The Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding gun control in Washington, DC, has returned this issue to the headlines. A central disagreement, as usual, concerns how to interpret the Second Amendment (the full text of which is at bottom). Part of the problem with this amendment is that it seems internally contradictory. It justifies the uninfringeable rights of “the people” in terms of the necessity of “a well-regulated militia,” but the connection between the two is not clear. Another problem is that it addresses gun-ownership rights in terms of “the security of a free State,” (italics added) when most – but not all – of the debate over gun-control laws these days centers on personal defense, individual liberty, and hunting. Finally, it is not clear whether the amendment limits only federal powers or those of the states, too.
Given these ambiguities, why not replace the amendment altogether? Let’s have a national debate and referendum on a clearer amendment that will address the central point of contention – who, if anyone, can legally control the use and ownership of guns.
The Second Amendment is considerably more anachronistic and obscure than most. By rewriting it, we will have a chance to consider, for example, whether to include in the justification militias, personal defense, any other reason, or no reason at all. Of course, replacing the Second Amendment with a clearer, more contemporaneous text will not end disagreement over its interpretation. It simply will make debates more reasonable and productive, as with those regarding, say, the First Amendment.
A national referendum between two options is propitious in this case because, for the most part, only two sides exist and the dividing line is clear, even though gradations exist within each camp. One side would like any level of government to be able to regulate gun ownership and use but would settle for state and local governments having the freedom to decide such policies. The other side would severely restrict any level of government from regulating the owning and bearing of guns, with exceptions perhaps for those people who had committed crimes with guns previously.
Ideally, gun-control advocates and opponents would each caucus, debate, and produce an potential amendment for the public’s consideration. After a vigorous campaign, voters nationwide could choose between the two, with the understanding that the text that won the most states – or votes – would be put through the process of amending the constitution. I have no idea how the U.S. public would vote on this issue. But isn’t it better to place a fairly clear question in the public’s hands than to leave the current mess of a text to the Supreme Court to interpret?
The Second Amendment: “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.”
– Interpreting Firearm Sales