Madison never meant Second Amendment to allow guns of Sandy Hook shooting
Adam Lanza's shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. renews debate over gun control. A close look shows that James Madison conceived the Second Amendment in a different time, under different circumstances, with different weapons.
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The weapons with which Madison was familiar were essentially muskets, in addition to rudimentary pistols and rifles. A competent user could generally only take a single wildly inaccurate shot, and then would likely find himself rummaging around with a ram-rod (and a powder bag he had to tear with his teeth) for as much as a minute before being able to take another. There was virtually no way an individual could maim two people before being subdued, let alone 32 as at Virginia Tech, or 26 in Sandy Hook Elementary – the site of what is now the deadliest school shooting in US history.Skip to next paragraph
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The beauty of Madison’s musket was that, without being truly dangerous in large scale, it remained effective for personal defense. In addition to the propulsion mechanism, muskets were also outfitted with bayonets for issuing blows at short range, which could be used to subdue an attacker without killing them. When people did die from these weapons, it was often because of lead poisoning or bacterial infection. While the weapons of Madison’s era could be used for offense, and could certainly inflict deadly damage, they were only advantageous in situations involving group combat – not for an individual shooter to inflict quick and wide-scale harm.
If we accept the argument that today’s AK-47s fit the purpose and circumstances of Madison’s muskets, the fact that this nation experiences the insanity of mass murder is no longer surprising. The nature of this latest shooting in Connecticut, where the vast majority of the victims were young children, will hopefully shake us from this mindset. As families seek healing in the days and weeks ahead, lawmakers should consider specific reforms to curb gun violence, and they should start with access.
They can attempt to close loopholes, regulate sales, mandate more thorough background checks and waiting periods, raise awareness about mental health, or embark on a whole host of alternate approaches. But if we are continuing to defend the Second Amendment without restriction in a 21st-century context, what America really needs is to send our firearm technology back in time. American law can and should limit what technology is legal for citizens to access and own.
And as much as I would love to limit that technology to Revolutionary War-era muskets, more realistically, we can place restrictions on the kinds of weapons that are readily available in corner stores and at gun shows. The most obvious first step in this effort is to reinstate an assault weapons ban like the 1994 law that expired at the end of the George W. Bush administration in 2004. That would make it illegal for citizens to own guns like the Bushmaster .223-caliber rifle (a military-style assault weapon) used in the Newtown school shooting, a gun that investigators say belonged legally to Lanza's mother, and which he took from her home with four other weapons after fatally shooting her.
While hunters and gun collectors may complain about the decrease in speed and variety of weapons, no person’s sport is worth another person's man’s life. There is no logical reason that anyone should have to fire dozens of shots without reloading – unless intending to deprive that many people of life and limb. The US government must make the distinction between a weapon of war, and one that could be legitimately used for sport or self-defense.
If we as Americans mean to put the tragedy of mass murder behind us, we need to remove from public society the machines that make it possible. Guns may not kill people on their own, but making assault weaponry readily available trivializes the value of human life. Concerned citizens should pressure lawmakers to stand up to the gun lobby and create an America where Sandy Hook is remembered, not repeated.
Aaron Burger is a sophomore at Columbia University where he is studying electrical engineering and urban politics.