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Assassination and the Second Amendment

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In March, 1968, I turned 18 barely a month after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. Within 3 days I reported to my draft board and registered, otherwise a deputy Sheriff would have come to my high school to escort me to the bus station and a free trip to Ft. Benning, Georgia, but I digress. At my recently desegregated high school, I enjoyed my deferment. The only times I remember thinking about such violence was after watching the nightly news.

By 1968, with no Internet, laptops or cell phones, television had become the dominant news medium, following from the live televised assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald five years earlier. Night after night at supper time, anchors Bob Young (ABC), Walter Cronkite (CBS) and the team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley (NBC) reported the carnage of the Vietnam war and the outrage surrounding the civil rights movement. Sound on film replayed the gunfire and the violence.

I had seen Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on television. Of him I heard mostly vile things, since I lived in the rural south where the idea of “separate but equal” still held and the term African-American was unknown. I recall thinking at the time that he and other leaders of the civil rights movement were sure putting themselves in harm’s way by their exposure as targets; especially Dr. King, who was all over television leading marches and being interviewed.

April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray shouldered a Remington.30-06-caliber rifle with a Redfield 2×7 scope and pulled the trigger.

RFL, 1968My hero and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy broke the news of Dr. King’s assassination to a crowd in Indianapolis. Kennedy spoke of King’s dedication to “love and to justice between fellow human beings,” adding that “he died in the cause of that effort.” Rioting broke out in Memphis and 4,000 guardsmen were called out. Other cities burned, but Indianapolis did not. “I had a member of my family killed,” Kennedy said, “but he was killed by a white man.”

June 5th, 1968, Sirhan Sirhan pulled out a .22 caliber revolver and fired eight shots.

I do not remember hearing calls for any kind of gun control, though, until after the failed Reagan assassination attempt, March 1981, when John Hinckley fired a .22 caliber Röhm RG-14 revolver six times and wounded both the president and his press secretary, James Brady. It made the nightly news after it appeared within minutes on CNN. Subsequently, after a seven year battle, President Clinton signed into law the Brady Bill, which requires a five day waiting period and background checks on handgun purchases.

If you love data, and who doesn’t, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has a graphic on its home page that updates how many people are shot in America so far this year and so far today. As I posted this article as “Pending,” the numbers reported 5080 people shot to date, 255 today.

In the aftermath of the Giffords shooting, you may or may not know that Arizona has virtually no restrictions on guns and recently became the third state to allow people to carry concealed weapons in public places without a permit. The state also recently allowed concealed weapon carriers to take their guns into bars and just last year became the third state to make it legal for adults to carry a concealed weapon without getting training and a background check.

Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams is one of 61 Republicans making up two thirds of the 90-member Legislature. According to AP, Adams said last year’s bill to legalize carrying concealed weapons without a permit wasn’t a mistake. “Arizona remains a place that is respectful and adamant about our Second Amendment rights, and I think the people of Arizona support that,” Adams said. The state ranks 5th in the nation in gun deaths, behind Wyoming, Louisiana, Alaska and the District of Columbia.

What a contrast exists between fifth-ranked Arizona and first-ranked Washington, D.C. on so many levels. But I want to stick with gun possession and get to the Second Amendment. The District of Columbia banned the possession of handguns, making it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm and the registration of handguns illegal. Ultimately, the D.C. handgun ban went to the Supreme Court in District Of Columbia V. Heller, which overturned the ban.

Justice Antonin Scalia is the longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court and wrote the court’s opinion in Heller. “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.” He continued, “Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, 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.”

Judge Scalia further wrote, “Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”

Let me point out that the founders wrote the Second Amendment to protect citizens from Congress, not from home invaders. The whole idea dates back to the 17th century when the Catholic Stuart Kings, Charles II and James II, sought to protect themselves from overthrow by disarming insurgent Protestant militias. By the time of the founding, an English subject’s right to have arms was understood to be an individual right protecting against both public and private violence.

By the way, how many shootings happen in home defense? I cannot find the data. But, again, I digress. As Justice Scalia wrote in Heller, “…we do not read the Second Amendment to protect the right of citizens to carry arms for any sort of confrontation, just as we do not read the First Amendment to protect the right of citizens to speak for any purpose.”

Assassins shot and killed both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F.Kennedy in 1968. An assassination attempt on Representative Gabriel Giffords killed Judge John Roll and 5 other people in 2011. Laws and public policy cannot prevent assassinations. Public figures, such as John Lennon, will always be vulnerable. The only things that have changed in this regard, since I was in high school, are how quickly we find out about such tragedies, how many more shooting deaths occur each year, and how public opinion on the Second Amendment has become politicized.

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About Tommy Mack

Tommy Mack began his career in broadcasting and is a US Army graduate of the Defense Information School. He worked in Army Public and Command Information and earned a BS in Liberal Studies from the State University of New York, Albany. A marketing communications executive, Tommy became a business management consultant for a major international consulting company and its affiliates before establishing Tommy Mack Organization, a business consulting practice specializing in organization and communications management. A professional writer and blogger, he writes about politics, business, and culture.
  • Blame the NRA and its money for the unfortunate rise in handgun and ammunition production the demand for which manufacturers are hard pressed to meet. (Sorry about the dangle.)

    Thanks, STM, for such a thoughtful post. You are correct about the gun control debate being polarized. However, “no one [being] willing to go out on a limb and add some controls that can’t be undone by the states or the courts” is only part of the situation. One has to consider the NRA.

    The National Rifle Association is the largest [has the most money] single-issue lobby in the US. There is a Democratic member of Congress planning to introduce legislation to stiffen the laws around the type of semi-automatic pistol used in the Tucson shootings, but it will never get legs because of NRA influence in Congress and on American public opinion.

    In fact, Gallup reports that “trends on gun control show that Americans have grown less supportive of strengthening gun laws in the United States over the last two decades, notwithstanding a number of tragic gun attacks during that period.”

    Gallup reports that Americans “are also less likely to say there should be a law banning the possession of handguns except by the police and other authorized persons.”

    The Constitution has been interpreted by the Court to say that Americans cannot be disarmed by the government(s). The Constitution says that the “right” shall not be” infringed.” The NRA panders us by claiming that regulation is infringement. They are knowingly wrong, but they have the money and money makes the rules.

  • STM

    Doc: “For him, the intent of the Second was that even prisoners, small children and the insane shouldn’t be denied access to guns.”

    Yeah, I remember that bloke … he got it from both barrels from us. Pun intended. What a nut. That kind of thing is half the problem.

    The thing is, the founding fathers – or some of them, anyway – are on record as having said that the constitution should be changed as future Americans see fit, and as it suits the changing face of the future nation. That might be now.

    The right to bear arms had existed, as Tommy says, in the laws of the colonies; they inherited the English Bill of Rights. We inherited that in Australia too. I grew up around guns, and believe people should have the right to keep them but with some reasonable controls. Our right-wing government thought so too after the Port Arthur massacre (35 dead and dozens wounded including, ironically, some visiting US tourists).

    Lo and behold, since the ban on semi-automatic weapons and tighter controls on handguns, there hasn’t been a mass shooting – and we previously had them with the same kind of monotonous regularity as the US. (The crims are still killing each other, but it’s different.) Mind you, Aussies generally don’t have any real fear of their governments even if they don’t like them, so any parallel with the US isn’t totally accurate.

    On Tommy’s view regarding the laws existing prior to them being enumerated in the constitition: It’s interesting, because in the other places that had those laws, they’ve been watered down and there are far less shootings in those places.

    While the English laws only guaranteed protestants the right to bear arms given the machinations of the Spanish and French absolutists to strip the rights of ordinary men and return England (then Britain) to Catholic absolutism in religious and political affairs, it still would have covered 99.9 of Americans at that time. (And 99 per cent of non-convict early white settlers to Australia, too.)

    It should be noted on that score that the fear of Catholicism had also spread to the Americas and many of the early non-protestant Irish immigrants to America, even after the revolution when they came in droves, weren’t that popular, either.

    The way I read it, only the 9th amendment of the Bill of Rights (which might be of use in resolving this issue) had no precursor in the laws of the colonies, although one could argue the opposite given parliament’s record of continuously laying down new laws that set out clearly on paper extra rights expected to be handed on to ordinary men.

    The problem is that this debate has become so polarised in the US, no one is willing to go out on a limb and add some controls that can’t be undone by the states or the courts depending on who’s in power at the time (so much for an indepedent judiciary in the US).

    I joke, mostly, about the world’s best-known dangling participle, even though it is bizarre and leads to infinite, circular arguments about the real intent, but the issue is in the fact that it’s in the constitution at all.

    Whatever anyone thinks about the continuing veracity of it, it was written 200 years ago. In the absence of a crystal ball, how could the founding fathers have known that by 2011, there would be nearly 300 million, multi-shot and rapid-fire weapons owned legally by citizens of the US? And if Americans think there’s no link between the easy availability of legal firearms and the proliferation of illegal firearms in the US, they need a reality check. I can understand, however, given the latter, why it is people might believe they need to protect themselves. The thing is, the shooting stats in the US don’t back that up.

    The founding fathers simply couldn’t have known at the time what the result of their words would be in 2011 because the situation was so different as to not even invite comparison to how it’s panned out in the 21st century, and I’d bet London to a brick that if they understood the kind of carnage their words on a bit of paper would bring about, they’d have given themselves an out clause by rewording it.

    Perhaps that’s what the scary 9th amendment is really all about, which says what it says. (Essentially, these may not be your only rights). There’s no reading between the lines on that one, despite attempts to do so.

    Maybe too that’s why legislators and the courts have all but forgotten it. Too dangerous, too controversial, to rock the constitutional boat, even if it is part of the constitution. Or should that be vote, rather than boat.

    I know what the real problem is over there: Too much navel gazing about rights, too little real action, a bizarre belief that words written on a piece of paper 200 years ago is the holy grail and a message from God rather than a document written by fallible men, too much hot air (especially in Washington), not enough balls to actually do something when the ice-cream’s hitting the fan because it might cost votes, and too many blowhards at either end of the political spectrum dictating to the majority.

    So you get those tired old lines like: “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner …”

    I say the current version in America is like two sheep and a wolf arguing over what’s for dinner and the wolf adding that he’s going to derail the majority vote because America isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic under a constitution. The fact his teeth are sharper probably helps, too.

    But it’s not true that America is not a democracy. The ancient-Greek ideas no longer apply and democracy means something else in modern usage, and America is every bit as much a democracy as any other modern democracy. If it’s not, then it’s dudding itself.

    It’s just that too many in America – especially the coon-skin hat brigae – will argue it’s not a democracy, or shouldn’t be. Which essentially means that while it might have the appearance of being one, it’s stuck back in the late 1700s when it actually wasn’t a democracy and will stay there until someone has enough balls to say in regard to guns: “Enough, it’s completely out of control – we’re doing something, and doing it across the bioard so there are no outs in state legislation.”

    Until someone has the balls to express the perfectly reasonable view that commonsense national controls on firearms – as opposed to a total ban on guns – is not infringing the right to bear arms, and in the 21st century is the only way of dealing with it.

    On this score, I see America as having painted itself into a position from which there is little chance of escape, as weak, as a laughing stock among some of the more enlightened western nations, and ridiculously clinging on to the letter of a 200-year-old law that has passed its use-by date.

    I believe citizens have a right to keep firearms. Proliferation on the scale of the US is something else again. Who really needs an AK with a folding bayonet in the broom closet in this day and age?

    And of course, there’s that other right, too, that everyone forgets about: the right not to have lunatics taking pot shots at you while you go about the ordinary course of your day or night.

  • Consider, if you will, just what the operative clause of the 2nd Amendment guarantees: the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.

    The historical background of the 2nd Amendment is that there was a pre-existing right which the amendment codifies, like the 1st and 4th Amendments do. In that regard, the “right to bear arms” is not a right granted by the Constitution. The Second amendment declares that it shall not be infringed.

    At the time of the founding, the phrase “bear arms” had an idiomatic meaning in addition to its natural meaning: “to serve as a soldier, do military service, fight” or “to wage war.” What kind of arms there may be is not a Constitutional consideration.

  • I agree. But I once had (don’t know if you recall) a lengthy debate on BC with a gun rights absolutist who felt that “not be infringed” meant just that. For him, the intent of the Second was that even prisoners, small children and the insane shouldn’t be denied access to guns.

  • Baronius

    Dread, thanks for addressing STM’s participle problem. As for the word “infringed”, I don’t see why it has to be read to include the right to bear every sort of weapon. It would seem to imply that the right of each person to bear arms should not be infringed, but I think the Founders wouldn’t have read it that way. As far as I know, they would have understood rights to be forfeitable.

  • Boeke

    IMO opinion the third amendment makes clear that this is all in the atmosphere of oppressive occupation: “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law. ”

    Both the 2nd and 3rd are to protect the citizenry from oppression from occupation.

    So the 2nd is about invasion, rebellion, occupation. Not about intrinsic personal rights.

    So IMO the 2nd is to support a militia, not to recognize some god-given right of a person.

  • The National Guard is military.

  • One could argue that the US no longer needs a militia, therefore doesn’t need to have its citizens bearing arms

    Technically the US does still have a militia, or at least the states do: the National Guard. Although these days, in practical terms, it’s more of a military reserve. And I don’t think they let the guardsmen and women take their guns, patrol boats and fighter jets home with them.

  • As I read it, the Second is actually pretty clear even with the dangler.

    The ‘militia’ part is just a justification. If the Founding Farts had written it today, it might say something like, “Because a well-regulated militia is necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

    The second clause is the crucial bit. The first is incidental – a nod towards recent history, if you like.

    But note that I said pretty clear. The muddy bit isn’t the bit about the militia – it’s the word infringed.

    What counts as infringement? Not letting you keep and bear arms at all? Or not letting you keep and bear grenade-launching machine guns, battle tanks, F-15 fighter jets and tactical nuclear warheads? Or if you are going to let people keep and bear all of the above, are you infringing someone’s right if you take them away because he’s obviously stark barking mad and can’t be trusted with them?

    It makes sense to me that a line has to be drawn somewhere. Problem is, nobody’s ever going to agree on the location of the line.

  • STM

    What does it really address, is the key. Does it address the requirement of 200 years for every American to have a muzzle loader in the cupboard in case the British came back (paradoxically, in the event, it was actually the British who REALLY needed their militia when the US attacked Canada in 1812 in America’s first war of aggression).

    One could argue that the US no longer needs a militia, therefore doesn’t need to have its citizens bearing arms, which seems really logical and in keeping with the intent of the amendment.

    But the dangling participle doesn’t make it clear whether it’s about that or a carte blanche instruction that such a right can’t be infringed, militia or not.

    I think a lot of Americans who spend a lot of time arguing about this don’t have clue one way or the other, and no politician has the balls to do anything about it and probably won’t in our lifetimes.

    As Doc says, you only have to look sideways at a gun cabinet in the US and it’s the end of human rights as we know them.

  • STM

    The participle is the reason why people are being brought down with Glocks.

  • Yep, them participles will get you every time.

    I’d rather be brought down by a participle than by a Glock.

  • STM

    The main problem with the bloody thing is the grammar. It contains a dangling participle, so it’s not really clear in its intent. In fact, because of the way it’s written, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. Is it directed towards keeping a militia, or ONLY (as some interpret it) about not having the right to bear arms infringed. Sadly, it can be interpreted different ways. And if ever something didn’t need to interpreted different ways, it’s the 2nd amendment.

    Using the wording alone, you couldn’t make a judgment call. That is why the courts have been involved … which kind of shoots down the argument of the originalists.

    Also, it says nothing about sensible controls. Sensible controls aren’t bans, nor are they infringments.

    I’m sure the founding fathers would be turning in their graves if they knew something they’d written had led to 300 million legal, lethal firearms in America and who knows how many illegal ones, and turned the US into the human shooting gallery of the developed, western nations.

    Just sayin’ …

  • As a business consultant I spent most almost four months in Anchorage, a few years ago. The summer before that I worked in Sitka, Haynes, Fairbanks and a wide spot in the road called Delta Junction – North of North Pole, Alaska. As far as I can tell, I was the only person who was not armed. Of course, there are animals more dangerous than people in Alaska.
    Given the violence in nearby Oakland, I would have thought California would have ranked higher than #30. But, that’s statistics for you.

    By the way the Brady shooting count is up to 5,305 and 211 today.

  • Baronius

    Reaching? I dunno. There’s something else going on in the data. Alaska and Wyoming have low murder rates (about half the national rate). Arizona’s is about average. And as near as I can figure, based on the numbers, everyone in Louisiana is on their way to or from a murder. Yet they all have high rates of firearm death? That’s odd. But Alaska, Arizona, and Wyoming are all in the top ten in suicide rates. I’ve got to see if I can find a breakdown of suicides by method by state.

  • The statistics I used are Firearms Death Rate per 100,000, which is the way they come out, and DC leads more than one list.

    In case you didn’t check out the Brady site, the numbers are 5,288 YTD and 194 shootings today.

    Ardent gun carriers like guns. That the statistics are unfortunate and unfavorable are what they are and what they say is that the purpose of a handgun is to shoot another person, not targets or game.

    As to gun suicides, my dear Cardinal is reaching.

  • But now you are the one who is stepping outside the Constitution-provided context. Law and order wasn’t the concern in the olden days; tyrannical government was.

    On the final note, I well recognize the modern-day context, just saying it’s a modern-day accretion and totally foreign to the original intent.

  • Baronius

    Not entirely, Roger. There are a lot of people who care about the Second Amendment because they like guns, and a lot of people who care about it because they like the Bill of Rights. You’d be misreading your opposition to think otherwise. It’s funny; you’re the guy who usually focuses on context, but you forgot to consider how gun nuttery relates to law-and-order issues.

  • … present-day – insert “conservative” – values …

  • OK, then, but it’s an altogether different argument. Let’s not pretend then that the conservative defense of the Second Amendment is but an extension of the original intend. Let’s call a spade a spade and see it for what it is: an expression present-day values and an entirely different set of concerns.

  • Baronius

    By all means, let’s forget about the Constitution as a living document! It’s a written document which can be amended, but shouldn’t be ignored.

  • PS: If we have it your way, we may as well forget about the Constitution as a living document but as STM oftentimes refers to it, as a just another scribble written on parchment by old farts.

  • “Originalist” only in the strictest possible, nominalist and uninteresting sense, Baronius. It’s the spirit of the law that’s presumably our guiding light under the Constitution, the values espoused, not the letter. Your “originalist” comes awfully close to a Pharisee.

  • Baronius

    Roger, an originalist would reply that it doesn’t matter whether the motivation for an amendment still applies. It’s in the Constitution, until it’s removed from the Constitution.

  • You’re raising a moot point, Baronius. No question, including D.C. in the bunch was ill-taken, a lapse of thought, but so what? The contextualizing of the Second Amendment however, which Mr. Mack provides, is not. In that respect, he’s spot on.

    Plainly stated, it’s ludicrous to suppose that armed citizenry could prove an effective counterbalance to a tyrannical government in this day and age. What may have sounded as a reasonable precaution in the post-Colonial America has become, and is being used as, a convenient political myth.

  • As near as I can tell, gun suicides.

    Probably a good number of hunting and farming accidents as well.

  • Baronius

    It’s a complicated issue you raise. First off, comparing the District of Columbia to any state is deceptive, becaue it’s 100% urban. It’s more accurate to compare it to a city. That aside, why are the other states at the top of the list rural? As near as I can tell, gun suicides. That isn’t what most people think of when they hear about gun violence, and it definitely doesn’t fit the tone of your article.