He may have been looking for something that will define his legacy, but Barack Obama may just have bitten off more than he can chew. In proposing a wide-ranging plan for executive and legislative action to curb gun violence, Obama set up a fierce clash with the powerful US gun lobby and its supporters in Congress who will resist what they see as an encroachment on constitutionally protected gun rights. But the real issue here has been lost in the ‘fog’ of hyperbole and predictable rhetoric on all sides of the argument. The ‘elephant in the room’ that needs to be defined first is this: the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, considering the ‘right to keep and bear arms’, is one which is long overdue a complete re-evaluation.
The Second Amendment to the US Constitution is open to wide interpretation because of its wording and its inherent meaning, having been designed to facilitate another era and environment which no longer exist. The framers of the Bill of Rights envisioned the Second Amendment during a time when the United States was a fledgling nation, uncertain of its future. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution declares that ‘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.’
This short assertion is written in such a fashion as to leave it open to much misinterpretation. The authors could not have imagined the level of carnage that has developed in today’s American society, where gun violence is propagating more gun ownership and encouraging a vicious cycle of paranoia among its people. The recent Supreme Court judgments of District of Columbia v Heller (2008) and McDonald v City of Chicago (2010) have attempted to clearly interpret the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment was valid in federal enclaves in 2008, and extended this validity to states in 2010. Both judgments were of a slim majority (5-4), and delineated along the expected lines of gun rights / gun control among the judiciary. This Second Amendment must be considered outmoded, outdated and no longer fit for the purpose it was intended. Therefore it should be repealed and a more suitable and contemporary clause created in its place.
The deaths of 20 young children in the Newtown School Massacre in Connecticut has coincided with the new mandate which President Obama received in last November’s election. There has never been a better time to seek to legislate for genuinely effective gun control measures and to engage in battle with the strongly influential pro-gun ownership lobby and its flagship bearer, the National Rifle Association (NRA), for the hearts and minds of American society.
The concept of ‘bearing arms’ is one that is now completely divorced from the reality of that which it was designed to be representative. The weapons in use now are a far cry from muskets of 220 years ago, which could never have caused the street violence too often prevalent in American cities and public buildings. The semi-automatic weaponry which is accompanied by comprehensive training and strict regulation in armies around the world, and is now freely available at gun shows throughout the US, would never have entered the wildest dreams of the authors of the Bill of Rights. The Founders’ reference to militias in the Second Amendment reflects the importance they attached to an armed citizenry as a protection against tyrannical government. The right to keep and own firearms was never proposed for the protection of the individual, in a strict interpretation of the context of its original conception, as ratified in 1791. This right should not therefore be considered as an absolute one. An individual’s right to own and bear arms must be balanced by the greater social needs of a society and its citizens’ right to safety.
The reliance on a legal phrase constructed 220 years ago to govern something so crucial as the right to ownership of a potentially murderous weapon is a clause of the US Constitution that evidently requires re-evaluation. The US Supreme Court Justices’ recent rulings on the subject, although perfectly legal, constitutional and enforceable, were split decisions and symbolic of wider opinion in America today. If the Second Amendment is to be read literally, it embodies only a collective right as the right to keep guns is indelibly linked to the old militias – institutions that no longer exist. This outdated and outmoded Amendment is of another era, too wide open to interpretation and too serious an issue in today’s increasingly violent society for a complete re-evaluation not to be considered. The Bill of Rights is not so sacred that it cannot be altered, along with the changing needs of American society.