For those of you enjoy serious debate and critical discourse, I’ve done something I think you’ll enjoy. I’ve reached out to the other side, to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, to get its thoughts on some major gun-related issues.
The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is an organization that “seeks to secure freedom from gun violence through research, strategic engagement and effective policy advocacy.”
I spoke with Ladd Everitt, the group’s Director of Communications. We discussed our thoughts on gun ownership, how the 2nd Amendment defines and relates to gun ownership and self-defense, and how we view gun owners in America.
Now, it should be noted that in the interest of brevity, I’ve kept my rebuttals relatively short. And really, I did so because I want you to engage in the discussion, to challenge both Mr. Everitt’s position as well as mine.
However, I would ask that when you respond you do so in a polite manner. Mr. Everitt was kind enough to take the time to talk with us, so let’s show him some respect. Let’s keep it civil.
S.H. Blannelberry: Do you own a gun? (If so, what kind?)
Ladd Everitt: I do not. I have fired guns – revolvers, handguns, shotguns and rifles – and would like to do so again in the future in a safe environment. But I don’t own any. As a father of two young daughters, bringing guns into the home is something I would never do. The risk of them gaining access to those weapons, or some other unauthorized party gaining access to them, is far greater than the chance of me ever having to play John McClane defending against some faceless home invader.
SHB Rebuttal: I will just point out that the FBI does not specifically track the number of home invasions that happen each year. So, it’s quite difficult to determine the odds on your aforementioned scenario.
On a tangential note, the number of accidental gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2008 (the latest year for which numbers are available) was .19. In total, that was 592 for the entire country.
In Washington D.C., in 2010, there were 650.5 robberies per 100,000 people and 2,999.7 thefts per 100,000 people.
One can argue that at a cursory level, the chance of one killing himself/herself with a firearm accidentally is far less then the chances of one being the victim of a theft or a robbery.
Admittedly, these statistics are crude in the sense that they don’t factor in some critical variables (non-fatal accidental gun shots, robberies and thefts that occur when no one is present, etc.). But it’s at least food for thought.
SHB: From your perspective, how do you read the 2nd Amendment in relation to gun ownership: an individual right, a limited individual right that applies only in the context of militia service or a collective right that refers to a state government’s right to keep well-regulated militias?
LE: I think it’s pretty clear what James Madison meant when he drafted the Second Amendment because he discussed and spoke about the right to keep and bear arms at length during this period (including, of course, in his wonderful essays in The Federalist Papers). And he was not the only one – the right to keep and bear arms was rigorously debated during the state ratification conventions, in our Congress, in some of the great correspondence between Madison and other Founding Fathers, etc. And NONE of that debate involved the issue of individual self-defense with a firearm. In fact, it was not even so much as mentioned. The discussion revolved entirely around military service in state militia forces. The debate was over things like whether conscientious objectors should be required to serve in the militia; whether the Congress might compel state militia to serve outside their borders, thereby degrading local security; whether the Congress might have the power to disband the state militia altogether, etc.
Madison had given the federal Congress a great deal of power over the militia in Article 1 of the Constitution. That was of great concern to Anti-Federalists, who stood in opposition to this bold new plan for the federal government. The Bill of Rights was a carefully crated (and brilliant) compromise to bring enough Anti-Federalists on board to assure the Constitution would be ratified by the states. Madison didn’t think the Bill of Rights was necessary, but he knew that Federalists needed that support. The Second Amendment, specifically, was intended to assure that the state militia would be supplied with privately held firearms. This way the federal Congress would never be able to disarm the militia if it one day became tyrannical like the British monarchy.
Madison very clearly enunciated his vision for a “well regulated militia” in Federalist No. 46, where he said that the nation’s standing army, should it pursue “projects of ambition,” would be “opposed [by] a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties, and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence.”
It didn’t quite work that way in practice, however. The militia were rarely effective as a fighting force and frequently HAD to be armed by the federal government. And eventually, these units simply ceased to exist. The modern equivalent of the state militia that Madison wrote about, the National Guard, is armed ONLY with weapons supplied by the federal government. And, of course, the fears of a standing army that so motivated our Founders have dissipated entirely today. Our armed forces are now the most trusted and respected institution in America in opinion poll after opinion poll. We revere them, not revile them, as a people, and rightfully so.
It would have been interesting to see Justice Scalia and the conservative wing of the Supreme Court grapple with these historical developments in an intellectually honest way to determine what the Second Amendment actually means today. But that wasn’t their intention, and they simply wiped away the prefatory clause of the Amendment as if it has no meaning whatsoever. From a historical standpoint, it’s the equivalent of science fiction. I am confident that future Courts will take a much deeper, more thoughtful look at our Founders’ intent and what role privately armed state militias play in the security of contemporary America, if any. Individual self-defense with firearms would then revert to being a matter to be dealt with by common law, as it was during the time of our Founders.
SHB Rebuttal: I challenge the idea that there was no discussion or no mention of the Second Amendment as an individual right during the inception of the Constitution. One can check out the work of constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh (see his sources here) or, for more concise edification on the matter, one can read Robert VerBruggen’s recent article in the National Review.
In the article, VerBruggen points to Volokh’s work as well and then writes the following:
“Some state-level precursors to the Second Amendment clearly protected an individual right. The constitutions of Pennsylvania and Vermont, for example, protected the people’s right to bear arms ‘for the defence of themselves and the state.’ In several drafts of the Virginia constitution, Thomas Jefferson included a provision that ‘no freeman shall be debarred the use of arms.’”
“When states held their constitutional conventions, New Hampshire suggested an amendment stating that ‘Congress shall never disarm any citizen, unless such are or have been in actual rebellion.’ In the Massachusetts convention, Samuel Adams unsuccessfully suggested an amendment that Congress shall not ‘prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms.’ In Pennsylvania, an unsuccessful proposal from Robert Whitehill held that ‘the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and their own state, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game; and no law shall be passed for disarming the people or any of them, unless for crimes committed, or real danger of public injury from individuals.’”
From my perspective, an individual’s right to self-defense is a natural right. The operative clause in the 2nd Amendment – the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed – is a continuation of our natural right to self-defense.
Whether this accords with the Founders and Framer’s vision is, as we’ve shown, a matter of debate.
SHB: To what extent do you differentiate between responsible gun ownership by law-abiding gun owners and guns owned by criminals? In other words, do you see all gun owners – regardless of their legal standing – as powder kegs waiting to explode?
LE: I don’t view ANY Americans as “powder kegs waiting to explode.” We’re human beings, mostly with good intentions, but sometimes under tremendous stresses. I have yet to meet anyone who’s perfect. I know I’m certainly not that guy! Life has its ups, and its downs.
I do think it’s important to have laws in place so that when people buy guns, you get an accurate read on whether or not they are a potential threat to public safety. We don’t have such laws. Americans in 40+ states can still sell guns to others through private sales without conducting background checks or keeping any records of sale. And even when purchasers DO go through a federally licensed dealer to buy guns, the NICS system is missing millions of disqualifying records that would otherwise block dangerous individuals during a background check.
Furthermore, current prohibitions in federal law regarding mental illness and substance abuse are woefully outdated and inadequate. They do not provide any type of accurate picture of whether someone is a threat to public safety. And to be fair, this works both ways. For example, someone might never come into contact with mental health providers or the courts yet still be dangerously mentally ill (i.e., Jared Loughner). On the other hand, someone might have been involuntarily committed and adjudicated by a court as a “mental defective” and have improved significantly through treatment to the point where they are no longer a threat to public safety.
We can do a lot better. Every other democracy in the world certainly does. It’s time stop facilitating the access that criminals, wife beaters, drug users, and the dangerously mentally ill have to guns and start making it a hell of a lot tougher for them. And if that entails certain inconveniences for gun owners, so be it. Quite frankly, I don’t believe the overwhelming majority would mind at all (particularly given the polling data we’ve seen on specific gun policy proposals). We’re losing more than 80 Americans to gun violence every day and it’s far too high a price to pay to accommodate those who think “freedom” means stockpiling firearms against their own government in secrecy in preparation for war.
Finally, your question seems to hint at an assertion I see frequently from pro-gun activists, that gun laws affect only law-abiding citizens and criminals will never obey laws, so why have them?
But that’s a rather transparent argument for anarchy. No law, of course, is 100% effective. The purpose of laws is to punish those who endanger public safety (thereby removing that threat) and to deter others from engaging in similar behavior. Without the rule of law, clubs are trump and might makes right. That’s not what our Founders wanted when they established the wonderful system of government we enjoy to this day. And that’s not what most Americans, or most gun owners, want in 2012.
SHB Rebuttal: Angus Reid Public Opinion (72%) and Reuters (75%) show that the majority of Americans support concealed carry. So, I think that gun owners and the public would resist laws designed to strip (or significantly impair) that right. In short, there are certain “inconveniences” that would not fly with gun owners or the public.
Speaking to your point about mental illness, yes, ideally we would be able to keep all guns away from everyone who would perpetrate violence. And I think most gun owners are open to hearing efficient, non-invasive, non-rights trampling suggestions to accomplish that goal.
But, also, and to be honest, when I think of people like Jared Loughner or Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech shooter) or Anders Anders Behring Breivik (the Norway bomb-and gun attacker) I’m almost positive that no gun-control law would have prevented them from inflicting mass violence.
If they couldn’t have purchased guns legally, they would have obtained them illegally or found some other means to achieve their objective. To speak to this point, one should consider what Breivk wrote in his 1500-page manifesto – 2083: A European Declaration of Independence – about efforts to thwart his uprising:
“If they take away our AN-fertilizer, we will use AN from Ice packs! If they take away our ice packs; we will hi-jack propane trucks and use them as secondary explosive charges! If they take away our propane trucks; we will fight them with conventional weapons! If they ban the sale of weapons; we will smuggle in AK-47s from the Balkans and the Middle East!”
“They cannot prevent us, the European conservatives from eventually seizing political and military power. We will succeed even if we have to create our very own improvised guns.”
In the end, laws won’t stop crazy, but bullets will.
I would like to thank Ladd Everitt for agreeing to do this interview with me. He was extremely polite and patient during our email correspondences.
Depending on your feedback, we may do this again on another gun-related topic in the future. So, if you have any questions or comments or issues you’d like addressed, please include them in the comment section below.