The Second Amendment: A Re-Evaluation Based On New Technology

Posted in General by TBartine on April 7, 2010

After no small consideration, years of reflection, and ample research…I have been forced to accept that I may have finally identified a serious flaw in our ConstitutionI will explain.

The founding fathers’ foresight is OFTEN defended here.  I have spoken many times on the subject of the founding fathers, and about how often their philosophies are misrepresented.  These distortions are particularly inexplicable, and unforgivable, given the fact that the majority of our Constitution’s framers…wrote incessantly.  They wrote letters to family and friends with astonishing frequency.  They wrote published articles.  They wrote numerous treatises.  They wrote books.  And in so many of their writings and correspondence, they voiced their opinions regarding American laws, government, economy, politics, democracy, culture, diplomacy, religion, and freedoms.  I put together a summary of these positions in an earlier post, which may be found here.

The Constitution’s efficacy is OFTEN defended here.  A common falsehood, frequently addressed on this blog, revolves around the idea that the framers “neglected to address” a particular situation, or that they “couldn’t have anticipated” a specific, modern-day scenario.  People who utter such assertions are most likely completely unfamiliar with the document…because if they were, they would know the true genius of it: It is worded in such a way as to include/address/anticipate nearly all scenarios, modern-day or otherwise.  That is to say…those critics are either unfamiliar with the Constitution, or as recently evidenced, they are uncomfortable with what it dictates.

Case in point: Both the current administration and its successors have claimed that the Constitution and our current legal system do not provide a way to deal with terrorism suspects.  They used this as a rationale for detentions in Cuba and international “black sites,” as a justification for “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and as an excuse for our failure to provide detainees with legal counsel, speedy trials by jury, and the ability file writs of Habeas Corpus.  This of course…is patently and demonstrably false.  The Constitution is quite clear:  All people, even foreigners, even non-citizens, are entitled to a presumption of innocence, to legal representation, to Habeas Corpus, to speedy and impartial trials, to freedom from illegal searches, illegal surveillance, and illegal interrogation.  The truth is, that it is NOT that we had no system to address the accused…we just couldn’t bear to use the system that we had.  We could not bear to afford these individuals the rights they were guaranteed.  We could not bear the thought of them being exonerated, of them being back out on the streets.  So…we allowed the government to act as if a “new system” needed to be created…just for criminals we really hate, the ones who really scare us.

But let’s not kid ourselves: the framers constructed the Constitution using broad, inclusive strokes…and with the means to revise the document if required.  The fact that the document contains both an amendment enacting the prohibition of alcohol, as well as an amendment repealing the prohibition of alcohol, are a testament to the fact that revisions are possible.  In fact, the Constitution was designed to be so broad, so general, that many of the founders did not support the inclusion of a specific, delineated Bill of Rights.  The primary author of these rights, James Madison, was afraid that listing specific rights would lead to the misconception that people only had the ones that were listed…when this was not the intention of any of the framers.  In fact, many of the attendees of the Constitutional Convention fiercely opposed its inclusion, for these same reasons.  But they chose to add the Bill of Rights anyway, to safeguard those rights they saw as most essential, and they agreed on two very simple principles regarding freedoms:

1)  People (not just citizens, but all people) have all the rights listed, as well as any other rights NOT listed…as long as the activity in question is not specifically prohibited by law.

2)  Government, follows the opposite principle:  it has ONLY the rights and powers listed, those specifically granted to it, and none others.

This document, following these principles, has managed to effectively stand the test of time BECAUSE of its broad scope and avoidance of specifics.  When the authors chose to be specific, it most often reflected the problems they had faced in England, and in the strife-ridden early United States (remember: this was a time when there was war on America’s soil, and the country was full of British royalists, French loyalists, spies, rabble-rousers, and terrorists both foreign and domestic).  Reflect for a moment on the amendments which comprise the original Bill of Rights.  Now, what if I told you that in England (home of origin for most of the founding fathers) the government forced religious laws and fees on the people, the people had no say in their government which was dominated by the monarchy and the nobles, people could be forced to house and feed soldiers in their homes, their homes could be searched at any time, their property could be seized by the government at any time, people who spoke out against the government or the church were imprisoned (or executed) without a trial, being of a different faith could also get you imprisoned and/or executed, and taxes were onerous and most often serving the monarchy’s/nobles’ lavish lifestyles or constant foreign wars.  I hear the word “tyranny” thrown around casually these days.  What the founding fathers experienced in England was TYRANNY.  And looking at the tyranny they experienced…suddenly each and every one of the initial amendments in the Bill of Rights makes perfect sense.

AND…despite being quite specific, these amendments have stood the test of time along with the other mandates of the Constitutional Articles.  All of them….except one.

Technology, most obviously something the founders could not have anticipated, has rendered the Second Amendment pointless…and detrimental.

I know.  I’m in a bit of shock as well.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have three guns in my home.  I am a hunter.  I was once a card-carrying member of the NRA.  Trust me…this is not a stance I take lightly.  In order to fully understand why I have come to take this position, let’s consider the three arguments commonly employed to defend the need for the Second Amendment: Hunting, Defense of Home, Defense Against Tyranny.

HUNTING:  Many Americans mistakenly believe that the need to hunt and provide food through hunting, is the primary reason that the founding fathers included the Second Amendment.  While this was a practical consideration and was certainly taken into account, the paramount consideration of the framers resides in the “Defense Against Tyranny” section below…keep reading.  However, let’s examine the claim that Americans all need to have the right to own guns, so that they can hunt to provide food for themselves and their families.  Immediately, most of us realize that there is a fundamental problem with this claim: Almost nobody in America hunts as their primary source of food.  For the overwhelming majority of us…our sustenance comes in the form of “supermarket-purchased,” “convenience-packaged,” “mass market” foodstuffs.  BUT…what if the WORST happened?  A doomsday scenario…all supermarkets closed…we have to hunt to survive! Well, I’m sorry, but those people who haven’t been hunting already?  You’re in big trouble.  Hunting…is a skill.  If you haven’t been doing it already, it’s unlikely you’ll suddenly be able to support yourself with it.  Those of you with handguns?  Similarly out of luck.  Handguns are USELESS for hunting.  Most people can’t shoot the broad side of a Buick with a handgun, if they’re standing more than a mere 25 yards away with it.  And even if you own a rifle or shotgun, and are an experienced hunter, in this “doomsday” scenario…the Wall-Marts and gun shops are going to be gone, too.  Which means…finite supply of ammunition.  In other words: I hope you know how to fish and grow crops.  If we’re honest, few people currently hunt for food, few people could if they HAD to, and those that could…couldn’t do it for very long.  The technology of mass-produced and distributed food has rendered this requirement obsolete.

HOME (AND PERSONAL) DEFENSE:  Does it ever seem like we, as Americans, are more interested in “feeling safe” rather than “being safe?”  The argument that Americans require guns for home defense seems to support this delusion.  Most obvious problem first: You’re probably not going to be robbed.  Statistics show that we are disproportionately fearful of been robbed, given its relative unlikelihood of occurring.  Secondly, unless you are one of the rare individuals who carries their gun on them at all times, then that gun in the shoebox under your bed or in the glove compartment of your car… is certainly not going to help you when you are robbed walking down the street.  Third, if they rob your home…it is most likely going to be when you are NOT THERE.  That means, wait for it, they’ve now got your stuff AND your gun.  In the event that you are home when the robbers come to visit, and you have your gun at the ready…statistics show it will probably not do you much good (in fact, there are only about 200 cases of legally-justified self-defense shootings each year).  Unless you are highly trained, the muzzle flash in the darkness, the loud report in the enclosed space, and your frantic nerves combined with surging adrenalin…will conspire to make you blind and deaf, you will likely miss your target, and even if your don’t drop the gun there’s a chance that the robber will wrestle it away from your blind, deaf, panicked self.  Go ahead and keep telling yourself that you’ll calmly squeeze off three rounds, hitting them center-mass…I’m telling you it won’t happen like you’ve seen in the movies.

BRIEF PERSONAL ANECDOTE:  For a time, I lived in Memphis, Tennessee, in a house I shared with my girlfriend.  I had two handguns.  In midtown Memphis, it is difficult to find a “good neighborhood,” and it was not unusual to hear gunshots at night.  My girlfriend claimed that, should an intruder enter the house, she would use one of my guns to protect herself.  I begged her to instead use one of the three, large containers of pepper spray that I had placed in the kitchen, bedroom, and by the front door.  I feared that her use of the weapons would endanger her more likely than protect her, and as I worked the graveyard shift, I also had some concern that she might accidentally shoot me as I returned home from work.  She insisted that she knew how to use the weapons…so I took her to the outdoor gun range.  Having donned safety glasses and ear protection, she picked up the gun.  Her entire body started shaking like a leaf…she had not anticipated this physiological reaction.  She squeezed off a round, and promptly dropped the weapon, while simultaneously missing the target.  I had her try two more times with the same results.  I then pointed out to her that this was the middle of the day, outside, and with ear protection, while she is under no imminent  threat…and asked her to consider that in the middle of the night, in the dark, in the enclosed hallway, and with an intruder in the home…did she expect to perform any better? She vowed, wisely,  never to touch the handguns again.

Oh, and while your waiting in your home with your guns, for the robbery which, more than likely, will not occur…there’s another set of statistics that you should know about.  In homes with guns…you, your spouse, your children…are MANY times more likely to be killed by homicide, suicide, or by accident.  For ever ONE time that a gun is used successfully in self-defense…guns at home are used SEVEN TIMES to murder a family member (estimated 41% of which would not have occurred had a gun not been in the home).  For every ONE time that a gun is used successfully in self-defense…guns at home are used ELEVEN TIMES by a family member to commit suicide (estimated 94% of which would not have occurred if a gun had not been in the home).  For every ONE time that a gun is used successfully in self-defense…guns at home are the cause of FOUR accidental shootings of a family member (NONE of which would not have occurred if a gun had not been in the home).  If you’re a gambling person…you’ll observe quickly that those are pretty terrible odds, especially given the fact that the stakes are your life and the lives of your loved ones.

DEFENSE AGAINST TYRANNY:  Perhaps the strongest reason that the founding fathers wanted our right to bear arms protected, harkens back to their own experiences with authoritarian government.  In their time, a citizenry armed with muskets and organized into local militias could effectively make a stand against the new United States government…if it were to try to take away their freedoms, their votes, their protections.  The problem iswe no longer live in the time of the musket.  Now, only one in six Americans even own a gun…and for that matter, 10% of the population owns 77% of the guns in the country.  The guns they own?  Pistols, rifles, shotguns…none automatic.  The government…well, they have tanks, planes, rockets, missiles, drones, automatic weapons, and all other manner of sophisticated weapons, gear, and computerized systems.  No use belaboring this point, as it should be obvious to everyone: if the government of our country should turn tyrannical…armed rebellion is NOT going to be an option.  Indeed, military technology has succeeded in completely invalidating this rationale for the Second Amendment’s existence.

Certainly, there have been other areas of technological change that the founders could not have anticipated, take the internet for example.  But the creation of the internet, and its use, falls well under the general protections and restrictions regarding speech and commerce.  The difference here, with regard to food technology and military technology, is that the technological advances invalidate the justifications for a particular freedom, and create an unbalanced cost/benefit ratio.  I’m certain that the framers knew that a likely cost of allowing all people to own guns, would be increased rates of gun-related crime, and gun-related deaths.  But they likely found the benefits (hunting, home defense, defense against tyranny) to more than compensate for these costs.  But today, these benefits removed…only the costs remain, and they are high.  At the point that I am writing this, 28, 970 people in America have been shot this year…170 of them, today alone.

No, the founding fathers did not anticipate this…or did they?  Thomas Jefferson was clear: he never intended the Constitution to be “static,” but rather a “living document” that would change as America changed: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Obviously, many founders agreed, and for this reason they included Article V which explicitly states the steps to be taken to amend the Constitution.  They intentionally did not make this an easy process, so the document would not be changed based solely on popular whims, or passing political ideologies…but they did make it possible.

I grew up hunting.  I have always owned guns.  Perhaps I, like so many others, have always put “feeling safe” ahead of actually “being safe“…like the child refusing to give up his or her security blanket, despite having obtained the knowledge that it provides no real protection at all.  But…over time a country changes.  And…over time, a life changes.  This year, I married.  In June, I will become a father for the first time.  I will quit smoking, place safety covers on the outlets, and install safety locks on the cabinets.  When my daughter is older I will warn her of the dangers of peer pressure, strangers, sex, drugs and alcohol, and drunk driving.  How truly tragic, if I were to do all these things to protect her, only to lose her to one of my own guns.  My house will be shared with the two people I love most…and because it is more important to me that they actually “be safe,” I have to undergo my own “amendment process” and declare that guns will no longer be in my house.  Hopefully, the rest of the country will follow suit, realizing that the facts of the matter, the very real dangers to those we love, are more important than our long-standing delusions.