I. Life, liberty, and property?
II. Central Issues
III. Candidate’s Position
LIFE, LIBERTY, AND PROPERTY?
The thoughts of 17th century English philosopher, John Locke (1632 – 1704), have long been cited as the foundation which our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights were based upon. Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) provided the framework for our nation’s founding principles and moral compass, while his Two Treatises on Government (The False Principles and Foundation of Sir Robert Filmer and Second Treatise of Civil Government) written in 1689 was the bedrock of the Bill of Rights.
Locke’s then revolutionary concept of empiricism, negative rights and individual liberty, written in response to the English Exclusion Crisis (1678 - 1681), were so dangerous, he never publicly took credit for his work. His dismissals of the divine rights of kings alone were enough to condemn him to death several times over. However, it was his discourse on the state of nature and state of war that elevated him into one of the most revered thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment, ahead even of such luminaries as Voltaire and Kant. Our Founding Fathers, most notably George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were hugely influenced by Locke’s brand of governance, individual rights and liberties.
However, what has all this got to do with the gun-control debate?
Well, in his Second Treatise, Locke, who ironically, is frequently cited as the Father of Liberalism, expounded on the concept of the rights of an individual and the role of a government:
Chapter 2, Of The State of Nature “To understand political power aright, and derive it from its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of Nature, without asking leave or depending upon the will of any other man.”
Chapter 3, Of The State Of War “Men living together according to reason without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of Nature. But force, or a declared design of force upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war”
Chapter 11, Of The Extent Of The Legislative Power “A man, as has been proved, cannot subject himself to the arbitrary power of another; and having, in the state of Nature, no arbitrary power over the life, liberty, or possession of another, but only so much as the law of Nature gave him for the preservation of himself and the rest of mankind, this is all he doth, or can give up to the commonwealth, and by it to the legislative power, so that the legislative can have no more than this. Their power in the utmost bounds of it is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects … ”.
Chapter 13, Of the Subordination of the Powers of the Commonwealth “… yet the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them. For all power given with trust for the attaining an end being limited by that end, whenever that end is manifestly neglected or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security. And thus the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of anybody, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish or so wicked as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject … they will always have a right to preserve what they have not a power to part with, and to rid themselves of those who invade this fundamental, sacred, and unalterable law of self-preservation for which they entered into society. And thus the community may be said in this respect to be always the supreme power, but not as considered under any form of government, because this power of the people can never take place till the government be dissolved.”
Essentially, Locke contends that the primary function of a government is to protect the natural rights of an individual in a society, specifically their life, liberty, and property (Jefferson paraphrased this to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence). In the event a government abdicates or perverts from its chief responsibility, the collective individual must assume the right to remove the government from power through a revolution. This is again echoed in the Declaration, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Our Founding Fathers patently agrees with Locke’s rationale, and in the preceding years, the colonial forces’ Commander in Chief and the country’s future President, George Washington, even used this same line of reasoning in his speeches, as he led his fledgling army of conscripts and mercenaries against the mighty British forces in the Revolutionary War.
Fearful of failure and more importantly, of betraying the trust given to them by the people, the Founding Fathers attempted to provide an avenue for a similar recourse in their young and highly experimental government, which eventually saw to the passing of the Second Amendment.
"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"
And therein lies the crux of the issue, the singular source of the 235 year old debate between the advocates and opponents of gun control. Dissecting it further, the interpretations of the following terms from the Amendment enhances our understanding of the conflict.
• Does the term ‘militia’ connotes an armed segment of the ordinary citizenry, or an organized unit of state-sponsored, not federal, combatants (a more basic form of the National Guards perhaps)?
• Does ‘security’ refer to that of national, state, county or individual?
• Do ‘arms’ entail an unconditional latitude of lethal armaments, or is it constrained to something similar with the US Code (Title 18, Part I, Chapter 44, Item 921)
3) The term “firearm” means
(A) any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive;
(B) the frame or receiver of any such weapon;
(C) any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or
(D) any destructive device. Such term does not include an antique firearm.
• Did the Founding Fathers intentionally wrote the Bill vaguely, in the hope that it would offer a wide legislative leeway for the nation, to face a yet unknown, but expected, fluid and challenging future?
This issue has remained at a simmering point for well over two centuries, and continues to boil over each time a gun-related tragedy occurs. The Virginia Tech massacre and the attempted assassination-turned mass murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, are some of the more recent flash points. Nevertheless, the subject of gun control has degenerated from its earlier philosophical discourse into something more tangible, manifesting itself into a political tussle between the Democrats and Republicans.
i. The Second Amendment: Individual or Collective Right?
i. The Second Amendment: Individual or Collective Right?
Hundreds, if not thousands of historians, social scientists, psychologists and professional know-it-alls have attempted to explain and rationalize the assimilation of the gun culture into mainstream America for as long as there was anyone can remember.
Nevertheless, the simple fact is this: while it is true that we are the only developed nation in the world without a strict regulation of a civilians’ right to possess firearms, we are also the only country in the world that has required, no, demanded, its citizenry to raise their weapons in defense of their lives and property. History is replete, from the frontier days right down to the late 19th century (and in some instances, even in the beginning of the 20th), of ordinary citizens being deputized or simply summoned to assist in tackling cattle rustlers, bandits and outlaws, indigenous Native Americans, border disputes on the Southern and Western fronts, political disputes, and much more.
This unique exigency placed on the populace, brought upon by the constant pressures of maintaining and expanding a very young America, has inadvertently cast a murky veil on the Second Amendment.
“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”
While taken on its own, the Second Amendment only appears to confer the right to bear arms to an organized militia, the cultural and historical precedents force us to redefine the very concept of militia. The colonists, the Western settlers, the Native Americans, the cowboys, the Civil War conscripts were all, at one time or another, de-facto militias; gun control advocates, however, contends that the country and society have evolved so far away from our dangerous frontier past to render the whole argument extraneous.
Contrary to the popular figure of 20,000 often cited by various circles, even among the academia, America has only about 300 state and federal legislations designed for gun controls (Evaluating Gun Policy, The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy; Jon Vernick and Lisa Hepburn).
However, the figure still remains a source of discontent for both advocates and opponents of gun control legislations. While its advocates continue to lament the absence of truly stringent laws and the lack of consistent enforcement on the existing ones, opponents are increasingly upset at the perceived efforts to gradually diminish their constitutional right to bear arms.
In the surprising absence of an independent across-the-board analysis of the causal effects of gun legislations against the universal denominators - crime, violence and deaths - both sides often had to rely on selective data and empiric interpretations to push forward their causes. This fact was echoed very loudly by Professor Gary Kleck of Florida State University in his research agenda on the study named Guns, Violence, and Gun Control:
“Therefore, law enforcement agencies should be encouraged to develop indicators of criminal gun possession/carrying levels, which could serve not only scholarly research purposes but also as valuable indicators of whether law enforcement efforts are succeeding in reducing criminal gun possession.”
In fact, this has created a situation where the seven most significant gun control laws passed in the last century being cited by both parties to substantiate their respective contentions.
• National Firearms Act (1934)
Designed by the Roosevelt administration to eliminate disguised weaponries, machine guns and other automatic firearms from the general public, primarily through an exorbitant $200 per unit tax.
• Federal Firearms Act (1938)
The introduction of end-buyer records and the Federal Firearms License to dealers.
• Gun Control Act (1968)
Introduce enhanced end-buyer record keeping by dealers, outlawed mail-order and inter-state sales. Additionally, sale of firearms is restricted to anyone who “is under indictment for, or has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year" (18 U.S Code § 922, d.1).
• Law Enforcement Officers Protection Act (1986)
The Act outlawed the manufacturing or importation of armor piercing bullets, which were mainly used against armor-wearing law enforcement officials.
• Crime Control Act (1990)
Part of a larger juvenile crime control policy that saw to the institution of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990.
• Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (1994)
One of Congress’ most fiercely contested bills that saw it passing through the reign of three American presidents (Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton), before being finally signed into law by Clinton in late 1993.
Among the most notable facet of the Act was the requirement for buyers to be screened by the FBI-operated National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and forbidding the sale of firearms to felons, substance abusers and illegal aliens.
• Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994)
Outlawing the manufacturing and distribution of semi-automatic weapons and super-sized magazines for civilians.
More interestingly, there are viewpoints that the presence of firearms in homes offers a significant deterrent against would be criminals. In a 1994 survey, Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms, conducted by the National Institute of Justice, the researchers concluded that there were approximately 1.5 million instances of defensive gun usage among the populace in the country.
However, the idea was summarily dismissed by gun control advocates, who argue that since the enactment of the Brady Act, deaths from guns related violence has reached a statistical plateau, as evidence by data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control). The apparent success of the act, illustrated by the stabilization of gun-related deaths, appears to validate their contention for the need of stricter gun control laws.
Ave Deaths/ Mil
Gun rights activist meanwhile points instead to a Gallup Poll released in January 2011, taken in the wake of the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Instead of the expected outrage and short term spike in support of gun regulations, a full 54% of respondents said they were against any further increase in gun control restrictions, which is in line with a trend observed since 1991.
However, in the matter of gun control, nothing is as straightforward as it seems. A poll by General Social Survey held around the same time showed that the number of household gun ownership rate has dropped by nearly a quarter since the early seventies, illustrating a massive drop in individual gun ownership. The poll revealed that barely a third (36%) of American household still possesses guns.
Has the continued urbanization of modern America signaled the final decline in public firearms ownership?
How does the casualty rate between homes with and without firearms, as insensitive as it may sound, stack up?
Will there be continued calls for less stringent gun ownership legislations?
Stay tuned for the next installment of the lopsided, lobbyists-sponsored polls for the answers! But for now, let's hear what the candidates have to say on the matter.
The Second Amendment: Individual or Collective Right?
Obama agrees to an individual's right to bear arms, in principle, but does not take it as an
absolute right and considers it as a negotiable subject.
“I think it’s important for us to recognize that we’ve got a tradition of handgun ownership
and gun ownership generally. And a lot of law-abiding citizens use it for hunting, for
sportsmanship, and for protecting their families. We also have a violence on the streets that is the
result of illegal handgun usage. And so I think there is nothing wrong with a community saying we
are going to take those illegal handguns off the streets. And cracking down on the various loopholes
that exist in terms of background checks for children, the mentally ill. We can have reasonable,
thoughtful gun control measure that I think respect the Second Amendment and people’s
April 16, 2008, Democratic Primary Debate, National Constitution Center in Philadelphia
“I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear
arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from
the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures. The Supreme
Court has now endorsed that view, and while it ruled that the D.C. gun ban went too far, Justice
Scalia himself acknowledged that this right is not absolute and subject to reasonable regulations
enacted by local communities to keep their streets safe”
Obama commenting on the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling of upholding an individual’s right to
bear arms and revoking a handgun legislation in Washington, D.C
June 26, 2008, Associated Press
"As a general principle, I believe that the Constitution confers an individual right to bear
arms. But just because you have an individual right does not mean that the state or local government
can't constrain the exercise of that right."
April 16, 2008, Democratic Primary Debate, National Constitution Center in Philadelphia