March For Our Lives

Clear Gun Laws, Not Clear Backpacks

This post was inspired in part by Khal Spencer’s blog posts about the gun debate and in great part to yesterday’s March For Our Lives.

First, let me start off by saying that I’m a gun owner. There was even a time, several decades ago, when I joined the NRA. I thought it was dedicated to the principles of responsible gun ownership, proper training, and protection of the US Constitution.

But those perceptions were dashed long ago, and I’m ashamed to say that I ever wore the damn hat. The NRA has become a fringe group whose propaganda is far right of bizarre, and whose lobbying efforts are undermining our political system. As a gun owner and collector, I know how deadly these weapons are, and as a result I favor strong and responsible gun laws.

I’ll also say that the amazing thoughtfulness and strength of character of those teenagers who led the movement and the rally today in DC and across the United States brought this old man to tears. I love this country, and its Constitution, but I am also the father of a teenager. I want her to grow up in a safe society, whose laws actually make a lick of damn sense.

Now, the Second Amendment gives us certain rights, yes, but it certainly doesn’t say anything about a god given right to carry weapons anywhere we please. (That’s just the NRA’s view.) We were a frontier country when the Amendment was written, where a flintlock was necessary for survival. (And if not actual survival, we certainly had a real or imagined need, at various times, to shoot at the French, British, Native Americans, and bears.)

Just to be clear, this is what the Second Amendment actually says:

“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.”

That’s it. All of it. And no, there isn’t a word missing or a typo. The precise meaning has always been somewhat problematic, because of that first syntactically ambiguous phrase, which doesn’t clearly modify the second half of the sentence. So much for the Founding Fathers’ grammar.

Does it mean that we only have the right to bear arms if we are in a well-regulated militia? Or does it mean that the main purpose of our right to bear arms is to be prepared to be called up for the defense of our State? Or does it just mean that we have a right to bear arms that can’t be infringed, and the Militia phrase is entirely superfluous?

Insights as to the original purpose of the Second Amendment come from James Madison, who wrote in Federalist No. 46 that State and local militias could defend against a Federal army, if we ever had need to do so, so that We the People would never have to fear our own Federal government. (The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay and were used to ratify the US Constitution way back in the day.)

While many would reasonably argue that we have too many guns in America today, there were certainly times when an armed populace had some advantages. Japan’s Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto has been quoted (although there is some dispute as to the authenticity) as saying: “You cannot invade mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind each blade of grass.” Whether or not the Admiral actually said this is beside the point; what is true is that given our gun culture, the only people we really have to fear is ourselves.

Over the course of our history, the meaning and breadth of the Second Amendment has been fought in the courts time and again, and the interpretations have actually varied generation to generation. Sometimes the Supreme Court has upheld the right to bear arms, but most of the time they limited it. You can read about the landmark Supreme Court cases in Wikipedia’s article on the Second Amendment (sure, I prefer original sources, but this isn’t a research paper).

OK, so given that the Second Amendment is not a blanket right with no limits, let’s talk about what it should mean today, and what gun laws might make sense. No one (other than the NRA) questions the Constitutional validity of having some Federal, State, and local laws regulating gun ownership. As I stated, I am a gun owner, but I believe in well regulated gun ownership, just as the Amendment states. With gun ownership comes very grave responsibility.

As a resident of the great State of North Carolina, I had to get a permit to purchase my first pistol, which required me to submit to a background check, provide personal references, and sign a release that authorizes and requires any entity that has court orders concerning my mental health or capacity to be disclosed to the sheriff. After a two-week wait, assuming all is satisfactory, a permit can be issued. (The list of denied permits also becomes public record in North Carolina.)

Felons or anyone convicted of a crime which could lead to a sentence of one year or more are ineligible for a permit. If you are subsequently convicted of a crime, you lose your permit, which also has to be renewed every five years.

In order to get a Concealed Carry permit in North Carolina you have to be over 21, and go through a more rigorous procedure, which includes fingerprints, coursework, field instruction, and range testing. “The sheriff has forty-five (45) days from the time all application materials, to include receipt of mental health records, are received to either issue or deny a permit.” (N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14- 415.15(a))

I consider this a baseline starting point for the rest of the discussion. But first, notice that this only applies to pistols. To purchase an AR-15, which is considered a “long gun,” the rules are a bit more lax. That has to stop. If anything, the rules for purchasing an AR-15 need to be tighter than pistol permits. Anyone who owns one knows that these are 30-round per magazine killing machines, pure and simple.

Let’s start with a national background check database and a two-week wait. What, you can’t wait two weeks? Planning on shooting someone soon? And yes, I know that gun advocates will say that any kind of national “gun registry” comes dangerously close to giving up the very protection James Madison envisioned from our own Federal government. Get over it; we aren’t at war with our government (our President, maybe).

A National Registry and a two-week wait would have prevented some of these mass-shootings, but only if we actually shared data between law enforcement and all branches of the military (and if we are rigorous about actually entering the damn data; remember that the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooter got his firearms because the Air Force neglected to record the shooter’s domestic violence conviction).

And yes, there is some worry that if such a database were hacked, it would show thieves where the guns are. How ‘bout we work on cyber-security while we’re at it; I’m way more worried that the Russians have now hacked our nuclear reactors.

Look, we move around between states a lot easier than we did in James Madison’s day, and we need some consistency at least in background checks and data sharing among agencies (including the military). Plus, guns today are a lot more sophisticated than they used to be. An assault rifle or a semiautomatic pistol holding a 20-round magazine wasn’t what Madison envisioned. Get real, people, they carried muskets back then.

Yes, there are other restrictions worth considering. I won’t get into further details because I don’t honestly know which ones will work. Maybe we can come up with a few that won’t totally piss off the owner of my local gun shop, but will still infuriate the NRA. That would be a good trick.

What I’d really like to address are some root cause issues. First, we need adequate mental health coverage for all Americans; there is no reason why all states don’t expand Medicare. And before you jump to conclusions, let me state for the record that people who suffer mental health issues are not necessarily more likely to massacre innocent civilians. But mental health needs to be addressed in America regardless of the gun debate, so let’s get on it.

We especially need to provide equal and better education and opportunity to all of our kids, so they don’t grow up hopeless, disenfranchised, and angry. Let’s try to not enact truly inept laws and idiotic school policies that don’t protect our kids. Arming teachers is a really bad idea. Police are still struggling to get this one right; you want to arm teachers too? You think that filling schools with guns is a good idea? Have public schools become prisons? Is that going to improve our educational system?

Would happier, healthier, better-adjusted, better educated, and more hopeful Americans be less likely to go on shooting rampages? I can’t say for sure, but it sure seems a lot smarter than Broward County public schools superintendent Robert Runcie’s idea of forcing the kids to carry clear backpacks. That is not only moronic, it is also insulting to the kids.

Let’s not punish the victims. Let’s not mouth platitudes, ignore the real issues, and do nothing. Let’s invest in a better world for this amazing, inspiring, articulate generation of teenagers. A generation that has stopped looking to our generation for answers because we have proven ourselves, time and again, hopelessly inept. From what I saw at the March For Our Lives, this is a generation that may just show us what true leadership really means.

3 thoughts on “Clear Gun Laws, Not Clear Backpacks”

  1. It’s more poignant than that: have you heard the claim that “Toddlers killed more Americans than terrorists in 2015”? It’s true! (Positively fact-checked by Snopes, the leading fact-check source on the Internet.) Does that mean that with regard to guns, we are literally our own worst enemy?

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