Trained and Trusted: Militias and the Second Amendment

This is the second in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates II series – the Sanders-Scott Debates. The first entries, on abortion policy, are here and here. You can read Sandy’s entry on this issue at Virginia Right. Crossposted at Virginia Right.

Military service taught me a lot about weapons.  No Army officer would issue a sidearm, rifle, or tank to anyone who had not demonstrated training proficiency and trustworthiness.  We didn’t let just anyone walk around armed.  

I learned to use weapons when necessary but to secure them at all times.  No shame fell more heavily on a soldier than when he or she lost, misused, or simply could not control an assigned weapon. I simply don’t understand how people can so cavalierly support the idea that more firearms, in the hands of just anyone who wants to have one, could possibly make society safer – or that people who misuse or fail to secure those weapons should not face punishment.

Arming random citizens does not make us safer. To be sure, a firearm owner will, from time to time, use a firearm in self-defense. When this happens, it can stop crime and even save lives. More often someone uses the weapon to inflict harm on others or themselves. Someone steals a rifle and uses it to kill several people and then commit suicide. Every year, 23K Americans use their own weapon and skip the first step. Or the owner leaves it on a coffee table where a toddler finds it and plays a bit of tragic shoot-out with another child. Or drops it and accidently shoots someone in a grocery store. These are all failures we can minimize with more training, just as we did in the Army, but simply putting more guns into circulation will not stop this. Guns don’t save lives any more than they kill people. People save lives, with or without a gun, by knowing what they’re doing.

Similarly, no Army officer would issue a weapon to a soldier who did not continually demonstrate that they could be trusted not to intentionally misuse it. Once qualified through rigorous training and a demonstrated ability to safely possess, use, secure, and maintain a firearm, soldiers also had to demonstrate discipline, a sense of duty and honor, respect for others, integrity, selfless service, and personal courage. Officers stopped trusting – and issuing firearms to – soldiers who failed to live these values. Among the many ways a soldier could demonstrate such a failure would be violence against their own family or friends. Showing disloyalty to the United States would also get you there.

We are of course talking about regulation of civilian firearm ownership and use, not the standards we would expect a soldier to meet. But Second Amendment advocates claim membership in a citizen militia as a protection against regulation of the type and characteristics they’re allowed to own. They’re either militia members subject to Article I Section 8 training requirements and demonstration of good character or they’re not. Even gun owners who reject the militia construct must agree that we need some regulations in place to make sure only good guys have guns.

These regulations should include a tiered system of firearms training that includes more rigorous requirements for citizens who wish to own more deadly weapons. Ownership and use of powerful semi-automatic rifles that can accept high-capacity magazines should have a different – and higher – training standard than ownership of a small caliber revolver in case someone really does make it into their bedroom. 

Such a regulatory regime must also make sure authorities conduct an extensive background check before every firearm transfer, even those among family members. It should include a waiting period to provide a “cooling-off” period for people looking for a gun to use in anger or during a suicidal episode, and cap the number of firearms any individual may purchase during a certain period to limit black market trafficking in guns to states with stricter regulations.

Regulations should also create a system that takes guns out of the hands of people who have demonstrated a failure to properly use and safely secure their weapons or a potential for using them to do harm to innocent people. People who don’t report stolen weapons, transfer guns to others who misuse them, and leave a weapon unsecured that is later used to harm someone else, by accident or on purpose, should lose ownership privileges. And anyone who brandishes a weapon at a family member, or otherwise abuses a family member physically or emotionally, especially while intoxicated, should lose the right to bear arms, at least temporarily. The exact nature of the due process system used to take them away isn’t the important principle here. The important principle is that anyone who beats up a family member has no business bearing arms at all, since they have demonstrated a failure of the kind of self-discipline society should demand from militia members and other gun owners.

Constitutional history suggests that the framers would have been fine with these kinds of restrictions on firearm ownership and use. The men who wrote the Constitution considered provisions, based on some State Constitutions, that would specifically protect bearing arms for self-protection. They intentionally rejecting inclusion of these provisions, and Patrick Henry complained about this at the Virginia ratification convention. James Madison and the other men who wrote and ratified the Second Amendment did not believe it protected the individual bearing of arms solely for self-defense. Whether or not such a right is a good idea, the Framers did not think the Constitution protected one and acted intentionally to leave it out.

Madison and the other Founders did think of a Militia – a well-regulated militia, organized, armed, and disciplined by Congress – as important to national defense, and as a counter to Federal power and a standing Army. Most importantly, slave states thought of militias as the only way they could control their slave populations, because they played just that role. Madison knew these states would reject the Constitution if it did not include protection for these slave patrols. This is the key reason the Second Amendment exists, not to protect individual self-defense, and not to make sure citizens are able to shed the blood of tyrants. The Second Amendment exists to make sure Congress couldn’t end slavery by refusing to organize and arm a militia that would protect it. 

More guns do not make modern American society polite and safer. They make it more adversarial and violent – armed Americans are only “good guys with guns” until they’re not. Firearms in the wrong hands make going to schoolseeing a movie, or running for exercise more dangerous. Proper regulation that ensures only good guys have guns, and that these good guys have the training they need to own, use, maintain, and secure their weapons properly, and safely until they need them for self-defense or shedding tyrant blood makes all the sense in the world. 

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