The current yelling match about guns is distinguished by two truths disconcerting to each side. As loony as the argument sounds after a history of 224 years, the faction that opposes any oversight or management of gun rights is correct about one thing. The Second Amendment doesn’t exist to protect people’s right to hunt. It doesn’t exist to protect people’s right to shoot a thief or intruder. Derived from a similar stipulation in the English Bill of Rights of the 1600s, the Second Amendment exists for the same reason as the rest of the Bill of Rights—to further define the relationship between individual freedom and state power, and in this case to prohibit the state from unilaterally disarming the citizenry. It’s an important principle of human freedom, however fueled it may be in this day and age by the paranoia and derangement of a social fringe. The left focuses obsessively on the Second Amendment’s language about maintaining a militia because the Second Amendment is the one instance in which progressives—after interpreting the other amendments so broadly as to extrapolate from the fourth a constitutional right to an abortion—suddenly become strict constructionists, in the same way that the Second Amendment is the one instance when those on the right suddenly become passionate about civil liberties. The people who wrote the Bill of Rights didn’t elevate the individual’s freedom to arm oneself over all other liberties except those enumerated in the First Amendment in order simply to run a militia. I write this, I should add, as someone who doesn’t own a gun and finds the romance of guns unfathomable, and as a father who, on a purely personal level for the sake of his two children, would just as soon every damned gun vanished from the face of the earth.
On the other hand, the disconcerting truth that gun-freedom absolutists must confront, assuming they can recognize let alone acknowledge it, has to do with themselves, or at least those arguing their cause. Let us descend from the lofty pinnacle of dispassion long enough to point out what any reasonable person can discern, which is that Wayne LaPierre is a bad dude. “Evil” is a word too epic for him, so let’s just say that the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association means no good for our country and couldn’t care less about it. He is spokesman for a thriving firearms industry that pays him in blood money, profiting from both the siege mentality of people too unstable to know better as well as from some irresistible human impulse to cause as much damage to something or someone in as little time as possible. While we’re careful not to assume guilt on the basis of association, at some point a cause becomes characterized by, and then interchangeable with, those who advance it, and it’s fair to correlate the merits and faults of an argument with the merits and faults of those who make it.
In their reading of the Second Amendment, gun-safety advocates would be better advised to note the phrase that precedes that word militia: “well regulated.” The framers of the Bill of Rights were not absolutists about gun freedom or, in fact, any specific freedom, particularly as it might apply two and a quarter centuries later. In the same way that the Second Amendment speaks to an overarching principle, the First does as well, advocating freedom of expression broad enough to include, for example—in the view of those freedom-of-expression absolutists among us, anyway—the right of consenting adults to make and distribute pornography to other consenting adults. Even a free-expression absolutist, however, has to take leave of all moral sense to believe such a principle protects pornography that involves children, since at that point pornography no longer is about expression but molestation. An AR-15 in the hands of children or the mentally disturbed (or both) is the child-pornography of the Second Amendment, and Wayne LaPierre is its purveyor, the gun lobby’s equivalent of the pedophile who flourishes by the desecration of the innocent. Regulating well that exquisite balance between freedom and order, between what can’t be given up easily in the name of safety and what the bloody massacre of eight-year-olds demands of us as a civilized people, is the task that the first Americans left to those of us here now who still care what being American means.