assault rifle and two high-powered handguns?

For those who argue that there should be no such regulations, I point out that Gouldsboro’s select board has final approval of applications by residents for a concealed weapons permit. (Why anyone in this very safe community needs a concealed weapon escapes me). Law enforcement officials vet all such applications before giving local town officials final say.

I’ve lived in Ireland, Canada and Japan for extended periods and in all three of these democracies, government imposes very strict standards for gun ownership, yet the citizens of all three democracies do not believe their rights have been unfairly restricted. Why is America so different? To answer “American exceptionalism” only begs the next question: Just how is America so different from other democracies? Infinitely more killings of people by individuals owning firearms is one answer; another is the astounding, estimated 300 million firearms privately owned by our fellow citizens. And, of course, there is our Constitution’s Second Amendment, whose meaning has been steadily challenged and interpreted by the courts, but generally producing outcomes that favor fairly unrestricted gun ownership, the most recent of which disallows urban areas such as Chicago (McDonald v. Chicago) and Washington, D.C. (District of Columbia v. Heller), from banning private ownership of firearms.

The Second Amendment opens with the clause “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state,” arguably refers in today’s context to the National Guard and U.S. military and local police. The second portion of the Second Amendment states an implicit “therefore,” adding “the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” One reasonable reading is that the members of contemporary “militias,” — trained and authorized keepers of the peace — should “keep and bear arms.” The entire Second Amendment makes perfect sense in the context of the revolutionary 18th Century when British rulers expected colonial Americans to meekly obey England’s dictates. But the second portion makes no sense in today’s America where, as one critic stated in the aftermath of the Newtown tragedy, it is easier to buy an assault weapon in America today than it is to get access to mental health professionals.

The problem with the standard interpretation of the Second Amendment today is that it is taken as a near-absolute right, a la the NRA, and that it treats gun ownership in high-density population areas, like much of Connecticut and urban New York, where hunting is not feasible, the same as in low-density population areas like Maine and Wyoming (or colonial America) where hunting is both possible and is a way of life. The absolutists’ and NRA’s reading of the Second Amendment, in brief, epitomizes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of “foolish consistency as the hobgoblin of little minds.”

It is time for the courts to exhibit “big minds” and to reconsider the meaning of the Second Amendment in light of the proliferation of high-powered, high-capacity assault guns, to allow federal law to ban ownership of them nationwide, and then authorize each community to set standards for gun ownership that it deems reasonable. A one-sized Second Amendment does not fit all situations — Gouldsboro, sparsely populated as it is in rural Maine, should not pass bans on hunting firearms, while Chicago and Washington, D.C., should be free to impose whatever restrictions their elected officials regard as prudent.

The tragedy occurring in Newtown has fortunately sparked serious debate about gun ownership in America, just as it has, unfortunately, sparked frenzied purchasing of assault rifles in gun stores across America. The meaning of Newtown’s tragedy ultimately should be clearly addressed by your town officials: They have both standing and a particular perspective that all Americans should learn about and then heed. And whatever federal laws that may be written in 2013 should bear the name “Newtown” in the legislation.

Roger W. Bowen is a selectman in Gouldsboro.

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