For years now, Americans have been engaged in a bitter debate over the rights guaranteed to citizens by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.
While this debate has raged, more than 30,000 people a year have died in firearm-related incidents, many of them involving handguns.
As a reminder, here is the amendment, word for word: “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.”
To many Americans, that wording strongly suggests that there should be no restrictions against the possession of personal firearms. The National Rifle Association is the most strident advocate of that interpretation, and it has worked tirelessly to secure extremely strong support among our nation’s lawmakers.
But there’s been a tendency — well, perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as a deliberate strategy — by gun rights advocates to overlook the “well regulated Militia” wording in the amendment and that may help explain why these advocates have so far been so successful.
Greatly adding to the their success has been the support they’ve enjoyed from a majority of the United States Supreme Court.
And so today the United States is regarded around the world as a nation where the rights of gun-owners — and the frequently gruesome consequences of those unrestricted rights — take precedence over common sense.
Let’s face it: The NRA is among the most potent lobbying organizations not only in Washington but in state capitals around the nation. It’s primary mission appears to be to discourage the passage of any legislation, at any level, that in any way might impede the private ownership of pistols, revolvers, rifles, shotguns or even automatic weapons designed for combat.
To the extent the issue is being debated, the NRA and its supporters are clearly carrying the day. It isn’t even close.
But now comes former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens — he was an associate justice from 1975 to 2010 — with an idea that, if it could gain traction, would give the NRA’s foes — that is, all advocates of sensible gun control laws — great encouragement.
The Washington Post this past weekend published an essay excerpted from Justice Stevens’ new book, “Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.”
In his essay, Stevens suggested adding just five words to the Second Amendment so that it would read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”
Here’s more from Stevens: “Emotional claims that the right to possess deadly weapons is so important that it is protected by the federal Constitution distort intelligent debate about the wisdom of particular aspects of proposed legislation designed to minimize the slaughter caused by the prevalence of guns in private hands.”
And the way to nullify these emotional arguments, he adds, would be to adopt his proposed amendment.
“The amendment certainly would not silence the powerful voice of the gun lobby; it would merely eliminate its ability to advance one mistaken argument,” Stevens observes.
It’s unlikely the amendment the former justice proposes will soon be adopted, but by drawing attention to the full wording of the Second Amendment his book should encourage others to at least take its clearly understood original meaning into consideration and thus further the cause of those who favor sensible gun controls that still enjoy Constitutional protection.
Broadening the debate would be the patriotic thing to do.
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