The long, bloody road that leads to gun control

I share the frustration shown by Philip Truax  in his article,  “Revisiting the Use of the Second Amendment,” appearing in the Feb. 22 Lakeville Journal.  It is appropriate to do just that because it seems so absurd that this single sentence can be such a bar to much-needed gun control.

There is more to reasonable gun control than just automatic assault rifles, but these weapons, as a specialty in horrific violence, have captured and riveted our attention. On the long, bloody road from Columbine through Sandy Hook to Parkland, they have demonstrated their frightening capacity to blow many young lives to smithereens in a few tragic seconds. In Parkland, the weapon was bought by a teenager at a gun store, as easy as if he were buying another app for his smartphone. 

The open access of this weapon shocked the country as much as the killings themselves. In no other civilized country in the world would the laws permit this to happen. In no other civilized country in world would the laws permit this to happen again. 

The NRA would have us believe that the Second Amendment is the untouchable constitutional keystone of individual rights and liberties. It is none of that. Read it:


A well regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep  and bear arms shall not be abridged.


The Second Amendment was drafted by our first Congress as part of the 10-amendment package known as the Bill of Rights. This was presented to the states for ratification in 1789. Those men were familiar with, and admirers of, the “militia’’ system, long in use in Colonial times. Under it, all  the able-bodied men of a town or a state could be called up for temporary military service to deal  with  emergencies. The militia repelled Indian raids; as minutemen, they met the British at Concord Bridge; they were the backbone of our Revolutionary armies. This first Congress distrusted standing armies in peace-time, and saw the time-honored militia system as the preferred alternative. Earlier, the Constitution had given Congress in its war powers the authority to arm the militia; the Second Amendment forestalled an implied power to disarm it. 

In 1789, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts put it this way: “What, sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty.” We now think differently about a standing military force, desperately trying to be prepared in a dangerous world. The militia is no longer a factor in our defense. State and local police, as well as the National Guard, have assumed the militia’s domestic duties. Thus the primary purpose of the Second Amendment has become obsolete.  

How often have we heard the NRA say that it is not guns that kill people, it is other people? That’s technically true, but it ignores the effect of the combination of extraordinary killing power of the weapons and their easy accessibility. The gun used in Parkland is a military — not a civilian — weapon. I don’t think that even the NRA would support open civilian purchase of an Abrams tank or a Long Tom 155-millimeter cannon. Sawed- off shotguns are generally barred; why not automatic assault rifles, designed - as the name confirms - for assault purposes? Restricting these to military and police use does no harm to any residual tenet of the Second Amendment; some weapons, because of their extreme killing capacity, simply should not be generally available.

The Trump administration has said that the answer here is “mental health”,  and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan assures us that a large effort in this direction  will soon  be announced, whatever that  means. There is room in the control spectrum for background checks if that’s what’s meant. However, it would be foolish to think the sole suspect class should be people who have had mental health issues, even if that could be done efficiently. The variety, complexity and range of those issues, and the weakness of the diagnostic process, all make it very wrong to put undue or sole reliance  on mental-health background checks.  

Finally, the NRA would say it doesn’t matter what  you  do, laws will not stop the killing. They are right again, but again they draw the wrong conclusion. It is true that we do have laws against murder and other violent crimes, but still those crimes occur. Still some people do and will do terrible things. Does that mean that we should make them legal? Of course not. In the last analysis, we can only do so much in a free society to prevent some future deviants from  going further down this terrible road. We may not be able to  stop them all, but we can try. Suppose we stopped some, or made it too hard for some to start? Is there something wrong with that? That’s all we can do, and unless we do all we can, we dishonor those who have already died and target those who will.


Dick Bell lives in Sharon and Hamden. He practiced law for 40 years before retiring and giving much of his time to volunteering.