Jared Lee Loughner and the Second Amendment

Posted on January 12, 2011

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There are a whole host of arguments about the resons why Jared Lee Loughner decided to open fire on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona a few days ago, but all of them are talking around the real point, which is that of gun control.

To Britons the notion that Americans are free to own and carry firearms in most states is an alien concept and one which retards our opinion of the US are a forward-thinking, intelligent country. Some might say that it’s a difference of opinion wrought from our different circumstances: our nation, though its express ruler is also the ruler of the state’s Church of England, has avoided having an official religious line and also eschews guns; America, with its strident defence of no mixing of church and state, seemingly now has a more forthright religious bent and an unwavering focus on ‘the right to bear arms’.

Which is great, except that the often-cited Second Amendment of the US Constitution never actually was meant to be a defence of people being able to carry guns around with them. It’s simply been mangled that way as part of a 20th-century move by the NRA to allow more relaxed gun laws. Look at what the Second Amendment 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.”

The structure of the majority of the world’s writing – and the structure of that of the Constitution – is that the headline information comes first. Journalism answers the main questions (the who, what, when, where, why and how) first, then adds detail and colour to flesh out the original point. Originally it seems that the Second Amendment was drafted to allow the production of a “well regulated Militia” in an era when militas may well be needed to fight off any insurgency. “The right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is a qualifier of that first phrase; the members of the “well regulated Milita” have the right to bear arms so long as they are doing so in the fight against colonialists. It doesn’t mean that a priori US citizens have the right to bear arms for whatever reason they wish – the drafters of the Constitution purposely put in the reasoning behind their words precisely so that a troubled 22-year old couldn’t pick up a weapon from a shop with minimal security checking, place it beneath his clothing and then pull it out at an event of democracy in action.

The meaning has been misconstrued at best, and misappropriated at worst, and it’s resulted in an America where events like this are all too commonplace. In a very good article on the Constitution in this week’s New Yorker, Jill Lepore writes that “in an interview in 1991, the former Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”” It has been twisted to suit the aims of those who want to carry weapons, to the extent that Michael Holler, rewriting the convoluted syntax of the original Constitution into a more easily-accessible version (The Constitution Made Easy) has totally altered the order of the sentence. His version reads:

“The people have the right to own and carry firearms, and it may not be violated because a well-equipped Militia is necessary for a State to remain secure and free.”

As the New Yorker article explains, “Holler is an N.R.A.-certified handgun instructor who, in addition to offering courses on the Constitution, sells classes in how to obtain a concealed-handgun permit.”

It is this simplified version of the Constitution – the one which misses the warp and wend of the original text entirely, which allowed Loughner to gun down people this past weekend. And it is this misappropriation – or fraud, as Chief Justice Burger would have it – that needs to be counteracted to prevent these sorts of things happening again.

Do you disagree with this reading of the Constitution? Is Britain better for having tighter gun control laws? Let me know in the comments below.

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