The Second Amendment: In Search of Modern Context

Many assertions have been forthcoming over the last decade or so as to what exactly is protected and what is prohibited under the Second Amendment.  On the one extreme, you have those who see any form of gun control as a form of tyranny that is prohibited under the idea that all individuals form the militia as a whole and therefore individually have the right, even the responsibility, to bear arms.  On the other hand, you have those who believe that the urbanization of our population, and the consequent abandonment of standing militia at large in favor of hired police forces, has de facto dissolved the militia at large argument for gun ownership and resulted in the consequent abandonment of any individual gun rights.  While I tend to favor the idea that all who wish to own guns for protection are, de facto, members of a standing militia, I also do not own a gun.  There are several reasons for this, on which I might shed some light as I examine the modern context of the gun debate.

As I was driving home today, I happened to drive by the local police yard.  In it was a large van that I believe is equipped as a public relations vehicle that goes to various functions and allows the citizenry (especially children) to become familiar with a police vehicle.  It sometimes is accompanied to such functions by a swat vehicle and a squad car or two.  The slogan on the side of the van read, “Get to know us before you need us.”  This struck me as a direct inverse to the situation, as it is painted, in Ferguson, MO.   This pertains in a big way to the Second Amendment, because the general populace has ceded its militia responsibilities to the police force.  As such, it is not proper for the citizenry and the police to refer to the other as “us versus them”.  In reality, there should only be talk of “us”.  The police are, or should be, an extension of the local citizenry.

As I see it, there are two reasons for a failure in such cases as the alleged disconnect in places like Ferguson.  And both of them have to do with the failure of the citizenry to be the militia at large.  The first stems from the fact the neighborhood has neither the ability nor the desire to comport itself as a law-abiding society.  This, unfortunately, is often the plight of cities, especially those where turnover of residents is great and knowledge of one’s neighbors is sketchy at best.  This has been further exacerbated by the rise of the internet, texting, and social networking that allow us to shut ourselves off from our actual surrounding in favor of our virtual communities.  The result is the lack of community that checks our selfish, do-what-I-want attitudes with more community-oriented mores.  The “live and let live” attitude that has resulted means that no one cares to mind the neighborhood and have any responsibility for it.  Here it is assumed that the problems are not great and that the police have everything well in hand.  Or, if they don’t, at least no one knows me so no one will bother me.  Locks and shades protect a virtual world inside the little prison cell.

In the case of Ferguson, though, more likely it was not so much a case of a neighborhood of strangers as it was a police force of strangers.  Many attempts to have the community effectively police itself were thwarted by the fact that there were not enough local citizens who were either interested in or qualified to develop a locally-staffed police force.  So outsiders were needed.  The alternative in this case would have been to let the community degrade into an anarchic war zone.   Tacitly or otherwise, all the citizens have consented that police from outside the community is preferable.  Unfortunately, such police have little knowledge of people they encounter in emergency situations.  As police are in harms way more often than not, they are going to assume that everyone they meet, with whom they have no personal contact, is a hostile combatant.  As such, when anyone makes a move that can be interpreted as aggressive, regardless of the actual intent, the policeman is going to respond according to his training, which is designed, much like a military soldier’s, for self-preservation.  In most cases, this involves the use of disabling or deadly force.

Regardless of whether the police are unfamiliar with the citizenry because the citizenry is transient or because the police force is hired in, the fact remains that they are overwhelmed.  It is not possible for the small, well-armed and well-trained militia to adequately police a neighborhood.  Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee, Wisconsin has become somewhat famous for pointing out this fact in public service announcements.  The police cannot be everywhere at once.  They need the help of the militia at large.  Chicago had such militia, in the form of parent groups that protected children to and from school, that were successful in the past.  (Why they were removed by the politico is the subject for another day) Other neighborhood watches have proven successful over the years.  But they have largely ceased to exist as we have become a more self-absorbed society.  The militia at large needs to be reactivated.  Bad guys carry guns and terrorize neighborhoods.  The antidote is for good guys to also carry guns and protect neighborhoods.  In a very real sense, guns in the hands of good people do very little good if the good people who own them aren’t organized and effective at using them to deter the bad people.  The is why the Second Amendment speaks of a “well regulated militia.”  Just having a rusty gun locked in a back room isn’t well-regulated.

Perhaps you haven’t heard about the 12 year old girl in Montana who was a champion trap shooter and who, when three men tried to assault her in her own home, stopped one dead and sent the other two running.  Some people would claim that she shouldn’t be protected under the Constitution because she had a gun for sport, which has nothing to do with being a militia member.  But, when the enemy came knocking with lethal intent, she instantly became a militia member and did her duty.  While this was a more high-profile case, the fact is that many people who carry weapons have had to take it upon themselves to join the “posse comitatus”.  The actual meaning of this term is the emergency deputizing of a citizen into the police force, or, the militia at large.  Anyone who has used a gun to stop a criminal, literally an enemy of the people, has deputized him or herself at that moment in just such a way as the Second Amendment would intend.  It is interesting to note that, although guns can deliver a lethal blow, in most cases what they deliver is a message that the militia at large is active and that those who would do harm to the citizenry had better think twice.

I do not own a gun.  There have been times in which I thought it might be a lot safer to own one.  And, I sometimes feel I have a responsibility to carry one in order to be able to protect others around me.  But the Travon Martin case also has a lot to teach those of us who would be part of the militia at large.  Having a gun creates the potential for using a gun with deadly force.  Having such ability creates a different aura for a person.  If I don’t have a gun, I am less likely to allow myself to be in situations where I would need one.  If I don’t have a gun, I am more likely to do my best to diffuse situations that could become violent or to leave before they become so.  If I don’t have a gun, my thinking is different.  I am more inclined to reach out to my local police officers, get to know them, keep them informed of potentially volatile situations.  If I have a gun, I might be more inclined to rely on my gun for safety.  Eventually, I will have a gun.  I was trained as a youngster to use fire arms.  But before I get that new concealed weapon, I need to be able to set aside the time to learn to use it correctly and accurately.  It may be that I’ll opt for a taser or mace instead.  Perhaps a broad range of weaponry.  Already I am armed with a personal flashlight large enough and bright enough to disable a potential shooter’s vision long enough to escape or to brain him with the “aircraft quality aluminum” casing.  “Well-regulated” is less about what weaponry you have and more about your ability to use it effectively.  And self-defense is not always about going on the offensive.  But sometimes it is.  Sometimes you can’t avoid the fight.  When that time comes, you need to be ready.

Gun ownership should be a right for all citizens.  But, all citizens also should understand and accept the responsibilities of such ownership.  It should go hand in hand with knowing your local law enforcement, knowing and being active in your community, doing you best to help others in the community foster a sense of responsibility to one’s neighbors.  Merely sticking one’s head in the sand and then whining when police seem to overstep their bounds or when gun rights are taken away is not going to cut it.  In that case, you are not worthy of the Constitution of the United States of America or the republic whose law it defines.

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