Meaning happens when the purposes of the writer come together with what the reader thinks is important. Since all aspects of any one thing cannot be perceived all at once, we focus our attention on this or that aspect of a thing depending upon what we want to achieve. This is why we can read a particular text many times and find new insights each time.
This is also why we cannot agree on what the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution means. The amendment reads:
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.
Many of us who support restriction on the kind of guns and the size of ammunition magazines that private citizens can own focus attention on the clause, “a well regulated Militia.” On the other hand, many who do not support restrictions on the kinds of guns private citizens may own focus attention on the clause “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”
One interpretation says the founders were thinking about the necessities of a citizens’ militia; the other interpretation says the founders wanted to enshrine gun ownership as a basic human right.
In his book The Founders’ Second Amendment: Origins of the Right to Bear Arms, Stephen Halbrook reads the second amendment within the context of Revolutionary War history, the establishment of various state constitutions, the debate on the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. He concludes:
Individuals have a right to have arms in their houses and to carry them, and the government may not violate that right. Recognition of the right promotes a militia composed of the body of the people, which is necessary for a free society. (337)
However, when I read his evidence, I still see the idea of a “well regulated militia” to be the paramount idea. Over and over, we read the founders writing against a standing army. The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 is a good example:
That a well regulated Militia, composed of the Body of the People, trained to Arms, is the proper, natural and safe Defence (sic) of a free State: that standing Armies, in Time of Peace, should be avoided, as dangerous to Liberty. (129)
The founders knew that it was absurd to think that an armed individual or even a militia could defeat a standing army, so they wanted a well-trained militia of citizens who could answer the call in case of insurrection or invasion rather than a standing army. It is also important to note that the enslaved population of the United States had no such right. Armed free men were expected to put down slave rebellions.
Halbrook argues that the founders considered the right to keep and bear arms as a basic right within or without the context of a well-regulated militia. This may be true, but this is not what they wrote. The founders could have used language similar to the language they used for the first amendment. They could have written: “Congress shall make no law infringing the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” But, they did not.
When we think about the Second Amendment and the entire Bill of Rights, it is important to consider them within the context of the Constitution’s preamble:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do Ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.
The Second Amendment exists to provide both for personal and for the common defense, but today, an extreme reading of the amendment exists to protect a chimera, the thought that a private citizen has the right to own military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. These weapons of mass death disrupt the domestic tranquility and deny citizens of the blessing of liberty to go about our business without the threat of sudden death or injury because of a mass shooting.
Biblical wisdom teaches that our knowledge is partial. (I Corinthians 13:9) When the founders wrote the Second Amendment, they did not know that 200 years later, the United States would have the largest, most expensive, most powerful standing military force in the history of humanity. They did not know of nor could they imagine the power, speed, and lethality of today’s military-style assault weapons. Adam Lanza killed 20 children, six adults, and himself in less than five minutes at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn.
The good news is the founders gave us mechanisms to amend the Constitution and a governmental structure through which to make laws that will achieve the ends outlined in the preamble to the Constitution. It is time — it is way past time — to honor the spirit of the republic and the wisdom of the founders by ending our idolatrous worship of guns and our prostration before an interpretation of the Second Amendment handed down by the magisterium of the National Rifle Association that holds an unrestricted right to own guns sacrosanct.
It is time for gun laws that at least, not at most, ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She isauthor of Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love and the Public Conversation. She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.
Image: Bill of Rights, Cheryl Casey/ Shutterstock.com