By RALPH E. SHAFFER
If the issue weren’t so serious, the unwavering response by the gun lobby to the tragic massacres in this country during the past year could be dismissed as the mouthing of a fringe element. Unfortunately, passion as much as logic will determine whether the United States remains the murder capital of the world or joins those rational, democratic nations that have placed gun ownership under strict controls. Despite the heartfelt reaction of Americans everywhere to the Sandy Hook tragedy, the real passion on this issue is exhibited not by mothers and fathers but by gun owners, whose attachment to their weapons lingers even after death, clutching a gun in a “cold, dead hand.”
The gunaholics response to the horrors in Connecticut, Minnesota and Colorado is simple: more guns. After the unfathomable tragedy at Sandy Hook a National Rifle Association leader called for armed guards at every school. Not to be outdone, the one-time organizer of a Minuteman unit, California assemblyman Tim Donnelly, sponsored a bill that would encourage public schools to arm some staff, including teachers. In light of the subsequent shooting and kidnapping in Alabama, perhaps we also need guards riding shotgun on every school bus, or we should arm every kid.
Gun advocates were saddened, along with the rest of the nation, by the slaughter at the Aurora theater and the elementary school in Newtown. But it’s obvious that in their ranking of priorities, the right to bear arms trumps the right to be safe and secure in public places if that security is to come through tampering with the Second Amendment as they read it. And the way they read it is as though it were second on the list of God’s commandments, not the Bill of Rights.
But have they really read the Second Amendment? They quote a portion of it regularly, but omit the purpose for which it was drafted. “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.” The only part the gun owners are familiar with, or care about, is the last half of the amendment. Never mind that the right to gun ownership was justified by the Congress and the ratifying states as part of the need for a militia to provide security from enemies, foreign or domestic.
In eighteenth century America, the weapons needed to defend the country from a foreign power were not complicated. A farmer’s musket was not much less a weapon than the arms carried by British soldiers. In a nation without a large standing army, a nation that depended on citizen soldiers to rally to the country’s defense, it made sense to protect the right of gun ownership.
But the purpose of the Second Amendment was clearly stated: to provide a well regulated militia for the defense of a free state.
Early in the American Revolution, Virginia’s Patrick Henry urged “Let every man be armed.” But his call for an armed populace recognized the essential need for citizen soldiers in the war against Britain. Today, NRA members and their fellow travelers still quote Henry’s admonition. Each new report of a mass shooting brings forth the old saw that the only answer to bad people with guns is good people with guns. The recent wounding and death of police officers in Southern California suggests an equally inane but more appealing rejoinder: “No one gets shot when no one has guns.”
The death toll from firearms in America is already far, far too high. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision an even higher body count when everyone, including kids, packs a gun.
Gun lovers like to invoke that simple-minded aphorism: “Guns don’t kill people, people do.” But that slogan isn’t right, either. More accurately, “People with guns kill people.”
Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly (Calif.) Pomona.