Thursday, June 26, 2008

Supreme Court Rules on 2nd Amendment

In the first conclusive ruling on the meaning of the second amendment, the Supreme court ruled 5-4 that Americans have the right to own guns for self-defense and hunting, striking down a Washington DC ban on new handguns and requirement that allowed weapons be disassembled or equipped with trigger locks.

"Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that an individual right to bear arms is supported by ‘the historical narrative’ both before and after the Second Amendment was adopted. The Constitution does not permit ‘the absolute prohibition of handguns held and used for self-defense in the home,’ Scalia said. The court also struck down Washington's requirement that firearms be equipped with trigger locks or kept disassembled, but left intact the licensing of guns.

In a dissent he summarized from the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the majority ‘would have us believe that over 200 years ago, the Framers made a choice to limit the tools available to elected officials wishing to regulate civilian uses of weapons.’ He said such evidence ‘is nowhere to be found.’"

I can’t help wondering what part of "shall not be infringed" Stevens doesn’t understand. Of course the 2nd amendment sets such limits, the question has always been exactly where, and now the court has ruled. Personally, I think we are long overdue for a constitutional convention to revise some of our constitutional rights, and the 2nd amendment is high on that list. Wise as they were, it is unreasonable to think the founding fathers were capable of writing laws over 200 years ago, in an agrarian society with flint locks, slavery, and limited rights for women, that would well serve our modern society with cities congested with millions of people capable of carrying around machine guns, flame throwers, and the odd missile launcher. When the Founders wrote the 2nd amendment in 1791, the US population was ~4 million. New York City alone has twice that figure now. It is a new time and we need new laws to go with it.

We also need to get a grip on reality when it comes to weapons. We need to accept that, contrary to media representations, accidental deaths by gun are rare. Over half of gun deaths are suicides. The typical victim of a gun in America is not an innocent child, or a gang banger. It is a depressed, middle-aged man who decides his life should end, and tragically, often takes his wife with him against her will. Marriage counselors would save more lives than trigger locks, so let’s drop that foolishness from the equation. Let’s also remember that crime in the United States is actually pretty low, approximately 14 events per 1,000 citizens annually, and that includes all crimes, large and small. Gun violence is also highly concentrated within certain demographic groups in society, mainly young urban males with criminal records. This is true both of the shooters and their victims. When it comes to dying by gun, who one associates with matters far more than how many guns are present.

With all that in tow, we should have a new 2nd amendment, one that protects an individuals right to own a weapon for defense of family and property, but one that recognizes the limits of such a right. Crucial among those limits is the understanding that where ever one may brandish a weapon, there are likely to be many people in the area that are innocent of any wrongdoing. Any weapon owned by a citizen therefore must be capable of being successfully fired at, and only at, the justified criminal target. Thus, flame throwers, bazookas, and atomic bombs do not qualify. The new 2nd amendment should read something like this:

"The right of the people to defend life and property, with weapons capable of being fired at a specific, individual target, and without unreasonable risk of tangential damage to innocent persons or property, and the right to bear such weapons, shall not be infringed"

I'll step aside and let the lawyers have at it. Our other problems with gun violence can be better served through means other than depriving law-abiding citizens of their right to defend themselves, or to collect weapons, or to go hunting.


Luke H. said...

I agree that the 2nd amendment is outmoded and needs revision. I will concede the interpretation of the majority opinion, and that the DC law was poorly conceived and unconstitutional. Some of the arguments in the majority opinion, however, sound a lot like conservative talk-show reasoning, in that they spend a lot of time bashing the dissenting opinions without much substance.
Where the logic gets weakest is that Scalia admit that the right to bear arms is not an absolute right of possession of any type of weapon by any person in any circumstance, but they don't fully recognize the implications of that. If it is constitutional to ban RPGs but not handguns, then why is it unconstitutional to ban handguns but not shotguns and rifles? Where and how is the distinction to be drawn? The answer offered in the opinion is that handguns are the most popular defensive weapon. That seems an unsatisfactory criteria.

Anonymous said...

two words jury nullification , if you dont like a law, or don't believe in the case you are sitting thru jury duty on, vote not guilty, this is your greatest power and you do not have to explain yourself to no one for the way you vote. this will change laws faster than the system will!

Unknown said...

In 1755 Samuel John­son pub­lished the the “Webster’s dic­tio­nary” of the day.
It was the defini­tive dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish lan­guage at the time the US Constitution was written.
Under the word “arms” the 1755 def­i­n­i­tion was ” weapons of defense or armour of defense“
The definition of arms did not restrict the term to portable hand held weapons like mus­kets and swords, (as some revi­sion­ists who try to rein­ter­pret the sec­ond amend­ment claim)…but even included the most ter­ri­ble weapons of the day…the can­non.
Which means that Amer­i­cans are not lim­ited in what type of weapon they can own: a stinger mis­sile, a tank, a bazooka, a flame thrower. Any “weapon of defense” is fair game. Machine guns, hand grenades, RPG’s all are included in the sec­ond amend­ment. I would even go so far as to say that Americans even have the right to possess biological weapons.
Amer­i­cans have the right under the con­sti­tu­tion to unre­stricted access to any weapon that can be use in any pos­si­ble way in defense of the coun­try or the individual.
There are those, even some in the NRA, who would like to draw a distinction between a handgun and , say a bazooka, a missile or a suitcase nuke. But based to the second amendment and the definition of "arms" , Americans citizens have the right to own any weapon they wish.
No exceptions.

ScienceAvenger said...

Even if we accept your argument that the original intent included cannons, which I find somewhat tenuous, there's no logic in going from there to tanks and biological weapons. We do not have a constitutional right to kill innocent people, at least I've never read anything that suggested anyone did. I see nothing in the writings of the founding fathers that suggests they'd be so insane to think people should all individually possess the ability to destroy everyone else.