When two-thirds of the murders in the U.S. are committed with guns, one would hope that politicians would be taking prudent steps to restrict access to firearms. Against all common sense, Attorney General John Ashcroft is working to make guns more easily available. Last Monday, the Justice Department reversed its longstanding position on the Second Amendment “right of the people to keep and bear arms,” reinterpreting it as an individual right to own guns rather than a collective right to bear arms in a militia. Ashcroft’s policy reversal confirms many concerns about his appointment and verifies the National Rifle Association’s boast during the 2000 election that it would be working out of the Bush White House.
Ashcroft’s new interpretation flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s last decision on the Second Amendment. In the 1939 case United States vs. Miller, the court established that the Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms only with some reasonable relationship to the preservation of efficiency of a well-regulated militia. In fulfilling his oath of office, Ashcroft must respect that the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court is “the supreme law of the land.” He should encourage the Justice Department to follow the justices’ directive and not push his own personal interpretation on the department or on the American people.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s current position, it is frightening that Ashcroft, in the position of the nation’s top crime fighter, wants to liberalize federal firearm policy. A good attorney general would work to take the country in exactly the opposite direction. America needs tougher laws to keep weapons away from criminals and children, ban handguns and create a national gun registry to keep track of weapons and their owners.
The obstacle to taking these steps goes beyond Ashcroft’s hard-line policy. The vague wording of the Second Amendment leaves open the possibility that a future Supreme Court will reinterpret the Constitution the way Ashcroft does. The amendment has the potential to obstruct future federal gun control legislation that could prevent thousands of needless deaths. Therefore, the American people and the individual states should vocally push for the repeal of the Second Amendment.
Repealing a constitutional amendment is not an action to be taken lightly; America is obviously a nation that prides itself on the rights and freedoms of individuals. But the time has come for the U.S. to weigh the right to bear arms against the right to be free from gun violence in schools, workplaces and city streets. Over 13,000 people were killed by guns in 1998, not including suicides, which would more than double that number. While a right to bear arms may have made sense in early America, it is hardly necessary now. Americans are protected internationally by the world’s most powerful armed forces and domestically by the dedicated men and women of local law enforcement.
The Second Amendment has never been incorporated to apply to the individual states under the Fourteenth Amendment, leaving states with more freedom to regulate guns than the federal government. But much of the regulation needed on this issue must come at the federal level; it is far too easy for criminals to cross state lines to purchase guns at currently unregulated gun shows. Repealing the Second Amendment would remove an obstacle to increased, comprehensive federal legislation.
Americans’ safety does not necessitate the total elimination of guns; many Americans use guns safely and responsibly. Rather, America should view gun use, much like automobile use, as a privilege—not as a right. This shift would allow the federal regulation necessary to reduce crime and save thousands of lives. The Constitution is a cherished document, but there are provisions to amend it to change with the times.
Dissent: Americans Have Right to Own Guns
The staff’s knee-jerk condemnation of Attorney General Ashcroft is completely misguided; he is hardly imposing his “personal” views on the rest of us. Throughout America’s history, it has been implicitly understood that the Second Amendment protects the guns rights of individuals. Last week’s Justice Department announcement merely supported a fundamental freedom that many jurists had accepted until some concerns arose over the precise language of firearm rights in the early twentieth century.
The Supreme Court ruling that the Staff cites, Miller v. U.S. (1939), did hold that guns rights were only protected with regards to militias. Still, consider how the court defined “militia” in that decision: “[A]ll males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.” These “males” it should also be noted, “were expected to appear bearing arms supplied by themselves,” according to the court. The Miller case, therefore, is hardly a ringing endorsement of widespread gun-control.
More disturbing than the Staff’s position on Ashcroft, though, is its ludicrous call for the repeal of the Second Amendment. Individual gun rights have been a sacred element of American freedom since the colonial era, and no U.S. Congress in its right mind would ever choose to repeal this right.
The Staff’s ultimate hope, it appears, is for the enactment of prohibitory gun measures. Yet historical evidence shows that gun control is a totally ineffective means of reducing crime. From 1900-1930, for example, there were relatively few changes in U.S. per capita gun ownership, but our nation’s murder rate increased tenfold. Between 1937 and 1963, however, handgun ownership increased by a whopping 250 percent, while the homicide rate actually fell by 35.7 percent.
There’s no way to ever have a society where there are no guns; likewise, it’s impossible to have a society where the bad guys won’t be able to acquire firearms through illegal avenues. The only reasonable solution is to vigorously enforce the federal government’s existing gun statutes—of which there are many—and afford law-abiding citizens the freedom of self-protection.
— Duncan M. Currie ’04 Katherine M. Dimengo ’04 , Emma R.F. Nothmann ’04, Paul C. Schultz ’03, and Luke Smith ’04