The Children's Crusade
The Children's Crusade by Gustav Doré
On St. Valentines Day, the nation suffered another horrendous mass murder attack that killed 17 students and staff at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. There have been many predictable reactions to this outrage with the left shouting to ban guns and the right temporizing about the Second Amendment. President Trump has focused on metal health and arming teachers as ways to stop the carnage. It is true that the diminutive killer, Nikolas Cruz, presented many mental health problems in his troubled life that forewarned of impending violence. Those warning signs were ignored, overlooked or mishandled by local and national authorities resulting in the carnage.
Most folks believe that, after much hand wringing, little will be done about gun violence and that the bloodshed will continue with horrendous regularity. But there are some signs that this particular mass murder will have a greater impact than others such as Stony Hook and Las Vegas.
The first thing is that, unlike most other mass shootings, Nikolas Cruz dropped his weapon and walked out of the school by blending in with other students but was later arrested. President Trump is wrong to think that fear of death will deter these killers. Cruz is an exception. He has offered to plead guilty in order to be spared the death penalty that many agonizing parents will be demanding. He should be taken up on his offer. His execution would offer cold vengeance but would do nothing to bring back the slaughtered children or teachers. But studying him and understanding what motivated his actions might offer insights that could save lives in the future. Besides, what could be more excruciating than to spend the next sixty years contemplating one’s own unspeakable acts?
The second difference is that the surviving victims are speaking out and other students are joining them to demand that something be done. In their naiveté they do not fully understand the complexities involved in launching a such a crusade, let alone bringing it to a successful conclusion. Yet they are having an impact. People and corporations are turning on the once impregnable National Rifle Association (NRA). Companies no longer want to be associated with the organization and people turn away and retch when the NRA leader, Wayne LaPierre, cites the inviolability of the Second Amendment once again.
Maybe we need to take a closer look at the Second Amendment keeping in mind that the Founders did not intend the Constitution to be immutable but, rather, just difficult to change.
The world in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, was very different from the world we now live in. The second amendment is very brief and to the point:
“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.”
The Founders feared the potential power of the central government and did not want the federal government to maintain a large standing army. In 1794 (the closest year in Department of Defense records) the entire armed force of the United States was just 5,669 men. The government needed well-trained militia forces to supplement the small standing army to withstand invading forces such as during the War of 1812. In addition, the Founders believed that State militia forces would be a counterbalance to the power of the central government as noted by James Madison in the Federalist Paper No. 46. The Second Militia Act of 1792 incorporated every “free able-bodied white male citizen” between 18 and 45 to be in the militia and to provide his own musket and ammunition.
In addition, in those times about 90 percent of the population was employed in agriculture and most farmers needed to hunt in order to supplement their diets. So the gun was an essential tool for the early American farmer just like his plow or hoe. And, being far removed from civil or military reinforcements, people on the frontier needed rifles and muskets for protection.
So we have four reasons for the necessity of the Second Amendment.
To supplement the small standing army of the federal government
To counter balance the coercive power of the central government
To provide the ability to put meat on the table
To provide the ability to protect your family and possessions when necessary
Many people might say that the conditions that necessitated the Second Amendment, as written, no longer exist and that most people will never be called up to the militia and we have no need for a weapon over our mantle. However, the Efficiency in Militia Act of 1903 reaffirms the 1792 Act that every able-bodied American citizen is a member of the militia; the National Guard being the organized militia and the rest of us making up the reserve militia. The Second Amendment, therefore, not only affirms our right to keep and bear arms but, in conjunction with the 1903 Act, would seem to obligate us to do so. Even the oath of citizenship requires that naturalized citizens agree to bear arms on behalf of the United States which is to say that upon becoming a citizen they also become part of the reserve militia.
We could update the 1903 Act to better define who is a member of the militia but the Second Amendment says the people have the right to keep and bear arms, not just the people in the militia. And then there is Hamilton’s argument. But Hamilton likely thought that it would be the state militias under the orders of the state governors that would resist the federal government and not roving bands of untrained citizens.
Besides, who thinks that a bunch of poorly organized militias or unorganized civilians with AR-15s could do much against the US Army? Guns are poor protection against tyrants. The Color Revolutions of Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring have showed that “people power” can win over “firepower”. In fact, those overthrows of dictatorial powers would likely have been even bloodier if the citizens had been armed.
In the twenty-first century, the only valid reasons for gun ownership in the United States are sport and personal protection. And while an AR-15 (or equivalent) would provide some potent personal protection, giving individuals the ability to murder multitudes of people (my God! A single shooter was able to kill and injure almost a thousand people in Las Vegas) is downright dangerous. The Federal Government, in addition to protecting our liberties, is tasked with the responsibility of insuring domestic Tranquility (our kids don't feel very tranquil about going to school these days). That responsibility requires that the government develop reasonable regulations to govern gun ownership and use.
The Supreme Court has a mixed record of rulings regarding the Second Amendment but generally it has ruled that the Second Amendment only applies to the federal government; a concept that allows the states to regulate firearms, as the militias are state entities (in other words the states can infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms). This, naturally, has resulted in a confusing welter of different gun regulations from state to state. The Court has only recently ruled on the individual's right to bear arms (District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008) and McDonald vs. Chicago (2010)). But the logic of these rulings is convoluted, not just because of the language of the Second Amendment but because of the clear intent of the Founders. The Second Amendment was an eighteenth century necessity but it has become a twenty-first century anachronism.
The planned march on Washington by students to demand some action to stop this senseless violence may be able to motivate legislators to take some action. But they will have to update the Second Amendment and related laws to match our twenty-first century sensibilities to have any meaningful impact and that will not be an easy task. It will require the broad support of both political parties and a consensus of the entire population. Can these student marchers start a revolution? A peaceful revolution to be sure, but it will require a revolutionary change in the thinking of millions of people to change the gun laws in the United States.