An American Right
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” (LII)
The preamble of the United States Constitution reveals what America’s founding fathers believed the sole purpose of this everlasting document is. Our founding fathers wanted to ensure that American government was run by the people of the United States and not by an authoritative leadership. In 1791, two years after America’s government began functioning under the Constitution, the Bill of Rights was added and ratified to the U.S. Constitution in order to ensure that the federal government did not infringe upon basic rights of the people. (“U.S.”) Included in the Bill of Rights is the Second Amendment, which says, “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.” (LII) The Second Amendment is currently one of the most highly debated amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
People argue over the true meaning of the Second Amendment, how it should be interpreted, as well as the effects of gun ownership on American society. The proper and legal interpretation of the Second Amendment is that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right of the people that shall not be infringed upon by the federal government or state governments. In addition, the right of individual gun ownership from the Second Amendment benefits and protects American society.
Historically, the Second Amendment was created because the “Founding generation” of the United States of America feared that governments would oppress their citizens through the use of soldiers. The founders believed that this fear could be mitigated by only allowing the government to create a standing army of fully paid troops in order to fight foreign adversaries. For responding to domestic emergencies, such as invasions, the government could rely on states militias. The ordinary people in militias were not paid, received part-time military training, and had to supply themselves with weapons. After the Revolutionary War, people realized that militias were not sufficient for national defense and an unexpected war did not allow enough time to raise a trained army. Due to this realization, at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, it was determined that the federal government should have unrestricted authority to maintain a standing army in times of peace as well as regulate militias. The Anti-Federalists opposed the determination because of the shift of power from the state governments to the federal government, which would prevent the states from defending themselves against an authoritative federal government. Federalists responded by saying that since American people were armed, the federal government would be unable to overpower their citizens using military force. In the end, the Anti-Federalists won, without any compromise, upon the ratification of the Second Amendment in 1791. The Second Amendment gave states the right to raise and maintain militias without intervention from the federal government. Although there was major debate about the power balance between the federal and state governments, the Second Amendment was generally accepted by most people because they agreed on the idea that “the federal government should not have the power to infringe the right of the people to keep and bear arms, any more than it should have the power to abridge the freedom of speech or prohibit the free exercise of religion.” (Lund)
Since the ratification of the Second Amendment in 1791, the debate has greatly shifted from a debate of state rights versus the power of federal government to a debate about the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment. Currently, people debate over whether our founders intended for the Second Amendment to be an individual right of the people or a collective right of the states to raise and maintain militias. People who argue in favor of the Second Amendment being a collective right of the states, claim that individual citizens no longer have the right to own firearms because the modern day police force and United States National Guard are modern day militias.
Two Supreme Court cases in the last fifteen years directly contradict the interpretation of the Second Amendment as a collective right. In 2008, a Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, analyzed the current debate in regards to the Second Amendment. District of Columbia Code made it illegal to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibited the registration of handguns, however the chief of police had the authority to administer one-year licenses for handguns. The Code also required lawful owners of registered firearms to keep the firearms unloaded and nonfunctional, by either disassembling the firearm or using a mechanism like a trigger lock, unless the firearms were in “a place of business or being used for legal recreational activities.” When a D.C. special police officer, Dick Heller, applied for a one-year license to keep a handgun in his home, the application was denied. The main question of this court case was whether or not the District of Columbia Code violates the Second Amendment. In a 5–4 decision, the Court decided the District of Columbia Code violates the Second Amendment. (“District”) In the majority opinion, delivered by Justice Antonin Scalia, he said:
“The Second Amendment is naturally divided into two parts: its prefatory clause and its operative clause. The former does not limit the latter grammatically, but rather announces a purpose. The Amendment could be rephrased, ‘Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’ ” (Holt)
Explaining why a right is necessary to protect prior to stating the right itself does not prevent the right from existing once the originating reason no longer applies. (Holt) Moreover, the word “militia” is not limited to people serving in the military because when the Second Amendment was created, the word referred to all men capable of serving. (“District”) The majority decision in District of Columbia v. Heller enforced the interpretation of the Second Amendment being an individual right of the people to keep and bear arms that the federal government could not infringe upon.
Since the District of Columbia is the federal government, and is therefore not the same legal equivalent of state governments, the 2010 Supreme Court Case McDonald v. Chicago had to determine whether or not the Second Amendment applied to state governments. The background of the case is that several lawsuits were filed against the gun ban imposed in Chicago, Illinois and Oak Park, Illinois after the Supreme Court made the decision on District of Columbia v. Heller. The Supreme Court had to decide whether or not the Second Amendment applies to the states by determining if the Second Amendment is incorporated by the Privileges and Immunities or Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. In another 5–4 decision the Supreme Court held that “the Fourteenth Amendment makes the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense applicable to the states.” The majority opinion, written by Justice A. Alito, says the rationale of the Court is that rights “ ‘fundamental to the Nation’s scheme of ordered liberty’ ” or “ ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ ” are applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, the Court decided that because of the decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense as being “ ‘fundamental’ ” and “ ‘deeply rooted’ ” the Second Amendment is applicable to both federal and state governments. Although the majority agreed that the Second Amendment is applicable to state governments, they were split on which clause, the Privileges and Immunities or Due Process, of the Fourteenth Amendment best incorporates the Second Amendment against the states. (“McDonald”) Either way this Supreme Court decision solidified the legal and proper interpretation of the Second Amendment as being an individual right of the people that the federal and state governments can not infringe upon, rather than a collective right of the states to raise and maintain militias.
Another aspect of the debate about the Second Amendment is the effects of interpreting the Second Amendment as allowing individuals the right to keep and bear arms. This debate is just as important, if not more important, than the legal debate over the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment. If statistics revealed that allowing individual citizens to keep and bear arms was more harmful to society than beneficial, then the Second Amendment would have to be repealed. This is based on the understanding that the foundation of United States Constitution is rooted in what is morally acceptable in a society. Therefore, if statistics revealed that individual ownership of firearms was detrimental to a society, then it would be immoral to interpret the Second Amendment as an individual right. However, it is clear that allowing individuals to own firearms is not detrimental to the United States of America.
In 2017, 39,773 people died by the use of a firearm in the United States. (Mervosh) Of those 39,773 deaths by firearm 63.5% were suicides, 1.4% were legal intervention, 1.7% were accidental, .8% were undetermined, and 32.6% were homicides. (“Gun”) Of the 39,773 gun deaths, 25,255 of them were suicides, which is a mental health problem. That leaves a remaining 14,518 gun deaths that were not intentionally self-inflicted. Of those 14,518 deaths 12,965 of them are homicides. Of those 12,965 homicides, 80% or 10,372 of them are due to gang violence, which is a cultural problem of inner cities (Dunn). Only 4,146 gun deaths remain, once deaths caused by suicides and gang violence are removed from the total number. Those 4,146 gun deaths are made up of legal intervention, accidents, and non-gang related homicides. The breakdown of gun deaths by category is crucial to understanding that most gun deaths are not due to the gun itself. Most gun deaths occur because of more deeply rooted cultural issues in America.
Of those remaining 4,146 deaths, some people believe mass shootings make up a large portion of those deaths in the United States. This is certainly fair to believe based on what the mainstream media portrays. 2010 FBI data shows that fewer than one percent of homicide victims in the United States were killed in mass shootings (incidents where four or more people were killed). (Matthews) Another argument is that America has a higher frequency of mass shootings and higher death rate from mass shootings than other country. When comparing the annual death rate per million people from mass public shootings in America to European countries and Canada from January 2009 to December 2015, America ranks eleventh on the list with a rate of .089. Norway is number one on the list with a 1.888 rate. Moreover, when comparing the frequency of mass public shootings in America to European countries and Canada from January 2009 to December 2015 America ranks twelth on the list with a rate of .078. Macedonia ranks number one with a rate of .471. (“UPDATED: Comparing”) America has a population of 326 million people of which own 393 million guns. (Carol) Considering America ranks below countries that have extremely less gun ownership in both statistics one cannot correlate gun ownership to the frequency or amount of deaths from mass shootings. Some people believe that mass shootings can be prevented by the implementation of gun free zones. This is not true, as a report published by the Crime Prevention and Research Center revealed that 92% of mass public shootings from January 2009 to July 2014 occurred in gun free zones. (Hawkins) This is a prime example of how gun laws are ineffective, and how disarming law-abiding people creates soft targets for people to commit evil and heinous acts.
Two statistics commonly mentioned are that firearms deaths in the United States continue to rise as well as the fact that there is correlation between guns death rates by state and gun ownership rates by state. These stats conflate two types of deaths, firearm homicides and firearm suicides. (Shapiro) Firearm suicides make up 63.5% of all gun deaths in the United States. (“Gun”) The number of firearm homicides in the U.S. has remained relatively constant for 15 years while the the amount of suicides by firearm has risen. Moreover, the rate of firearm homicide deaths per 100,000 people has dropped from 6.6 in 1981 to 3.6 in 2010 (Shapiro) A rise in firearm suicides is a mental illness issue, and not a conflict with how accessible firearms are to people. When looking at data of suicide rates per 100,000 people by country, America has a suicide rate of 10.1. There are a considerable amount of countries with higher suicide rates than America, one of which is Japan. Japan has a rate of 19.4 even though there are almost no guns owned in the country. (Shapiro) Suicides rates do not directly correlate with the number of firearms or accessibility to firearms in a country.
Not only is America not harmed by allowing individual citizens to own firearms, American citizens benefit from having the ability to protect themselves with firearms. According to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, guns are used in a defensive manner at least the same amount of times as in an offensive manner. It is estimated that there are 500,000 to 3,000,000 defensive uses of guns annually. The large gap in the statistic is due to the fact that defensive uses of firearms are not always reported properly because most of the time a person simply has to brandish a firearm to scare off the perpetrator. (StevenCrowder) Guns are also the equalizer between men and women. When either sex carries concealed handguns, murder rates decline, however women receive a much larger benefit. For each additional women that carries a concealed handgun, the murder rate of women decreases 3 to 4 times more than that of the murder rate of men when an additional man carries a concealed handgun. Minorities also receive a large benefit when legally carrying firearms. Law-abiding minorities in the areas with the highest crime rates have the largest reductions in crime when they are able to defend themselves with a firearm. (Lott)
It is up to the state governments to decide how easily people can recieve permits to carry a firearm. There are essentially two sets of laws that state government decide from, discretionary and non-discretionary gun carry laws. Discretionary gun carry laws allow the local law enforcement or a judge to grant permits on the basis of the person showing a “compelling need” for it. Non-discretionary gun carry laws simply mean that a person must meet the requirements, such as an age requirement, to receive a permit to carry a firearm. In 1992, violent crime rates were 81% higher in states with discretionary gun laws, and states that ban concealed carry entirely have 127% higher murder rates than states with the most liberal concealed-carry gun laws. From 1993 to 2007 twenty-one more states adopted non-discretionary gun carry laws. As of 2007, the gap for violent crime between states with discretionary and non-discretionary gun carry laws is only 25% and the gap for murder has shrunk to 28%. (Lott)
The legal and proper interpretation of the Second Amendment as allowing individual citizens to keep and bear arms, which shall not be infringed upon by the federal or state governments, is beneficial to the citizens of the United States of America. The two Supreme Court cases, District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, greatly reinforced this interpretation of the Second Amendment. Analysis of various sets of firearms data reveal that gun ownership is not correlative to things like the mainstream media leads people to believe. Although guns are used for harmful purposes in the many stories the mainstream media continues to broadcast, the gun itself is not the problem. Inner city gang violence and crime is a cultural problem, not a gun problem. Suicide by firearm and mass shootings is a mental health problem, not a gun problem. In order to fix these problems we need to go to the root cause of the cultural and mental health issues. Implementing stricter gun legislation, which prevents law abiding citizens from defending themselves, simply misleads people into believing we are solving these issues. The unfortunate reality is we do not live in a utopia where evil people do not exist. Combating evil by forcing law abiding citizens to surrender their ability to defend themselves is inherently evil and immoral. People can be and have the right to be prepared to combat evil. Owning a firearm is similar to owning a fire extinguisher, you have it in case of an emergency, but you hope you never have to use it.
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