The Constitution Doesn’t Begin and End with the Second Amendment

There used to be an old TV show called Kids Say the Darnedest Thing. Maybe we need a new show called Republicans in Congress Say the Strangest Things. One candidate for star of the show would be Illinois Tea Party Republican Joe Walsh. Besides owing more than $100,000 in back child support while railing about government spending, Walsh recently said that President Obama was elected because he is black. The guy is basically a camera hog who says ridiculous things every chance he gets, which is part of the reason he was selected one of the most corrupt members of congress–and he’s been on the job less than a year!

But Walsh set a new standard for himself when he recently bemoaned the fact that Illinois doesn’t allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. Walsh channeled disgraced former senate candidate Sharron “Second Amendment Remedies” Angle when he said this about the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution: “It protects every other amendment. It is the last line of defense between us and our government.”

So, let me get this straight. Walsh is saying that the Second Amendment gives American citizens the right to use their guns against their own government. I’ve heard that argument being made by gun-rights advocates over the years, and it has always sounded fishy to me. That doesn’t sound much like the Second Amendment that I learned about in high school civics class.

Here’s 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.”

Everyone agrees that owning a gun is a constitutionally protected right. But it’s something else completely to believe we have the right to threaten gun violence as protection against our own government. When you take the second amendment piece by piece, it doesn’t say anything remotely related to people protecting themselves from the American government.

First, at the time the Constitution was written, a “well regulated militia” was a citizen military force that could be called on by the government to protect the nation. (It wasn’t anything like the anti-government militia movement that we have today.) That’s what “being necessary to the security of a free State” means. “State” in this case means “government.” Militias didn’t protect the people from the government. The government mustered militias so that the government could protect citizens from a threat. The kind of professional standing army that we have today didn’t exist when our nation was founded, so the government relied on these militias the way we now rely on the United States Department of Defense to protect the country.

I’ve heard people say that the word “state” in the Second Amendment means that the states should be in charge of gun laws, not the federal government. But that’s a clear misreading of the text. The meaning of a word is determined primarily by the context it’s used in. “The State” in a government document such as the Constitution has always been clearly understood from the context to mean the government.

A similar mistake gun advocates sometimes make is to claim that the United States had no formal government at the time the Second Amendment was written, so “state” couldn’t refer to the government. Actually, our nation did already have a formal government when the Second Amendment was written. Our first “constitution” was the Articles of Confederation, written in 1777 and ratified in 1781. The Articles were our governing document until the founders realized their weaknesses and wrote the Constitution in 1787, which was then ratified in 1788. The Bill of Rights (containing the Second Amendment) was added in 1789 and fully ratified in 1791. So, yes, there certainly was a federal government (“the State”) when the Second Amendment was written.

Another confusion surrounds the phrase, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When the Second Amendment was written, the kind of “arms” available to average citizens were single-shot muskets. A constitutional literalist might rightly say that the Second Amendment guarantees that the government will not infringe on our rights to own single-shot muskets. I doubt even the most ardent gun-control advocate would object to every American’s right to own a single-shot musket.

Firearm technology has certainly changed since the founding of our nation. Even the most well-trained soldiers could only fire five shots per minute with a musket, and they were accurate only to about 50 yards. Today, assault and sniper rifles are within the price range of middle-class Americans, if they want to scrimp on going to movies or yearly family vacations. Some of these weapons can fire hundreds of rounds per minute and are accurate up to a mile. I doubt Thomas Jefferson and John Adams envisioned these kinds of “arms”–not to mention laser-sighted automatic pistols, hollow-point bullets, and shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile launchers.

In short, the weapons kept by the Branch Davidians at their Waco compound in 1993 were probably enough to win the Revolutionary War on their own. The Second Amendment wasn’t written with today’s guns in mind.

What about the technology of the future? It’s not hard to envision a day when bullets can be designed to penetrate steel and concrete walls or programmed to seek out their target’s DNA? Did the authors of the Second Amendment have these science fiction weapons in mind? Did they want to guarantee the rights of all Americans to own a DNA-seeking pistol that doubles as an MP3 player? Fifty years from now, I hope there won’t be someone as misguided as Representative Joe Walsh making that kind of claim.

Some people say that you can’t change the Constitution. Of course they are ignoring the fact that “amendment” actually means “change.” Our nation has “amended” the Constitution with 27 “amendments,” including the Second, which wasn’t even part of the original Constitution. Our nation has changed in many ways since its founding, and so has our Constitution. The Constitution denied women and non-property-owning men the right to vote and said black people were worth only three-fifths of a white person. Our highest laws on those issues have changed, so why can’t our laws about guns?

Gun advocates are also fond of claiming that guns are simply possessions, no different from TVs, cameras, or pants. They like to say that regulating guns makes no more sense than regulating any other possessions. Ban guns and we might as well ban garden rakes, they say. A person could maim or kill someone else with a garden rake, right? Or an axe, chain saw, car, steak knife, baseball bat, or cigarette lighter, right? Regulating or banning guns makes as much sense as regulating pants, gun advocates would say. Of course, this is a specious argument.

What gun advocates conveniently ignore is the fact that axes, steak knives, and cigarette lighters all have primary purposes that are far removed from inflicting deadly damage. They aren’t designed specifically to be deadly and are only deadly when misused. Used correctly, no one gets hurt. If axes and chain saws were banned, trees wouldn’t get cut. If garden rakes were banned, gardens wouldn’t get raked.

Here’s the difference between guns and other possessions: What gets limited when guns are regulated? The ability to inflict deadly damage on a target. Gardens still get raked. Steaks still get cut into bite-sized pieces. Cars still get driven to work and little league games. When guns are regulated, we just have less opportunity to shoot things, including each other.

The leadership of the National Rifle Association uses the Second Amendment to justify some extreme positions that even a large percentage of their own membership disagrees with. The NRA officially opposes even the most common-sense legislation, such as detailed background checks to keep the mentally ill and people with violent histories from buying guns or even making it illegal for people on the terrorist watch list to buy guns.

To show just how extreme the NRA leadership is on the issue of guns, take a look at the information sheet they sent to people before the 2008 election. The flyer carried the headline “Barack Obama’s 10 point Plan to “Change” the Second Amendment” and was deceptively designed to look like an official document from the Obama campaign, right down to the color scheme, O-shaped emblem, and the word “change” in huge print. The fictitious ten-point plan reads like the scrawlings of a mental patient, claiming that Obama plans to …

1. Ban the use of firearms for home self-defense.
2. Pass federal laws eliminating your right-to-carry.
3. Ban the manufacture, sale, and possession of handguns.
4. Close down 90 percent of the gun shops in America.
5. Ban rifle ammunition commonly used for hunting and sport shooting.
6. Increase federal taxes on guns and ammunition 500 percent.
7. Restore voting rights for five million criminals including those who have been convicted of using a gun to commit a violent crime.
8. Expand the Clinton semi-auto ban to include millions more firearms.
9. Mandate a government-issued license to purchase a firearm.
10. Appoint judges to the U.S. Supreme court and federal judiciary who share his views on the Second Amendment.

As predictions go, a score of zero percent isn’t going to get anyone from the NRA leadership a job with a psychic hotline. Even people in tinfoil hats who spend their days shouting about the end of the world on street corners would look at this list and say, “Dude, those people are nuts!”

Despite the ridiculous inaccuracy of their predictions, the NRA executives continue to promote a fantasy that the president is an anti-gun leftist loon. They even refuse to meet with the president to discuss gun policy. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, even recently claimed that President Obama has a secret plot to take everyone’s guns–a theory ridiculously based on the fact that he hasn’t yet done anything to take everyone’s guns. This kind of paranoia is simply extreme rhetoric not embraced by the mainstream of America–probably not even by the average American gun owner.

Other extremists on the issue of guns have also given a very bad name to gun owners in general. People have openly carried weapons to President Obama’s speeches. Will Bunch points out in his excellent book on the recent wave of right-wing radicalization in America, The Backlash, that the sale of guns and ammunition spiked when President Obama was elected even though he had proposed no restrictions on guns or ammo.

The pesky reality is that President Obama hasn’t been trying to take away gun rights. In fact, he signed a law that made it legal to carry guns in national parks and at national monuments–Fort Hunt Park, for example, where a pro-gun rally took place on April 19, 2010. Here’s an important fact to consider: Obama himself signed the law to make it legal for people to carry guns at that rally. These folks had some pretty crazy things to say (that the government is going to murder them for their beliefs, for example). One sign at the rally read, “Barry take our guns muzzle first.” Can those words and that sign be explained away with the Second Amendment? How do these people make any sense? How is their disturbed point of view patriotic? How is it even sane?

Here are two more questions I’ve been wondering about: If the Second Amendment is meant to keep citizens armed to protect themselves from their own government, then does that mean there should be an arms race between civilians and the government? If we have an arms race between civilians and the government, then does that mean we should be building nuclear bombs in our basements because the American government has a its own nuclear bombs?

Yes, I’m exaggerating to make a point–but it’s a good point. A citizen with even a thousand guns isn’t much of a deterrent against, for example, a military air strike. Does Joe Walsh really believe that if citizens in Illinois could simply carry a pistol under their jacket that they could defeat the United States military?

The right-wing of American politics seems to be as passionate about its support for gun rights as it is about its hatred of terrorism. But I’ve always wondered how people in right-wing anti-government militia groups of today (people who believe the American government is tyrannical, evil, and out to get them) are any different in philosophy from foreign terrorists who basically hold the same beliefs. And doesn’t calling the American government tyrannical and evil sound at least a little anti-American? The majority of these militia members are at best confused and paranoid–and without question overly influenced by right-wing media misinformation. Certainly people in this country have the First Amendment right to criticize their government. But with free speech also comes responsibility. When people with a microphone and an audience of millions spew hate and lies against elected officials in the American government, for example, I would definitely say that it’s anti-American to be that dishonest and irresponsible.

The anti-government message from the right-wing media has certainly inspired violence in recent years. Two clear examples are Byron Williams and Richard Poplawski. Williams injured two California police officers on his way to a planned attack on an office of the Tides Foundation because he was upset about progressive legislation being passed in congress. Poplawski shot and killed three police officers in Pittsburgh because he thought they were coming to take his guns on orders from President Obama. The right-wing media has legitimized the idea that the government is somehow evil, providing an ideological excuse for these people to act violently against whomever they think is trying to ruin the country. Of course, the ultimate responsibility for their crimes rests with Williams and Poplawski themselves. No one can argue against that. But both Williams and Poplawski admitted to being directly influenced by right-wing media. Don’t the Fox News and hate radio folks understand that they have a responsibility for what they say? Don’t they understand that their violent rhetoric falls on the ears of people who are mentally unstable and impressionable enough to believe their lies and act out violently?

The shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and several other people by Jared Loughner in January 2011 probably didn’t have direct connections to the right-wing anti-government ideology. In that case, the shooter was extremely mentally unstable and his exact motives aren’t likely to ever be known. But right-wing ideology led to the Republican controlled congress not renewing the assault weapons ban in 2004. That ban would have made the extended clip on Loughner’s pistol illegal. Of course, Loughner might have been able to obtain the extended clip even if it were illegal, but at least he would have had a harder time getting it, which may have been the difference between life and death for some of his shooting victims.

Speaking of assault weapons, I’ve often wondered if there is a single reason for an American citizen to own an assault weapon that doesn’t involve either criminal activity or paranoia? Anybody who goes hunting with an assault weapon really needs to run into a deer that knows how to operate a fully loaded bazooka. Some people will say assault weapons are needed for “self-protection,” but that sounds a lot like paranoia to me. Unless you’re a soldier or in law enforcement, if you live the kind of life that means you literally need an automatic rifle to protect yourself, there’s something wrong with your lifestyle.

Usually, gun owners tell me that they use assault rifles for competition, camaraderie, and enjoyment. Basically, they are saying that they like to use deadly killing machines as toys–real world video games. I have nothing against the enjoyment of automatic rifles. People enjoy lots of dangerous things. But doesn’t it make sense that something so dangerous and deadly as an automatic rifle should be very heavily regulated? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people had to jump through a few more legal and regulatory hoops to enjoy their hobby if that meant fewer people had access to these incredibly dangerous weapons? There are common-sense laws that could be enacted to keep these dangerous weapons primarily in the hands of people who use them reasonably and responsibly. Wouldn’t making their enjoyment a little more difficult be a reasonable trade off to keep fewer people from being killed with these weapons?

When it comes to people being reasonable and responsible, here’s another question: Who gets to decide that the American government is tyrannical, evil, and out to get them? There are people right now who say that President Obama is trying to destroy America. These people are absolutely wrong. They don’t have the right to decide to use their guns against the American government. When I hear people talk about how “the government” is ruining our country, I always remind them that the government built the roads they drive on, provided their education, protects them from criminals and foreign invasion, and sends them social security checks. All this “blame the government” crap I hear (much of which comes from people who often cite the Second Amendment as if it were the full extent of the Constitution) shows a real ignorance about what and who the government actually is.

Some extreme right-wingers these days think their disagreements with Obama give them the right to pull out their guns on the pretense of tyranny. In reality, they’re just too insecure to react responsibly to a president with whom they disagree. I disagreed with about ninety percent of the Bush administration’s actions, but I never once thought of using weapons against them. I also believe that my gay, lesbian, and transgendered friends should be allowed to legally marry just as I am. But I don’t believe I have the right to shoot the government officials who have made their marriages illegal in most states.

Speaking of issues related to sexual identity, it’s ironic that people who believe liberals are pushing a “homosexual agenda” down the throats of straight Americans have no problem with pushing their own “gun agenda” into every orifice of every other American. People debate about whether we are born with a “sexual identity” (my view, the liberal and well-informed view) or we choose a “sexual lifestyle” (the right-wing biased view). But is there anyone in America who would say that we are born with a “gun identity” as opposed to choosing a “gun lifestyle”? Only the most ignorant among us would believe our innate grasping ability exists because we are born to hold a gun.

Here’s a practical question: If armed citizens actually decide that the American government is tyrannical and evil, which government employees should they shoot first: soldiers, police officers, elected officials, judges, correction officers, public school teachers, veteran’s administration nurses, or interstate highway construction workers? I work at a community college, a branch of state government. In that sense, I’m part of the government. Would I be a target for anti-government shooters? As Rachel Maddow pointed out recently, Joe Walsh is an elected official of the government (although hopefully not beyond his present term). Does he believe that armed and confused Second Amendment enthusiasts would be within their rights to come after him, guns blazing?

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in a home that had several rifles in a closet right in our living room. My parents kept a pistol in their bedroom (although they never talked about it to my siblings and me), and my father taught me to shoot a rifle and took me hunting. Of course, he never once suggested that I turn my gone against the government of the country he fought to protect in WWII. I understand that guns are a part of American history, culture, and tradition. I’m not going to insult gun owners as somehow genetically inferior to me. As an adult, though, I have chosen not to own a gun. Isaiah 2:4 is one of my favorite Bible verses: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” But I understand it makes no sense to call for getting rid of all guns. Even if our nation had the will to melt down its guns to make farm implements, it’s just not possible. Guns are here to stay. You can’t unring that bell.

I confess, however, that I’m touchy about the subject of guns. There are two reasons. First, I’ve read a lot about far-right-wing militia types who have either done acts of violence with guns against innocent people with whom they disagree or who have been caught before they could carry out their murderous plans. The election of a black president perceived as trying to take people’s guns has led to a dangerous level of paranoia among these people that seems to be under the radar of our mainstream media. Our nation needs to do more to stop them. I dread the thought that what happened to Representative Giffords could happen to President Obama. That’s a moment in history I hope never to experience.

Second, an eight-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with an assault rifle at a gun show just a few miles from where I live in October 2008. There’s plenty of blame to go around in this tragedy (his father, the show organizers, etc.), and I recognize that accidents happen no matter how careful people are. But every time I see or read something about his death in the news, it’s hard not to think about the fact that an innocent little boy died a gruesome, stupid death and won’t have the chance to grow up because of an assault rifle.

I think the bottom line is that most gun owners and I want the same thing. We both want guns in the hands of responsible people and not in the hands of irresponsible, crazy, confused, ignorant, hateful, or criminal people. I just want us to find common ground to accomplish that goal. But when people like Representative Joe Walsh’s say things that totally misinterpret the Second Amendment, they force a wedge between people from all sides of the political spectrum who want to find reasonable common ground.

Representative Walsh’s comment about guns being “the last line of defense between us and our government” isn’t the strangest statement I’ve heard about guns recently. During a gun-control discussion, a gun-owning friend of mine said, “Hey, if you like your freedom, thank a gun owner.” I told him that no gun-owning citizen every protected my freedom from anyone. I told him that I often thank the government officials who actually do safeguard my freedom: military members and police officers.

The worst statement I read about guns was a Facebook post I saw not long ago that made me as angry as I’ve been in years. The words were credited to someone named D. Michael Wiechman, about whom I could find no information besides his frequently referenced quote:

“A man with a gun is a citizen; a man without a gun is a subject.”

That’s the biggest bunch of crap I’ve ever read in such a short sentence. So Jared Loughner, Byron Williams, and Richard Poplawski are citizens, but I’m not a citizen? Paranoid right-wing militias are full of citizens, but I’m not a citizen? Deadbeat dad Joe Walsh is a citizen, but I’m not a citizen?

Owning guns doesn’t make anybody a citizen. The United States Constitution makes us all citizens. Understanding that the Constitution doesn’t begin and end with Second Amendment is a lesson of citizenship that we all need to learn.


Also posted at Personal-Political.