My Second Amendment Journey – Part One

In The Beginning

I’ve always been somewhat of a military history buff with a particular interest in World War Two.  Several years ago I attended a gun show in Denver, Colorado and had an opportunity to buy a WWII vintage M-1 Garand rifle, which was the infantry rifle carried by American GI’s throughout the war.

Picture of M1 Garand Rifle
M1 Garand Rifle from World War Two. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This gun show was prior to the Columbine school shooting in April 1999, yet because I bought the rifle from a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL) I had to pass a background check in order to buy the rifle.  I believe I paid about $350 for the rifle, which is a great investment considering I could probably sell it for at least five times my cost today.

In the first couple of years I owned it I shot it on several occasions and was proud to own a piece of American history.  During that time I also befriended a co-worker who was into guns and shooting and he and I used to go to the range about once a week for a few months to shoot.  In line with my historical interest and so I’d have my own gun to shoot, I purchased a Colt M1991A1 in .45 caliber, Commander model.  It is a “1911” model semi-automatic pistol and remains my primary home defense weapon to this day.  I paid about $500 for it in 1999, and like the rifle, it has greatly increased in value.

Picture of Colt 45 pistol
Colt M1991A1 Commander Model

I grew up in a home without guns and didn’t have any friends whose families owned guns or hunted.  It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I sought out some friends to teach me about gun safety and how to shoot.  I approached it much like learning to drive a car with a stick shift – a good skill to have but not something that would be useful to my everyday life.

Through my twenties into my late thirties I didn’t do much with or think about guns until my brother invited me to the gun show where I purchased the M-1 Garand.

After about a year, I was no longer working with the co-worker who wanted to go shooting every week and my interest gradually waned, especially due to the cost of ammunition and range fees.  It’s probably safe to say that except for a couple of camping trips and loaning my .45 to a friend, that I hadn’t shot, thought about or even touched my guns until December of 2012.

With regard to the Second Amendment, I of course knew of it in general terms.  Like many people, I thought the first part about a “well-regulated militia” pertained to keeping and bearing arms in a military situation and wasn’t really aware of laws surrounding ordinary civilians keeping and bearing arms.  Of course, when I traveled to and from the shooting range, I kept my pistol and rifle unloaded and cased, with the ammunition separate in accordance with my understanding of the law.  I kept my pistol loaded for home defense purposes but the rifle has been adorning my gun safe for years without being fired or transported.

On December 11 of 2012, if someone would have called me a Second Amendment activist I would have laughed at them.

In the aftermath of the Aurora Theater incident, I watched a lot of the TV coverage.  I watched Governor Hickenlooper state that “mental health” is the issue and that “we need to enforce the gun laws we have on the books” instead of enacting more laws.  I watched President Obama go on record stating that there was no need for further gun laws.  This was despite the fact I knew he had gone on record advocating the abolition of the sale or transfer of semi-automatic firearms while he was a a state legislator in Illinois.  Prior to that, while running for that office in the Illinois State Senate, he wrote on a questionnaire that he supported a ban on the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns.  Later, he denied that it was his writing on the document.  Based on his subsequent record, I do not believe that.

On December 12 I wandered into a new gun store in my neighborhood and looked at a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .380 with a laser sight.  Suddenly I was intrigued by the concept of owning a small, easily concealed pistol and of obtaining a concealed carry permit so that I could carry a gun legally if I ever felt the need to.  I purchased the .380 after waiting about an hour for the background check to clear.

Two days later, a mentally ill individual in Connecticut murdered his mother, stole her legally purchased guns, and went on a shooting rampage, killing twenty precious children and six courageous and selfless adults before killing himself.  This was only five months after another mentally ill individual used his legally purchased firearms to walk into a theater ten miles from where I live and murder twelve people and wound dozens of others.  I went to the theater a couple days after the rampage and offered a gift at the makeshift memorial and participated in my own small way in the grief surrounding the event.

Sandy Hook Was My Tipping Point

It was the shocking tragedy of the Sandy Hook shooting that compelled me to question what the Second Amendment really meant, the role of guns in American society as a whole and if gun control laws were actually effective in reducing gun crimes.  I approached this study with a reasonably open mind and was prepared to change my views if presented with compelling arguments or facts that would necessitate doing so.

My first objective was to learn more about the Second Amendment itself.  What did the Founders mean when they wrote the words “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”.   I wanted to know if the Second Amendment conferred an individual right to keep and bear arms or if it just applied to organized militia units as I had always vaguely thought. 

I started with the book The Second Amendment by David Barton.  In this book, Barton presents early legal commentaries indicating the original intent of the Founders as well as individual views of the authors of the Second Amendment including John Adams, Samual Adams, Patrick Henry, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, James Madison and others. Book Cover The Second Amendment by David Barton The original writings of these men present in their own words their view that the Second Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights to recognize and explicitly state that the right to keep and bear arms is indeed an individual right and is in fact a corollary of the inherent human right of self-defense.

Contrary to many people’s beliefs, the Second Amendment is not about hunting.  It is about protection from tyranny.   The Founders had just fought a war to escape from the tyranny of King George III and Parliament.  In their view, having an armed populace was the best way to prevent future tyranny.  To quote George Mason, delegate and “Father of the Bill of Rights”:

“I consider and fear the natural propensity of rulers to oppress the people.  I wish only to prevent them from doing evil…Divine providence has given to every individual the means of self-defense.” 1

James Madison, U.S. President, signer of the Constitution, author of many of the Federalist papers and framer of the Second Amendment, wrote:

[T]he advantage of being armed [is an advantage which] the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation…[I]n the several kingdoms of Europe…the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms.” 1

Clearly, then, the Second Amendment identifies and explicitly recognizes the right of the people to keep and bear arms to protect themselves from tyranny.  Other recognized uses for firearms included hunting and personal protection.  In the modern world, one can add the sport of target shooting to the list of uses for firearms. 

During the debates over the need for a standing army controlled by the new federal government as opposed to the state militias, the Anti-Federalists were concerned with this shift of power to the federal government, and the language about a “well-regulated militia” was included to placate the anti-Federalists.   As Nelson Lund, a prominent professor at the George Mason University School of Law has written:

“As a political gesture to the Anti-Federalists, a gesture highlighted by the Second Amendment’s prefatory reference to the value of a well-regulated militia, express recognition of the right to arms was something of a sop. But the provision was easily accepted because everyone agreed that the federal government should not have the power to infringe the right of the people to keep and bear arms, any more than it should have the power to abridge the freedom of speech or prohibit the free exercise of religion.” [Emphasis mine]

Some gun-control advocates insist that the phrase “well-regulated” means what we would think it means in today’s language usage, i.e. “regulated” in the sense of government controls, rules and regulations surrounding the concept in question.  That is another issue I specifically wanted to study.  Unfortunately for those who wish to restrict Second Amendment rights, that is not the case.  “Well-regulated” in the context of the late 18th century means “disciplined, trained and equipped”, not “controlled by the government”.  This issue is further explored by the Supreme Court decision in the DC v. Heller case.

In addition to this book I read the entire essay by Professor Lund and the Supreme Court cases, particularly United States v. Miller and District of Columbia v. Heller.  Both of these cases establish some limitations on the right to keep and bear arms while at the same time confirming that it is an individual right, not related to service in a militia or military unit.

More and More Guns Out There, And Crime Has Gone Down

The next step in my road of discovery was to ponder the question of whether or not more guns in society would increase or decrease gun-related crime.  To further explore this area, I discovered John R. Lott, Jr.’s book More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and G20131220 John Lott More Guns Less Crime Book Coverun Control Laws.  In first approaching this subject, it seemed counterintuitive that more guns in circulation would result in less crime.  However, Professor Lott convincingly makes the argument that more guns does indeed equate to less crime.

One of the drivers of this phenomenon is that starting in the late 1970s many states adopted concealed carry (“CC”) laws.  The landmark law that is frequently cited as sparking the momentum for CC is the Florida law passed in 1987, which was used as the model for other states adopting CC in the years following.

Under the Florida law, the state “shall-issue” a permit to any person who meets the criteria.  The criteria are generally that the person must be legally able to purchase a firearm, they must attend concealed carry training, get fingerprinted and photographed, and pay fees.  In the U.S. today, all 50 states allow the carrying of concealed weapons with varying degrees of freedom, from unrestricted or “Constitutional” carry to “restrictive may-issue”, which means that the issuance is up to the discretion of some official and the applicant must prove cause for carrying a concealed weapon.  In practice, restrictive may-issue is tantamount to “no-issue” which is clearly unconstitutional.  Residents of New Jersey, where 2016 presidential hopeful Chris Chistie is governor, face extreme difficulty in obtaining concealed carry permits.  Residents of Washington, D.C. are not allowed to carry concealed weapons, another violation of the Constitution.

US_State_Concealed_Carry

As CC increased in the U.S. through the increase of states adopting the laws and the number of citizens obtaining permits increased over time, violent crime (murder, robbery, rape and aggravated assault) declined in every state in the years following the adoption of the law.  Nationally, violent crime has decreased significantly in the U.S. since the early 1990s, while the number of guns in circulation has increased from 192 million in 1994 to an estimated 310 million in 2009  (and probably somewhat higher today).  Table 1, from the  2011 FBI Crime in the United States report shows the decline in total violent crimes in the US from 1992 to 2011, while at the same time showing the growth of the population and the number of gun background (NICS) checks from 1999 forward.

20131213 Table 1

While data for actual number of guns sold is not available, the number of background checks performed is used as an approximation because each background check could result in the sale of zero to an indeterminate number of guns.  As mentioned earlier, the estimated total number of guns held by civilians in America is about 310 million, and the number of households who self-report owning a gun was 47% in 2011, the highest percentage reported since 1993.   I believe this number may actually be low due to people who declined to self-report as gun owners.  In addition, the gun buying that took place after President Obama’s re-election and the Sandy Hook tragedy has likely driven the number of households owning guns even higher.  The number of gun owners in America is widely estimated to be about 100 million.

The number of CC permit holders over time is not easy to find or aggregate.   It is a reasonable assumption that the number has increased from the late 1980s to about 8 million people currently (approximately 2.5% of the population). I estimate there were over 170,000 concealed handgun permit (“CHP”) holders in Colorado alone as 2013 drew to a close. 

Professor Lott clearly shows that broadly speaking, the vast increase of guns in circulation and CHP holders over the last 20 years has had an inverse relationship to the incidence of violent crime in this country.  Interviews with convicted felons serving time reveals that criminals and the criminally insane tend to go for easy or “soft” targets.  The fact that criminals don’t know who may be carrying a defensive firearm does tend to be a deterrent.  Lott also points out that defensive carry disproportionately benefits minorities (most homicide victims are black, killed by other blacks) and women (who tend to be smaller and less strong than men).  Ironically, it is minority female politicians who have led the fight for more gun control laws in Colorado.

Another number that is extremely difficult to pin down is the number of defensive gun uses in America in any given period of time.  I have seen estimates ranging from 800,000 to over 2 million per year.  Of course, many defensive gun uses involve merely letting the bad guy know one is carrying.  Most defensive uses are never reported to law enforcement.  Others involve shooting an attacker and incidents involving legally justified defensive shootings seem to happen with some frequency.  It is quite likely, therefore, that legal – good – gun uses far outnumber criminal uses.

Once I had reviewed the origin and meaning of the Second Amendment and studying the issue of whether or not guns were effective in reducing crime I turned my attention to gun control itself.  In Part Two of this five part series I describe the process for obtaining a concealed carry permit in Colorado and explore the history of gun control in America.

 

By Richard D. Turnquist

January 1, 2014

Link to Part Two

Link to Part Three

Link to Part Four

Link to Part Five

 

Notes:

  1. Barton, David. The Second Amendment. Kindle location 153

 

 

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