Every mass shooting in America raises the question of whether the nation adequately limits guns. The Dec. 14 massacre of young children in Newtown, Conn., however, resonated in a way that previous attacks have not.
As usual, opponents of gun control point to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as creating a broad right to bear arms.
The issue of gun control is complex, and the effectiveness of state or federal controls is subject to legitimate debate. It is worth looking, however, at the limited scope of the Second Amendment. The full text:
“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.”
One of the most conservative jurists in the United States died last week. His thoughts on the Second Amendment are instructive.
“I’m not an expert on the Second Amendment,” Judge Robert Bork said in 1989, two years after former President Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court, “but its intent was to guarantee the right of states to form militia, not for individuals to bear arms.”
In 1991, Bork noted the weak support the gun lobby has in the Second Amendment.
“The National Rifle Association is always arguing that the Second Amendment determines the right to bear arms,” Bork said. “But I think it really is people’s right to bear arms in a militia. The NRA thinks that it protects their right to have Teflon-coated bullets. But that’s not the original understanding.”
In a 1997 book, Bork took further exception to efforts to expand the narrow words of the Second Amendment.
“The Second Amendment was designed to allow states to defend themselves against a possibly tyrannical national government,” Bork wrote. “Now that the federal government has stealth bombers and nuclear weapons, it is hard to imagine what people would need to keep in the garage to serve that purpose.”
The Second Amendment is relevant to the overdue debate on gun control, but not conclusive. Common sense should be the primary guide as Americans seek a solution that protects the reasonable concerns of gun owners, but reduces the frequency of tragedies like the one in Newtown.
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