College newspapers hone journalism talent, but they do so by providing an outlet where mistakes, while discouraged, are part of the process. (I should know — I wrote for and eventually edited one.) Though all speech deserves criticism, it’s always cringeworthy when students take real-world flack for their youthful missteps.
So it is with the Harvard Crimson’s much-much-lambasted “Pulling the Trigger,” an unsigned editorial that makes the case for repealing the Second Amendment. It’s rife with problems, but the editors get more right than most of the gun-control movement does.
When it comes to guns and the Constitution, there are three main areas of importance: Historical (in what context was the Second Amendment written, and how has that context shifted?), legal (precisely what forms of gun control does the amendment proscribe?) and practical (does the Second Amendment prohibit more good policies than bad, and therefore, should we repeal it?). All told, the paper is about half-right.
The amendment reads, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” A plain reading reveals two important historical facts — “the People” have a right to own guns, and this right was created in the context of needing an armed populace for militia purposes. The Founders distrusted standing armies, so they wanted citizen militias to (A) replace them to the highest degree possible and (B) retain the size and firepower necessary to overthrow the government’s forces.
The Crimson earns half a cheer for its handling of these facts. It evades the question of whether the Second Amendment protects a right of “the People,” but the rest of its arguments operate on the assumption that it does. It wrongly conflates the militia with “minutemen,” but it is quite correct in noting that citizen militias have fallen by the wayside. It fails to address the idea of overthrowing a tyrannical government, but most agree that prospect is slim (Glenn Reynolds thinks it might work if needed).
It is simply a fact that the Second Amendment passed in a certain context, and that the context has changed. This does not invalidate the law. A new amendment would have to do that.
Which is where the Crimson gets a full cheer. The editors don’t say the Second Amendment no longer applies, and that the government can simply enact gun control without worry — the approach New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and many of Chicago’s suburbs have taken. Their lawyers re-imagine the amendment to guarantee only militia members’ rights to guns, ignoring the use of “the People” and the historical record’s clear demonstration (registration required) that “the militia” refers to all citizens. Some courts have even bought into this rubbish.
But once it’s established that we’d have to repeal the Second Amendment to enact strict gun-control measures, the question turns to whether we should. There’s an important balance between freedom, self-defense and crime. Here’s where the Crimson stitches together a collection of random, easily debunked talking points:
* “The high level of violence in the United States as compared to other developed countries …. is at least a strong argument that the Second Amendment is preventing aggressive federal gun regulation.” The United States had more violence than other developed countries even before those countries clamped down on guns. Also, the Supreme Court has never invalidated a gun regulation on Second Amendment grounds (a new D.C. case could change this), so if the federal government isn’t passing strict enough laws, it’s because the legislators don’t want to. Under Clinton, they had no problem doing so.
* “According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2005, 68 percent of the 14,860 homicides in the United States were gun-related….Gun advocates claim the need for handguns in self-defense, but such considerations are moot when weighed against the number of lives that might be saved by making the weapons illegal.” Tell that to people in (for example) Chicago and D.C., where local governments have made them illegal, and where criminals chipped in more than their fair share of those 14,860 deaths. Also tell it to that very same CDC, which failed to turn up any statistical evidence that any form of gun control does more good than harm.
* “[L]ittle is done to prevent [handgun] distribution: In Virginia, any person over the age of 18 can buy a handgun, and if a handgun is purchased at a gun show, there is no background check required.” No serious commentator has argued background checks violate the Second Amendment. Even the National Rifle Association supports them. As with the federal government, if Virginia doesn’t have strict enough laws, it’s because its legislators don’t want them. Also, the same laws apply at gun shows as everywhere else — licensed dealers have to perform checks, but if Jim Smith brings his old hunting rifle and sells it, he doesn’t have to. One can disagree with the law, but the implied loophole for gun shows doesn’t exist. And the age cutoff is 18 for long guns, 21 for handguns.
Allowing for the young-and-dumbness factor, and considering the break with some anti-gun dogmas, there’s much to praise in the Crimson’s editorial. Those more knowledgeable about the gun debate have every right to smirk, but they should be thankful that the left, slowly but surely, is coming to grasp the Second Amendment as an individual right.
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