Following the tragic shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. by Adam Lanza , many Americans are wondering what exactly our Founding Fathers intended when they set the Second Amendment to paper more than 200 years ago. Surely not the killing of 20 young children and six women.
Were firearms intended only for militias – as the first clause might indicate? Or are municipalities prohibited from banning certain firearms – as the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in McDonald v. Chicago when it overturned the Windy City's ban on hand guns?
The problem with these lines of thought is that in both we are refusing to frame this debate in the 21st century. Or even more appropriate, the year 2012 – whose multiple mass shootings included the massacre in Aurora, Colo. and last week's two tragedies in Happy Valley, Ore. and Newtown. If we truly wish to demystify the intentions of James Madison when he wrote the Second Amendment, we must reconstruct the environment in which he conceived it and recognize that it was a very different time, with very different circumstances, and very different weapons.
At first, success in the Revolutionary War helped the Founding Fathers realize the necessity of firearms. A far-away government imposed taxes without representation, but with an armed citizenry, the colonies had fought for the right to form their own government. It is likely that Madison intended that guns be available if this course of action was ever again necessary.
But now the field has changed. The muskets that the minutemen took up against the British were a good match for the weapons they would be facing on the battlefield. This is undoubtedly no longer the case.
Now there is no citizen armament – and really, nothing short of military aircraft or an atomic weapon – that could match the US military. And even today’s Supreme Court would find it hard to permit the construction of backyard missile silos. Regrettably or not, we must concede that the conditions allowing for an armed revolution of the people have long since vanished.
But, there’s still the question of why firearms for a militia might be necessary. Again, we should take Madison’s perspective. While America was fulfilling its manifest destiny, expansionists would often instigate territorial disputes with the native people whose land and resources they were claiming. When those peoples objected violently, groups of armed men, shoulder to shoulder, could repel them with force and keep their communities safe. Now that we have essentially concluded all territorial disputes in North America, it is safe to say that this justification’s time has passed.
But then, there is personal defense, by far the most controversial rationale for unmitigated gun rights. Proponents of this school of thought suggest that firearms – even automatic weapons – are necessary for protecting their homes from intruders and from violent criminals, both of whom may be similarly armed. They use this argument to justify owning weapons with silencers, expanded magazines, and semi-automatic triggering mechanisms. What they ignore though, is that in the days of James Madison, none of these technologies existed, nor was there any conception that they ever would be.
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.
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.