Just stumbled upon this piece in today’s NY Times. Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens advocates repeal of the Second Amendment – strange days indeed! Now, this obviously won’t happen anytime soon, or probably ever, but the boldness and simplicity of the argument is compelling.
According to Justice Stevens, who should know something about this, the Second Amendment was originally adopted to allow states to defend their sovereignty v. a standing national army, a threat that never materialized. By embedding “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” within the context of “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state” (emphases added), it clearly indicated an individual freedom for collective purposes, the common good taking precedence over personal selfishness.
For over 200 years state and federal courts viewed the Second Amendment in those limited terms. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld Congress’s right to ban sawed off shotguns in 1939 because they had no reasonable relation to “a well regulated militia.” The NRA actually styled itself as an apolitical, sportsmen’s organization for most of the 20th century, before taking a hard right turn in the late 1970s and began hotly contesting every federal and state gun regulation as a violation of some God given Commandment. At the time, Chief Justice Warren Burger characterized their position as “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have seen in my lifetime.”
It wasn’t until 2008, in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, that the Supreme Court, divided 5-4, formally recognized an individual right to gun ownership, justified by historical practice, not explicit constitutional guarantees. This, according to Stevens, “has provided the NRA with a propaganda weapon of immense power.” Truth be told, however, it only strengthened the fanatical, absolutist position they had adopted for decades. Their real weapons are a boatload of campaign cash, unleashed by the Citizens United decision of 2011, and the threat to ruin the political careers of any politician who doesn’t tow their line by supporting more conservative challengers in primaries.
While the thought of repealing the 2nd Amendment is enticing, I don’t believe it’s practical or necessary. The federal and state governments already possess all the legal and constitutional power they need to well regulate, as the 2nd Amendment provides, firearms. They could ban semi-automatic weapons and high caliber magazines, raise the minimum age for gun purchases, impose comprehensive background checks on all purchases, license guns as we do automobiles etc. What has been missing, until now, is the political will to stand up to a small group of zealots with a twisted ideology that places an individual’s “right” to own almost any type of weapon over other’s right to life. Thanks to the Parkland students and their supporters, we may finally be ready to regain our sanity.