Gun rights should apply to the general good
Lawrence Reid Bechtel
Bechtel is a sculptor and writer living in Blacksburg.
The Second Amendment is the great bulwark for the defense and advocacy of present and expanded gun rights. Time and again, it is presented as iron-clad proof, overruling any objections, that American citizens have the right to purchase, own and carry weapons.
Thus, Gov. Bob McDonnell in March announced his support of Senate Bill 334, citing the "Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens," even though the state association of police chiefs described the combination of guns in bars as a "recipe for disaster" ("Va. police chiefs: Don't allow guns in bars" March 17 news story). The governor has since signed this bill into law.
However, the Second Amendment is not an unequivocal protection of personal gun rights. The amendment seeks rather to present these rights in the context of a larger, societal responsibility.
The full text of 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." It is the last part of the amendment that is most familiar: "the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Quoted alone, these words sound as if they were an independent sentence. They are almost invariably used that way, too. And that's the problem: They are not a sentence, but a phrase, or pair of phrases, meant to be understood in the context of the first part of the amendment. Because a well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
This makes sense, at least historically. If our country were facing a general crisis or military emergency and a militia needed to be assembled in response, the citizens called upon to serve would of necessity have to supply their own weapons. Infringement of the citizens' right to keep and bear arms would, as a consequence, reduce a militia to fighting with pitchforks and shovels.
Of course, the United States hasn't relied upon militias for a long time and probably never will again because we have a professional armed forces. However, I do think that there is at least an implied principle in the Second Amendment that is not out of date at all and very relevant to current gun debates.
The principle is this: The right to keep and bear arms is meant for the general good. Armed citizens answering the call to serve in a well-regulated militia would do so for the purpose of acting together in defense of the political entity of which they were a part -- the free state -- from external or internal threat.
Yet few -- if any -- of the many reasons I hear given for the defense or expansion of gun rights are related to the general good or the security of a free state. On the contrary, the reasons given are almost invariably personal ones.
Most often, these reasons are based upon safety concerns. Individuals feel that the Second Amendment gives them the right to own a gun -- or guns -- to protect themselves, and/or their family at home. They feel that the amendment gives them the right to carry a concealed weapon to protect themselves and their families in public places, too: restaurants that serve alcohol, or bars, in the case of SB 334. In the most extreme cases, people feel that the amendment gives them the right to own guns to protect themselves against the government.
Yet safety in the home and in public, and even issues of governmental overreach, are a concern for all citizens, not just gun owners. Society at large is not better protected when a few citizens are empowered to carry concealed weapons into public places, nor when certain individuals organize themselves into self-styled militias.
Despite the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, I do not think that the full text of the Second Amendment rigidly protects a personal right to purchase, own and carry guns, unconnected with service in a well-regulated militia. Such an interpretation makes civil discussion of the complex issues related to gun ownership and gun regulation, personal liberty and public safety difficult, if not impossible.
If, however, we are able to modulate our understanding of the Second Amendment and see in it a concern for the general good, then perhaps there is a chance we can hear, and even incorporate, the legitimate concerns of law enforcement agencies and gun-wary citizens into our gun laws.