Handguns, Long Guns, and the Second Amendment – a Supreme Court Decision on Meaning
“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.”
This is the second amendment. While it is not over embellished in the tortured bloom of legal English more reflective of its era, it has succumbed to the gray shades of our times and to the scrutiny of a more convoluted and complicated nation.
After considerable debate in the lower courts over a desire by the District of Columbia to institute a sweeping gun ban, the Supreme Court very recently decided to reopen discussion on the meaning of the second amendment. On November 20, 2007, Gun Owners of America issued a press release. “The decision by the Supreme Court to rule on the DC gun ban gives them an historic opportunity to return to the original meaning of the second amendment,” said Gun Owners of America’s Executive Director, Larry Pratt in the release.
But what is a reasonable definition of the arms we have a right to keep and to bear? The DC ban is a comprehensive look at guns in the home – inclusive of both handguns and long guns, such as shotguns and rifles. Long guns do not typically face the same scrutiny as handguns in most states, and this makes the DC ban more aggressive than prior firearm regulations.
It is reasonable to accept bans on certain arms. One can assume that rocket launchers and hand grenades – while arms that might be found in the arsenal of roaming post-apocalyptic militia – are not appropriate for the current American household. Additionally, it is commonly agreed that swords and switchblades are items that beg for confiscation. But handguns and long guns are different matters, and it has long been considered that the second amendment is speaking specifically to them.
The National Rifle Association has forever held that long guns satisfy two reasonable purposes – the right to defend the home and the freedom to hunt wildlife as permitted by law. These are modern amalgamations of the second amendment, as crime and leisure hunting were not on the minds of the Bill of Right’s authors; our founding fathers were more concerned with tyrannies and the potential for aggression from the warring imperialist nations then lurking in the world. However, this modern adaptation seems sound. Should a criminal kick in your door, there is nothing like the sound of a shotgun’s shlick-shlack as the shells slip into their chambers. The DC ban crossed this line and prompted the Supreme Court to take another look.
But what about handguns? According to the Violence Policy Center’s Handgun Ban Backgrounder, “Although handguns make up only 34% of firearms, approximately 80% of firearm homicides are committed with a handgun.” The original DC ban centered on handguns exclusively, as the city had wrestled anxiously with violent crime. A 2006 report from the Legal Community Against Violence, titled Regulating Guns in America, details the effectiveness of the DC handgun ban: “A 1991 study documented the effectiveness of Washington DC’s law banning handguns. Following the enactment of the ban in 1976, there was a 25% decline in homicides committed with firearms and a 23% decline in suicides committed with firearms within the District of Columbia. No similar reductions were observed in the number of homicides or suicides committed by other means, nor were there similar reductions in the adjacent metropolitan areas in Maryland and Virginia.”
The second amendment does not appear to have taken too much of our well-studied and violent present culture into account. Conceived in a time when plumbing had yet to be invented, how prescient can we now expect the Bill of Rights to be? Much of the famed document was written in reaction to a since-extinct monarchy – with an explicit desire to not repeat the ills of that monarchy. While the Supreme Court will have much to deliberate, (it would be a side-note curiosity to understand their definition of “militia” in these post-9/11 days), the second amendment may very well be showing its age.
As weapon technology advances, it seems reasonable to keep some of these deadly items out of the hands of the general population. Many in the anti-gun establishment are seeking compromises that constitute bans based on gun barrel lengths. The decision – for now – is in this generation’s Supreme Court.
Tags: Guns , Supreme Court , NRA , Second Amendment , DC , Bill Of Rights
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