As a physician concerned with health issues, I am impelled to examine the original conditions underlying our country’s current allowance of the widespread presence of firearms. Hopefully, this may provide better insight into our present dilemma.
After a lively debate in 1789, the final version of the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution read: “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” Its meaning has provoked more controversy in our own time than when it was originally adopted.
After the American Revolution, there was great concern about states’ rights; five states had even called for prohibition of a permanent standing federal army because of the perceived threat posed by a professional army under federal control. Thus the prevailing intent was to allay the fear that would have limited states’ rights. The armed forces that won the American Revolution actually consisted of a Continental Army that was formed by a conglomeration of state and regional militia units together with regular French armed forces. Allowing for a powerful U.S. federal force at that time was all too reminiscent of the recently defeated tyrannical forces of England
In United States v. Miller (1939), the Supreme Court seemed to have supported this collective concept by ruling that the federal government and the states could limit any weapon types not having a “reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.” By contrast, the more recent Supreme Court decision (Heller v. District of Columbia, 2008) found the right to bear arms an inherent and nearly unlimited individual right, which was clearly at odds with the founders’ original intentions that referred to a right of collective defense in the form of militias. Most scholars believe this right was to apply when the sanctions of society were breached by the violence of oppression, clearly a collective endeavor.
Now that our federal government controls a strong national defense force, bearing of arms is no longer a state or local responsibility, and the individual “right” to bear arms is, in reality, not really a right but a privilege to be granted individuals with permission of local jurisdictions, within broad and reasonable limits provided by the federal government. In reality, local militias are now passé, and individuals have no need to claim rights that were formerly accorded to defend against militant groups—be they Indians, foreign forces, or our own federal forces.
When the second amendment was introduced, the standard firearm was a musket that, under the most favorable conditions, could fire a single shot every 15 seconds for at least 4 minutes before usually slowing down because of fouling in the barrel—a method clearly inadequate for mowing down large numbers of unarmed people in packed assemblages. It thus seems clear that our founders—were they made aware of the devastating potential of modern rapid firing weapons such as assault rifles (AK 47) and their ilk—would have urged sensible limitations to this so-called individual “right” to bear arms. Obviously, the constitution requires constant reinterpretation in response to changing circumstances, as evidenced by abolition of slavery, school desegregation, and others too numerous to list.
More sensible control of firearms is a desire shared by the majority of our population that includes gun owners themselves. Thus all individuals should carefully monitor the preferences of our candidates for public office and vote accordingly, a vote that should also take into account the individual proclivities most likely to select future Supreme Court justices willing to reassess the control of firearms in a modern context.