Thoughts about Gun Control


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 01 November 2004 Updated: whenever

This is just an expression of opinion, as usual.

I'll make no claims that this is highly original thinking. Given the intensity and duration of the gun debate in this country, I'm not about to suggest that this contains anything particularly new and insightful. But it does let me express myself.


A. The 2nd Amendment

The Bill of Rights and, in particular, the 2nd Amendment makes the principal statement used to support the putative right to keep and bear arms. To quote from 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.

The 2nd Amendment Foundation has a website - they are one of numerous gun advocacy sites that can be found online.

Let me consider this statement from the 2nd Amendment of the Bill of Rights, point by point


1. Whose right to keep and bear arms?

How does one go from "a well-regulated militia" bearing arms to some sort of universal right to keep and bear arms? At, one finds the following definitions for militia:

  1. An army composed of ordinary citizens rather than professional soldiers.
  2. A military force that is not part of a regular army and is subject to call for service in an emergency.
  3. The whole body of physically fit civilians eligible by law for military service.

Consider these in order. All of them are rather open-ended.

Number 1 seems to be the most favorable to the notion of a universal right. By this definition, any ragtag group can call itself a militia, like the so-called militias that had ties to Timothy McVeigh and the bombing at Oklahoma City. These are surely not "well-regulated" however. Rather, they seem rather unregulated or, at most, regulated only by their own self-imposed regulations, and I think most reasonable people would find them to be rather closer to unregulated than well-regulated.

Number 2 also seems favorable to a universal right, as well. However, whether or not some self-organized group of citizens could be considered a "military force" is surely rather arguable, and again it surely does not meet the standard of being well-regulated. Moreoever, by whose order would such a group be called to serve in an emergency? It seems inappropriate for such a group to call themselves in whatever situation they deem to be an emergency requiring deadly force. If they could do the latter, then they are little more than an armed force, not a "military force". The home-grown western and midwestern "militias" seem more akin to a group of armed revolutionaries than to a well-regulated militia.

I think this second definition is clearly associated with the regular military Reserves and National Guard units. The guns they carry on duty are not their own. The Reserves and the National Guard are obviously well-regulated and they are called to action by elected civilian authories in times of emergency as deemed appropriate by those elected officials.

Number 3 also favors a broad based group of eligibles, seeming to permit all but the physically unfit to keep and bear arms. It seems to me that this definition of a militia should at the very least be broadened to include some sort of mental fitness test, and exclude convicted felons ... it might be argued, of course, that such are already not eligible for military service. This very broad definition of a militia would again fail the test of being "well-regulated" since there is no regulation of this group at all, save that its members be physically fit and eligible for military service. Note that even this very broad definition would also exclude people below the age of 18 and older than whatever the age limit might be for entrance into the military. Thus, people over, say, 55 years of age would not be covered by the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms if this definition of "militia" is used.

Of course, the gun lobby's interpretation of this phrase seems to equate "the people's right to keep and bear arms" with the maintenance of a "well-regulated militia". That is, we could not have a well-regulated militia, somehow, if everyone is not allowed to keep and bear arms. I can't pretend to know what the framers of the Bill of Rights had in mind when they wrote this Amendment, but I have serious doubts that they wanted everyone to have this right. Even by far the majority of the foaming-at-the-mouth gun rights people would prefer that children, mentally ill and/or incompetent people, and convicted felons not have unlimited access to guns. Hence, this seems to suggest that some sort of limits should be drawn and that some sort of basic tests of the fitness to keep and bear arms should be applied in the process of deciding who should be permitted to keep and bear arms. I have serious doubts that the authors of the Bill of Rights intended this to be as open-ended as the wording seems to suggest. And most rational gun-control opponents are willing to accept some restrictions on access to guns. The only substantive argument seems to be about deciding for whom access is to be denied or restricted.

Furthermore, the validity of the people's putative right to keep and bear arms vis-a-vis the ability to maintain a well-regulated militia is very different now than it was in the age of the framing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This whole rationale is flawed in today's world, compared to that of the 18th century in America. Defenders of the nation are not likely to be drawn from the ranks of ordinary untrained citizens, whose sole qualification to defend the nation would be their possession of guns, barring an overwhelming invasion of the US, as in the absurd movie, "Red Dawn" (based on a ludicrous premise at the time it was released and even sillier now that the Soviet Union has collapsed). Perhaps some minority of the gun lobby see themselves as heroes in a struggle to save the American way, but they obviously have delusions of grandeur.


2. Just what "Arms" do the people have a right to keep and bear?

At the time of the Bill of Rights, the black powder musket and the smoothbore cannon were the "weapons of mass destruction" of that age - back then, many soldiers were still being killed in battles at the point of a bayonet or by swords. It probably would have been considered something of a stretch to argue that even general citizens of that era would have had a completely unlimited right to keep an operating cannon in their possession, to say nothing of the practical limitations on owning a cannon. A cannon would probably have been deemed a weapon that only would be appropriate for the nation's military to keep and bear, except perhaps as a non-operating part of a collection or local display on the courthouse lawn. If the existing militia of that age had fully operational cannons, they surely were not their personal weapons, but stayed under the control of that truly well-regulated militia.

Today, we have many weapons that would be incomprehensible to the framers of the Bill of Rights. Is anyone seriously arguing that any ordinary citizen has a right to keep and bear a thermonuclear warhead-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile? Or a 155 mm field artillery piece? Or a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons? Or even a 50 caliber M2 Browning machine gun?

Thus, it seems to me that the 2nd Amendment is not some unlimited guarantee in this regard, either. The argument is not about the right to keep and bear "Arms" in general. There is surely nearly universal agreement that major weapons of mass destruction associated with purely military engagements ought to be prohibited from the general public's possession. Again, the argument seems to be about deciding which weapons are excluded from being allowed in anyone's hands outside of the military.


3. What constitutes infringement of the right?

The NRA and the gun lobby seem unalterably opposed to any sort of regulation on the personal right to keep and bear arms. It seems to me that having to demonstrate some level of fitness to own guns is not unreasonable, and that not every conceiveable weapon should be permitted without additional levels of restrictions. This doesn't infringe on the right, in my mind, for people to keep and bear arms. The paranoia of the cold war was replete with hypothetical bogeyman images of foreign troops invading American soil and rounding up the guns of its citizens by using gun registration rolls (as in "Red Dawn"). These notions, no doubt, still exist within the lunatic fringe - the so-called "survivalists" and the self-appointed "militias" some of who are about two steps away from being outright revolutionaries.. For rational people, these fears have to be balanced against the unending large death tolls associated with guns in this country. It seems to me that having someone shoot me is more clearly an infringement of my civil rights, than asking for gun control restrictions is an infringement of my right to keep and bear arms.

Most of the gun lobby's posturing and lobbying is not about the security of the nation, but rather is virtually all about the right of individuals. In many cases, the rights of society as a whole should trump the rights of individuals. No rational person argues for the right to shout "fire" in a crowned theater - when individual rights result in harm to other people, rational people can accept some reasonable restrictions on those rights.

In many other nations, the access to guns is more strongly limited than in the United States and those countries virtually all have much lower murder rates and fewer crimes commited using guns than in the U.S. Countries with fewer restrictions on gun ownership than even the United States, like Afghanistan, or Pakistan seem to me to be rather less secure as nations, not more secure than we. Regulations proposed here and typically defeated by the gun lobby in the U.S. have not been designed to eradicate gun ownership entirely, but rather to limit the access to those with demonstrable fitness to own guns, or to limit the types of weapons that can be owned. This does not constitute an infringement of the right to keep and bear arms in general.

I see no compelling reason for the general public to have free access to assault rifles, automatic weapons, artilllery, RPGs, bazookas and such like, as well as chemical and biological weapons, thermonuclear bombs, intecontinental missiles, etc. Any sane person would see no need to have these for sport shooting or self-defense. Some more restrictions on handguns are also clearly needed, in my opinion.


B. About sport shooting

Many of my friends over the years have owned rifles and handguns, and used them in various ways, notably sport shooting, which I will define as either target shooting or hunting.

I can understand some of the fascination with guns as machines. They are interesting from a technical standpoint and a well-designed and well-manufactured gun can indeed be a thing of beauty, especially when lavished with intricate decorations in limited editions. The manufacture and assembly of guns is a technical craft that involves considerable skill and fine craftmanship is a foundation upon which true artistry can be built.

I also understand the historical significance of guns and their role in society. Collecting guns in association with history seems quite reasonable and logical to me. I perhaps even understand why the guns in the collection should be fully functional, although that functionality need not be exercised for the collection to retain its historical value.

However, these sources of interest in guns have nothing to do with shooting, or perhaps only peripherally.

Target shooting is clearly something of a sport, since it involves physical skills as well as intense concentration. Those who excel at marksmanship have a long history of being honored in our society, perhaps even when not serving positive ends. I have no trouble undersanding and appreciating those skills. No human and no wild animal has to die in target shooting. It is indeed fun to test your skill and shoot at targets.

Hunting also involves skills, but I'm less willing to accept typical sport hunting with the same degree of understanding as other aspects of sport shooting. At one time in my life, when I was a pre-teenage boy, I killed wild animals with guns, mostly for fun. With time, however, I found myself increasingly repulsed by the notion of killing for its own sake. Whatever stalking and marksmanship skills are needed seemed much less important to me when the result was the death, sometimes notably unpleasant, of a wild creature. By the time I was well into my teens, I had chosen not to kill wild animals for fun ever again. I no longer understand or endorse the sort of blood lust that I had experienced as a pre-teen. My main regret is that wild animals had to die to purge me of that feeling for good. I simply fail to understand killling for fun, even though some of my friends seem to enjoy it.

If someone hunts wild animals for food out of economic or situational necessity, I have no problem with that. Killing to eat or to protect one's safety or way of life is both natural and not a problem for me. What I find repellent and disgusting is the sort of juvenile hunting that leads people to kill for the sake of a trophy on the wall or out of sheer blood lust. I do not understand the mentality of "There's a beautiful wild animal. Let's go kill it!"

Nor do I see any sport associated with sitting in a blind, luring in wild animals with food, chemical attractants, and/or decoys, and then shooting them at long range with a rifle or shotgun. This is not sport. It's murder. The sole determinant of life and death is marksmanship, which can legitimately be tested in other ways, without the need for killing. If hunters were to go after, say, lions or grizzly bears with a spear or a knife, that would be sport! A lion would have a serious chance of winning the contest, whereas ambushing that lion at long range with a high-powered rifle and then glorying over its corpse as if some major accomplishment had been achieved has nothing to do with sport, in my opinion. You could "hunt" animals with a camera and call upon most of the outdoor skills associated with hunting using a gun, but without the killing. Perhaps your marksmanship would be untested but skill at capturing a high-quality image with a camera is a simple substitute for skill with a gun.

Perhaps the ultimate sport hunting is war, because both sides have approximately equal chances in the contest, but no one sane would really consider war to be a sport - war is rightly viewed as a descent into a form of hell or insanity, where only those who have never participated in it see it as glorious or uplifting. Killing out of necessity is understandable, but only the irrational would call war a sport. Nevertheless, at least the victims have a fighting chance.


C. Self-defense

I can see some validity to owning guns for self-defense, but I have no paranoia about requiring that such weapons at least be restricted to those who are physically, mentally, and morally qualified to use self-defense as an argument.

This country has some odd, almost contradictory notions about the issue of self-defense, especially regarding intruders in homes. I'm not going to dispute the right to protect oneself from intruders, the great majority of which in this country are armed. Many criminals seem to be protected by laws that restrict the kind of responses people can offer when threatened by intruders in their homes. Whatever. If we didn't have so many guns, perhaps the criminals would be less inclined to be armed. Our crime rates don't suggest that the putative right to keep and bear arms has led to criminals being afraid to commit crimes. Far from it. It simply means that they are more than willing to acquire guns by any means possible, including stealing them from ordinary citizens (a cheap and ready supply source of guns for criminals). Looking at countries with restrictive gun laws shows us that criminals in those nations are much less likely to be armed. We can ratchet down the threat by being less threatening ourselves, and also reduce the dangers of having guns in the home - accidents and shootings during arguments. Having lots of guns simply raises the threat of deadly force from guns being applied in more situations.

Nowadays, with the possibility of guns in vehicles (perhaps justified in terms of self-defense), instances of road rage can end up with someone shot. This hasn't reduced the amount of road rage I see, however. I must admit that my own angry reactions at what other drivers do are often muted by the possibility that the target of my anger might well be armed. Perhaps I'm simply finding a reason to throttle my anger, which is usually a good idea, whatever armament other drivers might be carrying. But I believe that shooting incidents arise in traffic on a daily basis, which underscores my sense of concern that a gun carried in self-defense might well be used for something else in a moment of anger over some traffic incident. Having guns available means they are that much more likely to be used - or abused.


D. Stupid slogans by the gun lobby


1. When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns

This might be true, but this slogan has two major problems. First of all, not all gun control legislation is about the black and white issue of outlawing guns. Most of the actual gun control legislation is about limiting universal access to guns, not banning them totally. Second, it ignores the fact that if guns actually were outlawed, there would be a dramatic decrease in the total number of guns, and anyone with a gun would automatically be subject to prosecution. In the current lassaiz-faire environment promoted and created by the gun lobby, we have a lot of gun-associated deaths that are simply caused by the fact that guns are inherently dangerous. The fewer guns we have, the lower the death rate from guns is sure to be. I don't advocate outlawing guns, anyway - only making it harder to obtain guns, and some types of guns should be very hard for an ordinary citizen to obtain.

2. Guns don't kill people, people kill people

This is also mostly true, so far as it goes. But the fact is that societies with fewer guns have fewer gun-associated deaths (and injuries). And there are many accidental gun deaths every year where it clearly is the gun that killed someone, whether it was ultimately associated with carelessness or not. There is little doubt that the more guns there are, the more people die from guns. You can draw some pretty obvious conclusions from that, I think.

3. An armed society is a polite society

This is apparently based on the notion that if everyone is armed or can be assumed to be armed, then everyone is compelled to be polite to one another. I think the history of the lawless American west, when almost everyone carried guns, is hardly one characterized by politeness. When most people are armed, what you have is not a polite society. but an exceedingly violent one. The illusion of this slogan seems to be associated with the erroneous idea that violence and killing is a legitimate and useful way to solve problems. When killing is common, revenge and vendetta rule. Violence begets more violence in a downward spiral that's hard to stop. Just look at the civil war-wracked nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America - where guns are everywhere in those societies - and ask yourself if they are characterized by politeness.

4. You'll have my gun only when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers

This slogan, cited by a past NRA president (a certain movie actor), throws out the challenge that some gun advocates are willing to die before they'd be willing to give up their unlimited free access to guns of all sorts. This sort of rhetoric is disturbing, because it throws down a worrisome challenge. It seems these true "gun nuts" have to be killed before they'll give up their guns. Is this the sort of person you want to have a gun? Frankly, this rhetoric borders on just the sort of mental instability that ought to disqualify someone from owning a gun. People claiming that unlimited gun ownership is something to die for leave me worried about their sanity, especially since they're armed!