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The Gun Problem: From What the 2nd Amend. Really Says through Who the Enemy of Gun Safety Really Is to Some Thoughts on

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"If this country doesn't kill racism, racism will kill this country." (Steven Jonas, Aug. 2018)


Although you wouldn't know it from the very limited response from that state's governor, Texas is currently leading the country in the outbreak of mass shootings. Which is a typical Repub. response to these recurring tragedies. Fortunately, not so for many other political leaders, who are focusing on gun violence, especially those mass shootings carried out with "military-style assault weapons." As every reader of OpEdNews knows we have been here before, over and over again, and over and over again. And as long as the Repubs. have their trigger fingers on at least one branch of the Federal government, nothing happens. There are several points that can be made in regard of both why the Repubs. do this and what could actually be done about the problem, of mass shootings, at least.

First let's deal with the matter of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, which, of course is always at the center of the Constitution, in re"My/their 2nd Amendment Rights." It reads, to wit:

"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."

So what does it really say? It is ambiguous in many ways, but for most of its history the Supreme Court has interpreted it to mean that it does NOT grant to every citizen an unlimited right to own one or more weapons of unspecified types. In fact, Former Chief Justice Burger, no weak-kneed radical he, had the following to say about the matter: "The idea that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of an individual to own a gun is a 'fraud.' "

It was Justice Scalia, in "Heller," writing for a 5-4 majority, who opened the door to the "unregulated private gun ownership" argument. Now it happens that Heller refers to guns in the home. But the gun industry front (more on that below), aided by the Repubs. who they fund in massive amounts, just ran away with what Scalia said. Both of course ignored the first two phrases of the 2nd, and pretend that its text begins with the words "the right."

Supreme Court Grave Diggers (updated with Kavanaugh).  What a happy bunch. On their way to burying democracy too.
Supreme Court Grave Diggers (updated with Kavanaugh). What a happy bunch. On their way to burying democracy too.
(Image by DonkeyHotey)
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Now, along with the late Justice Scalia, you might be surprised to know, I happen to be a big fan of strict constructionism when interpreting the Constitution. (Of course, Scalia honored that commitment only in the breach, as for example, reversing Supreme Court precedent in this particular matter. But that's another story.) The Amendment is somewhat ambiguous to be sure. But in reading its plain language, when taken as a whole, it is quite obvious that it can mean only one of two things. One, it provides a right to the people, in the protection of the free state, to form well-regulated militias. Or two, it provides to individuals the right to bear arms, in a well-regulated system for the protection of the free state.

But the NRA and it political allies have not read it that way. Thus so far, with the Repubs. having had substantial control of the Federal government, in one way or another, for many years now nothing has happened in the way of promoting gun safety and gun-ownership control. And the gun violence in this country continues unabated, not just in the matter of mass shootings, but also in the matter of gun deaths per se, in comparison with every other advanced capitalist country (which don't have lower incidences of mental illness, by the way). The number stands at around 40,000 per year . But in constructing some kind of long-range political-legal program to deal with the matter, here are several thoughts on the matter of what else might be added to the arguments for gun legislation that could actually work to reduce gun deaths.

Thus, even with Scalia's opinion in "Heller" the door was opened wide to interpreting the 2nd Amendment as sanctioning unlimited gun-ownership rights only by a mass advertising campaign run by the NRA and supported by countless Repub. politicians, including the present President. Neither the 2nd nor "Heller" says that. This should be emphasized.

Second, it has to be recognized by the gun control-regulation forces that the primary opponent to change is not the NRA. The NRA is only a front organization. The real opponents of gun safety/control legislation are the six major weapons industries: the rifle/long-gun/automatic weapons industry; the hand-gun industry (sometimes the same as the one just above; sometimes not); the gun ammunition industry; the gun dealers industry (wholesale and retail); the gun show industry; and the on-line gun-sales industry (which can be connected to all of the above, or not). It is to these segments of U.S. commerce, and in some cases the hedge-funds etc. that own them, all major funders of the Republican Party and Republican politicians, to which political, economic, and social pressure should be turned. Further, the point should be made that the primary reason that they want no gun-ownership restrictions of any kind is simply so that they can sell more guns, more ammunition, in more places, for more profit.

Third, few seem to notice that even under the broadest, pro-gun interpretation of the Second Amendment, gun ownership is already limited. Private parties cannot own, let's say, mounted machine guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers, artillery guns, mortars and anti-tank weapons. Or ground-to-air missiles. "Ooops! I was aiming at the black helicopter I'm sure I saw and happened to bring down an airliner with 300 passengers aboard. Sorry. I was simply operating within my Second Amendment rights." And then, what about the guns on tanks? Modern tanks have several guns, usually one fairly large cannon and one heavy machine gun, and they may as well have one anti-aircraft weapon. If the 2nd permits unlimited gun-ownership, why can't one have the guns that come with tanks?

Want a gun?  How about this one?
Want a gun? How about this one?
(Image by mrsdkrebs)
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Of course, then one would have to deal with the vehicular part of the tank. Would one need to register it and have a license in order to drive it? Does the 2nd prohibit any regulation of tank driving as well as tank-gun shooting? While according to the presumed NRA position on guns in common ownership and commonly used, there could be no liability from firing the cannon if no one were maimed or killed, but what about liability from running over someone while driving the tank? And would the owner have to pay for road damage? Tanks do tend to dig up pavements, donchaknow. Yes indeed. Tanks for the memories. So many questions, so few answers.

But the point here is, obviously, private ownership of many kinds of guns is already prohibited. This should be one of the principal arguments made in favor of once again prohibiting the private ownership of assault rifles and their relatives. And oh by the way, the former assault weapons ban did work [SJ1] to reduce deaths from such weapons.

Fourth and finally, in my view much more emphasis should be put on the licensing/registration/insurance set of proposals. Since private gun ownership (see just above) is already strictly limited as to types, there is no 2nd Amendment argument that could be raised to this one (even though the NRA and its Repub. allies would be screaming it from the roof-tops). Anyone could own a gun (except those who would be prohibited from doing so under a system of comprehensive background checks), other than the prohibited types like the ones listed above, just like anyone can own a car (except those who are prohibited from doing so for a variety of reasons, like so-and-so many drunk driving convictions). All persons would simply have to pass an exam on the usage of the kind of gun(s) they would like to own, (presumably after taking a gun-operation/safety course), meet minimum age-restrictions, meet certain criminal-record minimums, and be required to have liability/damage insurance.

Car insurance. Man!  What a new market there could be for the insurance industry!
Car insurance. Man! What a new market there could be for the insurance industry!
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In summary, first, if the ownership of certain kinds of guns can be prohibited, "under the 2nd Amendment," then the ownership of all kinds of guns can be prohibited "under the 2nd Amendment." Second, since the term "well-regulated" is in the Amendment, then gun ownership can be regulated, say by licensing, registration, and an insurance requirement. Third, the major source of funding for the NRA is the gun industry and its several components, which in turn are major funders of the Repubs. Forget about Wayne LaPierre and the NRA. It is against the industry and their owners/funders/profit-makers that the war should be principally be fought.

As I learned at the Yale School of Public Health oh so many years ago, politics and public health are intricately linked together. And this is all about public health that has to deal with a major epidemic and clinical medicine that has to deal with the wounded. As Dr. Rudolf Virchow, the 19th century German founder of the science of pathology, once said: "Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on a large scale" (Sigerist, H., Medicine and Human Welfare, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1941). That may be a bit of an overstatement, but to deal with the results of violence in our society, we must begin to take the fight against its facilitators to them, directly. Just remember: "Guns don't kill people; People with guns kill people."


This column is based in part on one I published some time ago on the original BuzzFlash: Dr. J.'s BF Commentary No. 145: "NRA: Tanks for the Memories"

Published on BuzzFlash on Tue, 06/15/2010:


(Article changed on September 8, 2019 at 02:41)

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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a ├ éČ┼"Trusted Author,├ éČ Ł he is a Senior (more...)
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