Firearms discussion in 3 parts: Straight talk
Part I: Getting Firearms “Off the Streets”
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan rightly said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” He might just have rightly said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to be confusing.”
The discussion of any matter of public policy is not aided by using language in a confusing manner, and yet people rather routinely do this very thing. One of the most confusing statements one hears regarding firearms policy is this: “We need to get guns off the streets.”
I have heard this statement many times for many years, and I still have absolutely no idea what that means. One might as well say, “We need to get purple zebras out of the trees.” There are (to my knowledge) no purple zebras, and there are no zebras of any color in the trees, so it simply would not make any sense to say, “We need to get purple zebras out of the trees.”
Now, I have been driving an automobile for about four decades, and I have seen many things in the streets: I have seen children’s toys left in the street. I have seen children themselves playing in the street. On windy days I have seen trash cans rolling around in the street. I have seen dogs, cats, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other animals in the streets.
But I have not once seen a firearm in the street. Firearms are not in our streets, and so it simply does not make sense to say we need to get them “off” the streets, since they are not on them in the first place.
So, when people say that we need to get firearms “off the streets,” what do they really mean? Well, they could mean a number of things — some of which I would agree with, some of which I would disagree with, and some of which I would be willing to consider.
I would agree with the expression if it meant this: “We need to do what we reasonably and constitutionally can to restrict the possession of firearms by those who will employ them violently.”
Yet, our current policies already address this; felons and those who have been adjudged mentally defective (and several other categories) are prohibited by law from possessing firearms, and I largely concur with such laws.
I would disagree with the expression if it meant: “We should prohibit absolutely all private ownership of firearms.”
Unfortunately, this is, in fact, what some people do mean by the expression; they simply have not the honesty and/or intellectual clarity to say so. Any policy that prohibited the private ownership of weapons absolutely would be unconstitutional and unwise.
As a third possibility, the expression could mean: “I would like to see the number of privately owned firearms in the United States reduced from 300 million to 250 million.” I would be willing to consider such a statement; and if a convincing case were made for it, I would be willing to agree to the policy.
But there can be little progress on the public-policy front if people insist on employing language that is non-sensical (language that simply does not make any sense if taken in a straightforward manner).
If people desire to eradicate entirely the right of citizens to own firearms, they should say so. If they wish (for whatever reasons) to reduce the total number of privately owned firearms, they should say so. And if they wish to try to prevent the private ownership of weapons by criminals or the mentally deranged, they should say that, too.
All three make sense; all three are clear; and all three could be discussed intelligently. Let’s start with honest language and then have an honest debate.
Part II: Firearms Buy-back Proposal
The debate over firearms includes a lot of confusing language and expressions. This is reflective of other forms of confusion in the debate, such as the common — but illogical — notion that reducing the number of firearms would have the effect of reducing their criminal use. Such an effect would not necessarily happen.
For the record, there are currently an estimated 250 to 300 million firearms in the country; nearly one for each of the 310 million people who live in the United States.
In 1978, I purchased a firearm, and it was the only firearm I owned for a number of years. I acquired some others, and at some point I probably owned 10 firearms. I committed no crime with one firearm, no crime with 10 firearms, and would not have committed a crime with 100 firearms.
On the other hand, if a violent or unstable individual had even a single firearm, he might likely commit a crime with it. So, the number of firearms privately owned in the United States does not, by itself, have anything to do with whether firearms are used to commit crime.
The moral character and psychological health of those who possess them has everything to do with whether they are inclined to commit crime.
Any policy designed to prevent evil or deranged people from possessing firearms is a well-intended policy — but any policy whose only effect would be to prevent harmless people from possessing them is unconstitutional, unproductive, and possibly even dangerous (since those individuals could no longer resist criminal acts with them).
I suspect that many people who are confused about increasing or decreasing the number of privately owned firearms are also confused about the language they use. They are probably the same people who talk about getting firearms “off the streets.”
While I believe it injures the discussion of public policy to be confusing, I do not object to cooperating in some ways with confused people, and so I would not object to the following proposal, as a concession to those who believe reducing the number of privately owned firearms would make us safer:
I would not object to a government-run, but privately funded, firearms buy-back program. If Mayor Bloomberg, Mrs. Brady, and others of their persuasion would sleep better at night if we reduced the total number of privately owned firearms in our nation, I would not object at all if they funded a government-run buy-back program.
If all the money they currently spend lobbying Congress were instead spent on a buy-back program, the number of privately owned weapons would be reduced, perhaps somewhat substantially. (Mayor Bloomberg could probably contribute $20-$30 million dollars to the project himself.)
As a taxpayer, I would not want a nickel of public monies to be expended on such a project, because I do not believe the number of privately owned weapons has anything at all to do with crime rates; but I would not object to other citizens, of their own volition, contributing voluntarily to such a program, nor would I object to the program enjoying the same tax advantages as charitable organizations enjoy.
If Mayor Bloomberg donated $20 million dollars to such a program, he should get the same tax deduction as he would if he gave the same amount to a church or to a synagogue.
Indeed, I am somewhat surprised that this proposal is not commonly discussed. On an issue where there appears to be little common ground, I believe substantial common ground could be found here. I doubt even the NRA would find the proposal objectionable; and I see no reason why Mayor Bloomberg (et al.) would object to such a project.
Wouldn’t those who say they believe that reducing the number of firearms would make us safer approve a program that would reduce the number? Indeed, wouldn’t such individuals prove the sincerity of their belief by contributing to it?
The only conceivable objection I could see to the proposal is that some people ordinarily prefer to achieve their ends with someone else’s money, but if the program were voluntary, I do not understand how or why they would object to it.
A voluntary, privately operated buy-back program is, it seems to me, a perfectly acceptable form of reducing the number of firearms.
Part III: “We Will Preserve Your 2nd Amendment Right to Hunt?”
One commonly recurring statement from gun-control forces, including in Congress and the White House, is the supposedly reassuring comment: “We will preserve your Second Amendment right to hunt.”
I will be generous here and assume that those who make such statements are prevaricating; it would be entirely too painful to believe that elected officials (or those who desire to become so) could be quite that ignorant.
The Second Amendment, after all, says nothing about hunting or about any other sporting uses for weapons. I would like to think that a junior high school student could easily write a paper on the matter and correctly conclude — on both textual and historical grounds — that the Second Amendment says nothing about hunting.
First, there is the textual issue: What does the amendment actually say? Does it say anything at all about hunting (or sporting uses for weapons)? Here is the text, in its entirety:
“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.”
Constitutional scholars remind us that the operative clause (“the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”) is essential to the force of the amendment, and that the justification or preambulatory clause or clauses (“well regulated militia ... security of a free state”) need not be regarded as comprehensive.
That is, the non-infringed-upon firearms might be used for purposes in addition to the two that are expressly mentioned. Perhaps such firearms could be used for home or personal defense (the Supreme Court has said so in Heller), and perhaps they could also be used for hunting (no American court or legislature has ever criminalized hunting per se).
Having said this, the justification or preambulatory clause also cannot be dismissed; at a minimum, non-infringement of the right to keep and bear arms expressly addresses a militia and the security of free states. That is, the Second Amendment says nothing expressly about killing game animals, and everything expressly about killing humans.
On the basis of the text alone, it is entirely gratuitous to suggest that the Second Amendment says anything at all about hunting; and those who say they will preserve our “Second Amendment right to hunt” may as well say they will preserve our “Second Amendment right to throw Frisbees.”
Frisbee-throwing may or may not be helpful to our society, and it may or may not be a matter that needs to be addressed via legislation; but the Second Amendment does not address Frisbee-throwing, and it does not address hunting. It also says nothing about trapping game animals. “Traps” are not mentioned; “arms” are.
On two historical grounds, a clever junior high school student would also conclude that the Second Amendment does not address hunting. The one is fairly obvious: The various colonies had just completed a successful military campaign against their own former monarch, George III of Great Britain. The colonies sent militias to General Washington to employ as he saw fit in that military endeavor.
The framers of the Constitution may have had middle-aged memories, but surely they could not possibly have forgotten that just several years earlier the term “militia” was employed to describe those who killed British soldiers, not game animals (British or native). Game animals were no threat to “the security of a free state,” but humans wearing red coats were.
The Second Amendment (like it or not) protects the right of the several colonies (now states) to employ firearms to preserve their liberty and security against human tyranny or human aggression.
The clever junior high school student might also address a second, less obvious historical matter: We today, in our largely urban and agri-business setting, might be pardoned for assuming that hunting was a common way of providing nourishment in the 18th century, and that (therefore) the Second Amendment preserved the right to provide nourishment via hunting.
But the clever junior high school student would remind us that hunting was not the primary or ordinary manner of providing for nourishment at that time. The colonies were not hunter-gatherer, nomadic cultures (though many of the Native American cultures were); the colonies were agrarian cultures. They planted crops and raised livestock; some also trapped, and some hunted.
Raising livestock is far more predictable than trapping, and trapping is far more predictable than hunting (the trap does not need to be awake and in the woods at night, dusk, or dawn; it works around-the-clock).
While some colonialists may have augmented their diet with game, none would have depended entirely on it, and few would have done more than the occasional supplement. Fishing nets, cultivated vegetables and grains, traps, chicken yards, and fenced-in grazing land were the ordinary methods of providing sustenance during the colonial era.
When people therefore pledge to “preserve” our Second Amendment “right to hunt,” our proper response is that we do not need nor have any right to hunt according to the Second Amendment; the Second Amendment preserves the right to kill aggressive or tyrannous humans.
If people desire truthfully to relate the Second Amendment to hunting, they should pledge to “invent a Second Amendment right to hunt” rather than to preserve one.
[Dr. T. David Gordon is a professor of religion at Grove City (Penn.) College and a contributing scholar with The Center for Vision & Values (www.visionandvalues.org).] © 2013 by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.