I am not against gun ownership (I have a license to carry), but because I have actually read the U.S. Constitution, I understand the right to own a gun is based on tradition, custom, and precedent, not the language of the Second Amendment.
The context of that amendment was the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. The Massachusetts Militia, under the direction of the Massachusetts Committee of Public Safety, began stockpiling arms in Salem and Concord in response to the punitive Intolerable Acts imposed by the British in 1774. The British attempted to seize the arms at Salem but were turned away by the militia. The British responded by sending a far larger armed force to seize the arms stockpiled at Concord. The battle that ensued began the American Revolution.
The framers wanted to guarantee that the new state’s right to maintain an armed militia would be protected. After noting the importance of a “well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” they wrote that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
In the 18th century, “people” often referred to the larger collective. “We the people of the United States … do ordain and establish this Constitution…” is how it begins. The framers of the Second Amendment wanted to be clear that each state had the right to maintain an armed militia. The amendment protects Massachusetts’s right to arm its state police and national guard.
The individual’s right to own a gun comes from this country’s traditions and customs, endorsed by courts and maintained by legal precedent. It is based not on the language of the Second Amendment but on courts’ liberal interpretation of the amendment. As we now know, the current Supreme Court majority is not very interested in precedent.
Traditions and customs can change. Sixty years ago, it was considered a right to smoke in a theater or on an airplane; today, that is not tolerated. One hundred twenty years ago, one had the right to own and use a horse and wagon. Initially, when cars and trucks began to replace horses and wagons, it was assumed that anyone who could afford it had a right to own and operate a truck or car. As accidents and fatalities increased, states required tests, licenses, and insurance to own and operate a vehicle.
The conservative members of the Supreme Court claim to be interested in original intent and the actual language of the Constitution. They are either hypocrites or barefaced right-wing political operatives. As a nation, we should expect courts to exercise common sense and to respect the language of the Constitution and the rights of all people to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
There are good reasons for the Second Amendment to exist, but that doesn’t mean supporting the right of individuals to purchase military weapons that can be used against unarmed citizens, including children. Their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should be of central importance. This Court feels it is more important to uphold a right based on tradition and custom than to protect the lives of our children.
John Cumbler lives in Wellfleet.