…In fact, it’s incredibly complicated, at least in the United States. Like it or not, wish it were true or not, we have a history of gun rights in the United States. The Second Amendment of the Constitution does not actually establish that right, but it makes its existence clear, and makes it unconstitutional to infringe that right. “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.”
This is not unlike the way that other rights were described in the Constitution. The First Amendment, for example: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Amendments aren’t what give the rights, the rights are implied to exist from somewhere else; something we, as humans, have, and the Amendments make it clear that the government shouldn’t get in the way of those rights. I think this is fair. Many have said that these are basic human rights, given to human beings by some Creator, but that doesn’t work for me. If these were things that all humans had, then gun ownership, free speech, ownership of property, all of them, they would exist globally. If they were given to humans by some Creator, some deity, then he, she, it was pretty selective when it came time to give them out…and he, she, it sure waited a long time to give them to some people. Frankly, I have trouble buying that story.
What fits better with how I see the world, No, these are things that some people, in some parts of the world have fought for. The people who fought for independence and sat down and fought about how our Nation should look, they decided that we had these rights and that these rights shouldn’t be taken away. They pointed to a Creator when talking about them and wrote this in our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…”
We’re already in pretty complicated territory, but I write this to convince anybody who cares that I accept that our Founding Fathers formed our government in a way that prohibited it from blocking our right to bear arms. This wasn’t true of all of them, by the way. Anybody, in pretty much any case, who pulls the “Founding Fathers believed…” line is oversimplifying things. The “Founding Fathers” were a pretty diverse group. There were guys like George Mason, who said, “To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” Others like Richard Henry Lee who seemed to frame it more about the militia and about all citizens being prepared to fight. “No free government was ever founded, or ever preserved its liberty, without uniting the characters of the citizen and soldier in those destined for the defense of the state.” George Washington seemed to take a similar view.
The idea of the Second Amendment was not shared by all of the States. I think this is important. It was not the “Founding Fathers,” it was some of the Founding Fathers. Some of the debate was semantic, but other parts of it were more substantive. Massachusetts and South Carolina did not include a keeping and bearing amendment or any amendment regarding a militia or standing army. New Hampshire included these things, as their twelfth amendment, and the language included an exception: “Congress shall never disarm any Citizen unless such as are or have been in Actual Rebellion.” Let them have their guns unless they rebel against the United States. So much for the argument that the Founding Fathers thought we needed guns so we could rebel if our Government got out of control…Of course that’s what some thought, but not all, so let’s stop talking about our “Founding Fathers” as if they all agreed on stuff.
But there is also no question that our society isn’t what it was when those wise men were trying to figure out a foundation of government that would create a lasting society. Fortunately, they provided a way to modify their framework for changing times, but that process is not (nor should it be) easy.
So where do we stand now? The United States leads the world in mass shootings and the United States ranks first in gun ownership per capita. This does not necessarily mean that ranking first in one made us rank first in the other, but that is something that seems fair to at least ask. But there’s the problem…we are prohibited from asking, at least in the way that we normally ask these kinds of questions. In the 1990s, government organizations such as the CDC funded academic research that asked questions related to guns, much in the way that biomedical research is funded today. Research from studies like these told us that families with guns had a higher risk of suicide, that a gun in the home is less likely to be used for self defense than it is to be used in an unintentional injury, and several other widely circulated findings. This kind of work was brought to an end, at least with the support of the CDC, in 1996 when a U.S. Representative from Arkansas Jay Dickey (R) added an amendment to that year’s spending bill (not to be confused with the other Dickey Amendment that banned the use of federal funds in research that used human embryonic tissues). The amended bill, that would be signed into law by President Clinton, said “Provided further, That none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” According to various reports from people at the CDC who had been involved in research of this type, it became unclear if any work showing that anything was wrong with guns at all could be viewed as promoting gun control, and the research died.
This, from where I sit, is the single largest problem that we as a nation face with respect to guns. I am driven by data. I want policy driven by evidence whenever possible. I recognize that sometimes we don’t have the time for that kind of process. But let’s at least try. Pro-gun-control groups advocate for stronger background checks, the NRA says that they won’t work…let’s let scientists try to figure this out. Groups like the NRA say that the real problem lies in mental health treatment. I think this is a misdirection, but let’s let scientists try to figure it out.
Last summer, while few were watching, the House Appropriations Committee voted 32-19 to keep the Dickey language in place (the report of the votes on this change is here, from the house appropriations committee website, on the 5th page, Roll Call No. 5). The vote was almost entirely party-line, with two democrats, Bishop (GA) and Cuellar (TX) siding with the republicans. This is unfortunate, very unfortunate. We cannot make informed decisions if we do not have information. I agree with the republicans on TV saying that we shouldn’t have knee-jerk reactions after a shooting. I agree that rational, measured, informed decisions are far better in the long run. But we CAN’T make those decisions without information, and the GOP members of the appropriations committee (and two democrats) have reaffirmed their commitment to preventing us from getting that information. That is very sad, and we should let them know how disappointed we are.