Guns–A Meditation

Once again, Americans are talking about guns in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy. There is little I can add to the outpouring of conflicting opinions, but after digesting a fair number of them, and for what it may be worth, I will share my perspective.

Bear with me.

  • There are 300 million guns in this country. We aren’t going to get rid of them–couldn’t if we tried. Furthermore, the vast majority of gun owners are responsible people–hunters, sportsmen, people hoping to protect their homes. It’s true that a significant number of the 30,000 plus gun deaths in America each year involve those responsible owners: suicides, domestic abuse, children accidentally shooting themselves or others. These deaths are tragic, but I’d draw an analogy to highway deaths–we don’t ban or confiscate cars because they can be lethal.
  • If we continue with the car analogy, however, there are lessons to be learned. We don’t let just anyone drive; in order to get a license you must pass a test. Your license can be revoked if you repeatedly break the rules. Academics study traffic deaths and issue recommendations for making our roadways safer–and legislatures, by and large, take those recommendations seriously. With guns, Congress has prohibited government from funding research on gun violence, and state lawmakers are constantly attacking and rolling back even the most reasonable firearm regulations. Congress even refused to pass a measure that would have prohibited individuals on the no-fly list–people with demonstrable connections to ISIS–from owning guns.
  • The history and interpretation of the Second Amendment has been twisted beyond recognition. If self-proclaimed “originalists” are really interested in the original meaning of the Amendment (I have my doubts), they might find this explanation by former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens edifying.
  • Stevens entire explanation should be read for a full understanding of the history of the Second Amendment and Supreme Court cases interpreting it, but a couple of paragraphs are illuminating.

For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment, federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated Militia.”…During the years when Warren Burger was chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything….

Thus, Congress’s failure to enact laws that would expand the use of background checks and limit the availability of automatic weapons cannot be justified by reference to the Second Amendment or to anything that the Supreme Court has said about that amendment. What the members of the five-justice majority said in those opinions is nevertheless profoundly important, because it curtails the government’s power to regulate the use of handguns that contribute to the roughly 88 firearm-related deaths that occur every day.

  • I am not and never have been a gun owner, so I will not attempt to respond to the gun lobby’s impassioned defense of an unrestricted and unregulated right to own any and all kinds of firearms. I will leave that defense to Trae Crowder, who is both more eloquent and more informed about “gun culture” than I am.

  • What I do know is that a mother should be able to take her daughter to a concert without worrying that one of them won’t live to make it home. I do know that a husband has a right to take his wife to a concert without having her die in his arms. I do know that constant, widespread anxiety about safety feeds social tensions and paranoia, and exacerbates the tribalism that is tearing this country apart.

Gun owners, please listen: Obama wasn’t going to “take” your guns. Hillary wasn’t, either. No one is suggesting the confiscation of 300 million firearms, or a law forbidding further gun sales. Funding research on gun violence, keeping guns out of the hands of people with a history of violence or mental illness, or people on the no-fly list, is not an infringement of anyone’s Second Amendment rights.

Requiring drivers’ licenses wasn’t a “slippery slope” toward the confiscation of cars, and restrictions on AK-47 ownership won’t lead to Armageddon.


  1. The repeated ridiculous comment after each mass shooting, “Now is not the time to talk about gun control” is one of the most ignorant statements about any issue anyone could possibly spout off. After 20 dead children and 6 of their teachers wasn’t the time and now, after 59 dead and approximately 500 injured in one mass shooting in one small area, it is again not the time. If not now, when?

    I will plagerize a post from Facebook yesterday; “My favorite part of the 2nd Amendment is “well organized”.

  2. G. E. Stinson: – “I do not agree that fascism is in control – not yet – though that is a possibility. ”

    In your statement of Oct 3 quoted above, do you include kristofascism in your suggestion that some fascism, at least kristofascism and Islamofascism, have no widespread controlling influence?

  3. I am a gun owner (when you raise livestock you keep guard dogs and a weapon handy to deal with predators) but I agree with everything you said here. I have also read Madison’s notes taken at the Convention in 1787. Not a word about “personal protection,” and the items in the Federalist papers by Madison and Hamilton dealt solely with national defense.
    Everything said these days in defense of the right to bear arms really means the right to defend yourself against the big bad government when it comes to take them away. As if a guy with an assault rifle could hold off even a SWAT team, much less Seal Team Six.

  4. If you point a loaded gun at a person, be prepared to kill them. And homeowners who point guns at someone are more likely to get killed because they hesitate. I don’t like guns but I particularly hate those whomping big guns that can spew out bullets. Yes, I know some folks needs guns. Most folks don’t. Even more, we don’t need weapons of mass destruction or an insane man who has the capability to destroy all of us. I don’t think the 2nd amendment covers nuclear weapons.

  5. Per the Center for Responsible Politics the NRA donated over 54 MILLION DOLLARS to Republican campaigns during 2016. They donated all of $265 to Democrats. Here in Indiana Senator Young got over two million!

    On Monday night I heard a commentator say in frustration, “Is this the best we can do?” I have been thinking since then that maybe this is the best we can do since so much of our government and institutions have been corrupted to their core. I no longer believe that our government is capable of solving ANY problem facing the nation. We have reached a point where we are thrilled if our president manages to make a public appearance without insulting anyone and thus appear to be sane.

    This experiment in democracy is failing before our very eyes.

  6. I WONDER…if a single state–any state–passed a law restricting guns in some reasonable way under the presumption that the second amendment did not prohibit states from curtailing gun ownership, and someone challenged that new law in court, took it all the way to the US Supreme Court, would the present court uphold the states’ authority to make laws pertaining to gun ownership? And if the court did uphold the state’s authority in this one case, if we celebrated that victory for state’s rights–the right in this case to ignore the second amendment–would that victory establish precedent that would haunt every succeeding state’s rights case?

  7. For those who believe that the first phrase of the Second Amendment, ” A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…” has no real meaning, I would like to refer them to Article One, Section 8, which gives Congress the authority:

    “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel invasion;

    To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militita, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United State, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

    It sems the founders understood what they meant by “well regulated Militia.” What’s surprising is that the so-called “originalists” like Scalia, Alito, and Thomas did not.

  8. Trae Crowder says everything that’s in my head, but he says it with a southern accent. I love that guy.

  9. The NRA long ago decided that they did not want any gun regulations whatsoever. They realized that to maintain an unrestricted market they must create a campaign of fear for personal safety in our country and that they must also spend money to buy politicians.

    It has all worked beautifully and continues to work. They just pump out occasional new reasons for people to be fearful of others.

    Even though the great majority of gun owning citizens want some form of control, the members of Congress who have taken money from the NRA have pledged that they will never take up any legislation that would do so. They have chosen to serve their owners rather than their constituents.

  10. The car analogy goes further. We not only regulate drivers (licensing, insurance, etc.), we also regulate where and how cars can be driven. We also regulate the manufacturing and distribution channels for cars, and through private industry sources are able to track every owner and everything that happens to a car from the minute it rolls off the assembly line until it is crushed into a cube, and everything about it from the sourcing of the parts to the moment it gets to the end of the assembly line. We also regulate the production and distribution of the fuel it takes to operate a motor vehicle, as well as the manufacture and distribution of after-market parts. About the only in your car that isn’t subject to regulation is that pine-scented air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror, and who knows, maybe that is, too.

    So, yeah- let’s go with the car analogy, especially when a Second Amendment fundamentalist brings it up (“Why don’t we ban cars, huh? Huh?” Because we regulate the heck out of cars and drivers, that’s why.). And let’s (again) point out what the late Justice Scalia said in striking down Washington, DC’s firearms ban in the Heller decision:

    “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose… For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues… nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

    I could not agree with him more.

  11. Try explaining this legal argument to a gun advocate and you’ll be looked at as if you were from Mars. The NRA propaganda machine has forced these poor, frightened people to swallow their hook and thus provide increased gun sales.

    Never forget that in this country we must always include profit motive for any and all actions that involve government officials and products, even if those products kill massive numbers of people.

  12. Patrick; the car analogy is a good one but, an authority and published author of five books on gun laws and regulations used a better one yesterday during an interview on MSNBC. The repeated statement after every mass shooting is “Now is not the time to talk about gun control.” He used the analogy of a mine cave-in; after each of those tragedies and while they were still searching for victims or bodies; authorities immediately began asking how it happened, why it happened, how could it have been prevented and what can be done in the future to prevent other tragedies.

  13. IANAL, but it seems likely to me that state regulation of gun ownership would be challenged on the basis of the 14th Amendment prohibition that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States….”

    This post-Civil-War amendment has worked much good, of course, requiring states to recognize the rights of all citizens despite local religious, political, or racial prejudice. But in this case it may cut the other way, restricting progressive wishes to act locally as well as conservatives’.

  14. Mighty strange. Several thousand people attended a popular concert in Los Vegas and none of them expressed an interest in wanting to get shot and killed during the concert. But yet … nearly 60 of them were. The fat cats in the NRA, accompanied by the fat cats in Congress, can hardly wait to say “This is not a good time to be talking about new gun laws.”

    Nonsense. This is the perfect time. Some very bright people have contributed to Sheila Kennedy’s blog thoughtful suggestions about what can be done to eliminate
    the problem. But it’s time to face reality. The NRA and Congress are the ones who need to get on the stick and completely eliminate this situation … instantly. We know they have mouths, but is it remotely possible they have brains?

  15. Limit the amount of ammo in any household. Nobody needs thousands of rounds to deal with an intruder.

  16. I admire the Professor’s blog but including a video from Trae Crowder just made me smile! The man is a genius with a southern accent. I’ve been following him for a long time. Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue from Monday night was heartfelt and spot on.

    One guy tried to blow up a plane with his shoes and within a week we had to remove our shoes before boarding a flight…we can do better.

    I have outrage fatigue.

  17. Two things:

    1) It is incorrect to say “No one is suggesting the confiscation of 300 million firearms, or a law forbidding further gun sales.” A number of people are suggesting exactly that. I’d be happy to provide examples. People (like Sheila) who want reasonable reforms must make clear how the basic underly rights would be protected, as she tries to do here.

    2) From Wikipedia: “District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), is a landmark case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held, in a 5–4 decision, that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home, and that Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban and requirement that lawfully-owned rifles and shotguns be kept “unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock” violated this guarantee.”

    So this is a case where a local jurisdiction (admittedly, not a state) tried to limit firearms and the court held, correctly, that the 2nd Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms UNCONNECTED with service in a militia. Every right in the Bill of Rights is individual. The attempt to make the “well-regulated militia”clause undercut this right is misguided. As the court said, “The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.”

    The right to bear arms has limits. Even the right to free speech has limits. But gun owning is an individual right–even Lawrence Tribe and Sanford Levinson came to believe this is what the Constitution means. States can regulate this, but only up to a point.

  18. Of course the NRA advertising campaign on behalf of gun sellers is merely an appendage of another campaign that has been equally effective and destructive.

    Government is never the solution, it’s always the problem because it’s such a short step between regulation and Communism.

    I can only shake my head whenever I encounter it. Do people really fall for that? Yes they do. Millions of them.

    How can anyone doubt that there are further steps which can be taken to reduce the carnage of gun violence?

    How can anyone with any knowledge of the gun hobby not want to contribute to that discussion?

  19. We are always playing on the NRA’s field and with their ball. We suggest doing something specific and they have an explosion of opposition. Instead, we should just ask the question of our NRA supporters, if they have any suggestions to follow up on Justice Scalia’s and SCOTUS’ opinions on what regulations they think would be appropriate to reduce gun violence in this country. It is time for liberals to ask simple questions instead of trying to solve all problems with answers.

  20. The problem with the analogy between guns and cars is that cars aren’t manufactured to kill; guns are. The gun’s only purpose is to kill.

  21. Concerning gun control laws: It’s not about constitutional rights; it’s not about god given rights; it’s not about personal protection; and it’s not about home protection. What it is about is MONEY! Too many people earn a living selling guns and ammo and taking political bribes to vote for gun control laws. They will never give an inch, forget them. Fortunately, most people are for gun control laws. If only we could put effective gun control laws first, even before political considerations, then we might make progress.

  22. Whatever happened to the forefathers’ concept of “Life, Liberty and Property?” Is a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court placing gun owner rights over life itself constitutional? It wasn’t in 1939, when (as I have often blogged) the court rightly decided that militia meant militia, but, of course, this was before the advent of the NRA and its wagonloads of cash destined to the reelection coffers of money-hungry senators and representatives. Few want to grab guns generally, but guns are designed to kill, and if taking them out of the hands of the mentally ill, terrorists and the like is unconstitutional, then perhaps it’s time to either repeal the Second Amendment or amend this amendment to conform to reason. Parenthetically, I do not agree with the Republicans but have some understanding of their position that the heated outrage of todayf means that we should delay discussion of the issue since we should have had a meaningful discussion and appropriate legislation long before Sandy Hook and Las Vegas but didn’t, thanks to such NRA approval of serial murders and financing of friendly legislators. It is time and long past time to discuss which is more important; the lives of Americans or campaign contributions. My vote goes to the right to life of Americans, and let the Republicans get their money for reelection from the Kochs, Mercers and Wall Street.

  23. Among the many bogus arguments trotted out after tragedies such as this is, “It’s too soon to talk about gun control.” John F. Kennedy was assassinated nearly 54 years ago. Is it still “too soon” to talk about that? By “too soon”, of course, what they really mean is, they don’t want anybody discussing it ever.

  24. Here’s a little fact for you to mull over from your “revered” NYT’s today. “The National Rifle Association does not have Republican “balls in a money clip,” as Jimmy Kimmel put it the other night. The N.R.A. has donated a paltry $3,533,294 to all current members of Congress since 1998, according to The Washington Post, equivalent to about three months of Kimmel’s salary. The N.R.A. doesn’t need to buy influence: It’s powerful because it’s popular.”

    If you really want to talk about tragedy, let’s talk about Planned Parenthood who is the pocket of liberal politicians. PP gave over 38 MILLION DOLLARS to politicians LAST YEAR which facilitated in almost 1,000,000 babies being KILLED by their mothers in the name of a “WOMAN’S RIGHT” and “MY CHOICE, MY BODY”.
    The law abiding gun owners, who values their constitution right, are sick of being maligned as part of the problem and are emboldened. So keep up the misinformation, distortions, lies and TRUMP BASHING and you can kiss Senator Joe Donnelley goodbye in the 2018 midterm election.

  25. Joy in Indy @ 11:51 my thoughts exactly.

    I read a column in The Indianapolis Star by Gary Varvel today. He writes: “Predictably, the left reignited the gun control debate almost immediately.” He further writes: “The truth is, government cannot solve every problem. It cannot stop a 64-year-old man with no prior offenses from shooting innocent people attending a country music concert.”

    Varvel then goes onto quote various bible verses and John Adams and George Washington about religion. Another quote – “Secular humanists believe morality can be attained without a belief in God.”

    Varvel ends his column with with: Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham said: “Secular humanism and progressivism have supplanted the understanding that without virtue there is no freedom. Freedom without virtue is chaos.”
    Varvel’s column is the conjunction of God and Guns and blaming secular humanism. He is right in one respect that a person committed the horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas.

    He is totally wrong about the government not being able to solve this problem. One point of a start would be not allowing the sale of assault rifles and various devices to turn them from semi-automatic into fully automatic.

    Japan for instance had 395 murders in 2014. the rate per 100,000 inhabitants was 0.31. Australia in 2015 had 236 murders, with a rate per 100,000 of 0.98. Canada had 604 murders in 2014, with a rate per 100,000 of 1.68. Canada, Japan and Australia have secular humanists, what they do have is strict Gun Control Laws. The USA by contrast had 15,696 murders in 2015 with a rate per 100,000 of 4.88.

    It should be very clear to even the dimmest bulb on the Christmas Tree that the one overwhelming difference between the USA, Western Europe, etc is our lax gun laws.

  26. Varvel; as his cartoons prove, is a right-wing conservative. I am not aware that the left has ever stopped talking about gun control to enable us to “reignite” the talk after this latest mass shooting. As for it being a “debate”; we have actually been talking to ourselves for years regarding anything about gun issues. Currently; we have no hopes of this government solving problems but we sincerely wish they would STOP CAUSING problems. The Indianapolis Star, USA Today and Gary Varel are all owned by right-wing Gannett, Inc., which is steadily becoming a monopoly regarding printed news in this country.

  27. becky, per the Center for Responsible Politics the NRA donated 54 million dollars just last year to Republican campaigns. This reported last night on the CBS News Hour.

  28. JoAnn the copy of the Indianapolis Star was free, so I fell mighty good about not buying that paper. Going back to the Pulliam years the Star has always been bent to the Right.

  29. Monotonous; lucky you getting your copy free, I pay too much monthly primarily to get the TV Week schedule which is only partially correct, the daily and Sunday crossword puzzles and the obituaries which keep me informed about family and friends. I subscribe out of years of habit and it IS the only game in town.

  30. Even the ACLU opposes the “No-fly list”, and it’s utter lack of due process. Establish something well-founded, and then we’ll talk about it.

  31. The 2nd Amendment gives “The People” the right to bear arms, not every damn Tom, Dick and Harry. It doesn’t say ‘the right of persons’ to bear arms. It is referring to a ‘well-regulated militia’ and those who misinterpret it as representing the right of each individual American citizen to gun ownership are disingenuous. Mass shootings are good busines for the NRA. Not only do more people get scared into believing they need a gun for protection against the crazies, but their propaganda machine immediately goes into overdrive putting out stories about how this is the work of liberals trying to make gun ownership look bad so the government can come and get your guns… and it works… gun sales go up. Can this country be saved? I’m pretty sure we are witnessing the demise of the American experiment and it was a collosal failure.

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