Dissecting the Second

Opinions  /  by Shriya Annamaneni '20, Anton Kandalin '19, and Kevin Xiao '19  /  January 12, 2018

Fiona Gould '18 / The Lawrence

Shriya Annamaneni

In the U.S., national polls conducted from 2007 to 2012 found that almost 49 percent of households contained firearms; 38 percent of reported Republicans and 22 percent of reported Democrats owned them. Though the percentage of Republicans is significantly higher, the difference is much less than expected based on popular political stereotypes. For this reason, while I do lean to the left, I write this article as not a Democrat but simply an average concerned citizen.

In 1791, when the Second Amendment was added to our Constitution, the country was still reeling from the recent Revolutionary War. Redcoats had killed innocent civilians on our own land and the best way to defend and protect ourselves was to arm the citizens. However, as time passes, we must move with it. America is a quickly developing country in many aspects, so why do we remain clinging to such an outdated law?

Of all 195 countries, the United States and Yemen are the only two that believe owning firearms is not a privilege but a right. The crime rate, or amount of crimes documented per 100,000 people, in Yemen is 77. On the other hand, Singapore has the lowest crime rate in the world as well as some of the strictest gun restrictions.

However, because I am a 15-year-old sophomore from East Brunswick, New Jersey, I do not expect all of my beliefs surrounding the Second Amendment to magically all be accepted. As a result, I do not propose that Congress suddenly ban possession of all firearms. Instead, I would just like to see laws tightened so that crime rates drop without the unnecessary strain on citizens who want a means to protect themselves.

Under federal law, citizens are not required to undergo background checks before selling firearms to those in the same state. No matter what your beliefs on gun control are, I think and hope that we can all agree that this regulation is unacceptable. In 2015, Dylann Roof was able to gain access to a gun without a background check, killing nine people at a black church in South Carolina despite a police record showing his previous drug possession. The event in South Carolina shook the foundation of the entire country when it occurred. The fact that we cannot take a step forward to prevent such events from occurring again, and the fact that such events have occurred again, disheartens me. Moreover, according to The New York Times, felons convicted within the most recent year are allowed to own handguns, and gang members currently hold between 2 and 10 million firearms. Though I accept that eradicating firearms altogether is not possible and from some points of view not necessary, I do think that strengthening the law concerning it is vitally important to the wellbeing of our nation.

I think this perspective of finding a middle ground was lost, as many of us can agree, in the gun control forum held before Winter Break. I had hoped that what the forum would accomplish would be not establishing a “correct” answer through argument but bringing awareness and tolerance to the many valid ideas in the room through collaboration. While the forum was successful in showing us these viewpoints, regardless of our liberal majority, both sides of the spectrum refused to accept our need to compromise, not only at Lawrenceville but also in the greater community.

Anton Kandalin and Kevin Xiao:

On June 26, 2008, the Supreme Court endorsed a controversial view in District of Columbia v. Heller: that the Second Amendment guarantees the right of an individual to own a firearm “unconnected with service in a militia” and to use that firearm for “traditionally lawful purposes.” Several justices expressed concerns that D.C.’s reading of the Second Amendment could allow virtually any form of gun control. Thus, the Court refuted the prevailing argument that the Second Amendment refers only to a right to bear arms in connection to a militia.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion exemplified originalism and, more specifically, the original intent theory: that interpretation of the Constitution should be guided by what was meant by its drafters and ratifiers. For this reason, Scalia interpreted the “well regulated Militia” phrase of the Second Amendment according to its meaning in the 18th century. Today, the word “militia” connotes an official reserve army of citizen soldiers, such as the Army Reserve or the National Guard. However, no official reserve army existed at the time of the country’s founding. The word “militia” referred to the entire able-bodied population of locality, which consisted of non-professional fighters who were expected to have arms.

Because the meanings of words can evolve over time, Scalia was right that the Constitution—just like a contract—ought to be interpreted according to its meaning at the time of its formation. According to Scalia, the “Great Divide” in interpreting the Constitution is “that between original meaning (whether derived from the Framers’ intent or not) and current meaning.” Scalia was no fan of the latter theory: He, along with other originalists, rejected the notion that the Constitution is a living document. If it were, the Constitution would cease to perform its function as the objective Supreme Law of the Land. So, rather than interpret the Constitution, Scalia restored it.

Besides, it would have been useless for the Founding Fathers to have used the “well regulated Militia” phrase as a reference to an organized body because, in that case, the federal government would have the power to define what does or does not constitute a militia. The Constitution intended to restrict lawmakers and political actors from such acts, but the Second Amendment would have undermined this goal if it had referred to a standing army rather than private individuals.

Although the Constitution guarantees many rights, it does not allow for the abuses of these rights. For example, the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech, but it does not protect those who exploit their freedom to incite violence against others. Applying this logic to the Second Amendment, those who use their firearms as a means to harm others ought to feel the full weight of the law upon them.

To prevent abuses, legislators have rightfully proposed the institution of background checks for gun purchases. Such legislation intends to keep guns out of the wrong hands while not greatly inconveniencing law-abiding citizens. Nevertheless, the dilapidation of the country’s system of background checks continues to take innocent lives. In the recent Texas church shooting, the government’s failure to update the national criminal background registry—despite the fact that the shooter had a history of domestic violence—allowed for the horrific massacre. As 94% of all Americans and 92% of all gun owners support background checks, lawmakers have no excuse to fall behind on closing these loopholes and propping up the country’s outdated measures.

Another bipartisan proposal to prevent gun violence involves not a stricter crackdown on firearms, but a greater allocation of funds to treat mental illness. Mental illness has been a common thread in the recent acts of mass violence involving guns and other weapons. For example, in the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012, the shooter was a psychopath who illegally obtained access to guns and killed his mother. The country should dedicate government resources to the treatment of mental health issues; such a path would provide a permanent solution that would not undermine the Second Amendment.

Ultimately, although many do not agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling in D.C. v Heller, there is no denying that the Supreme Court is the highest authority on the Constitution. For now, its protection of an individual’s right to bear arms will have to stand. But even Scalia adopted a nuanced view, acknowledging that “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited”: The country can still impose reasonable limitations, including “prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools government buildings.” What many forget to realize is that such restrictions can—and must—exist within the framework of the Second Amendment.