In May 1998, I was driving through east Texas. I pulled off at a restaurant to grab a bite to eat. I grabbed a newspaper to catch the headlines. I turned the folded paper over and received perhaps the biggest shock of my life. Mrs. Kinkel, my high school Spanish teacher in Springfield, Oregon, where I grew up, had been shot by her son, who then went over the town’s other high school, where he killed two students and wounded twenty-five. Today, the killing of two students by gun violence at a high school barely receives any attention. It takes a horrible massacre like Newtown to grab the nation’s attention about gun violence.
So I was more than a little dismayed to hear that Rep. Lisa Baldelli Hunt has invited a National Rifle Association lobbyist to hold “an informational briefing,” i.e. a meeting to shape gun policy, for Rhode Island legislators. Obviously any organization should have the right to make its opinion known, but the NRA holds power far beyond its membership numbers in modern politics, promoting the almost unfettered access to any weapon, no matter the potential for violence or the number of people who die from guns in this country.
Let’s take a step back and actually read the Second Amendment.
“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.”
What does that really mean? Like most of the Constitution, it’s not easy to articulate a clear answer. Applying a document written over 200 years ago to the modern United States creates difficulties. Our society has changed so much since 1787. So have the meanings of words. People interpret the Constitution to fit their own political beliefs, nowhere more so than the Second Amendment.
If you talk to gun advocates, they interpret the Second Amendment as reading “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” But that’s not the whole amendment. If every word in the document is sacred, then every word is indeed sacred. How does the “well regulated militia” affect how we should interpret the amendment? In my reading as a U.S. historian, the only clear right it grants to modern Americans is the ability of National Guard members (the equivalent to the state militias) to have a gun. That much is self-evident. More than that is quite open to interpretation.
There’s nothing in there about high-capacity magazines, military-style assault rifles, the numbers of guns one can own, the conditions in which they can and can’t own them (outside of militia members), etc. Americans have interpreted these laws differently over the centuries. There has not been a hard and fast understanding of gun rights in American history. At the very least though, there is clear precedent for significant gun control legislation under the Second Amendment.
In fact, the recent craze for uncontrolled gun legislation is really quite new. Up until the 1970s, the National Rifle Association was a group in favor of responsible gun ownership and had promoted a great deal of gun control legislation. In the 70s, it nearly left its Virginia headquarters to move to Colorado and work only on sportsman’s issues. During the 1960s, conservatives, including Ronald Reagan, were largely for restricting gun rights. Fearful of the Black Panthers carrying arms publicly, Reagan campaigned on gun control, telling reporters that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons.”But the 70s was also the decade of white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement and the growth of conservatism. Beginning in 1977, the NRA began using increasingly harsh language about crime and government threats to citizens to transform the organization into what it is today.
So what kind of an organization is Rep. Hunt bringing to Rhode Island to advise legislators on gun control. Until recently, the NRA had a Nixon-style “Enemies List” on its website that included politicians, entertainers, and media figures it considered not pro-gun enough. Rep. Hunt is a Democrat. Does she believe, like the NRA, that President Obama is an “elitist hypocrite?” Does she believe that we should placed armed guards in all of our schools, even though an armed guard was actually at the Columbine shooting in Colorado and was completely ineffective? Rep. Baldelli Hunt says she would need many questions answered before supporting a ban on military-style assault rifles. Why? Can anyone name one good reason why people should own these guns?
Since 26 people died at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, at least 2,309 Americans have died from gun violence, as of this writing. For comparison, 2753 people died on 9/11. We don’t have accurate statistics into the types of guns that killed these 2,309, but we do know that the U.S. has far and away the most gun deaths of any developed nation and we know that at least some of these people were killed by high-powered assault rifles.
What we need is for our legislators to listen to rational, responsible gun owner organizations that will help craft a reasonable policy for the people of Rhode Island. The National Rifle Association is not that rational, responsible gun owner organization. I hope the legislature ignores the NRA and passes gun control legislation that will help keep the citizens of this state alive.