Gun control and the Second Amendment

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retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is calling for the repeal of the Second Amendment to allow for significant gun control legislation. The 97-year-old Stevens says in an essay on The New York Times website that repeal would weaken the National Rifle Association’s ability to “block constructive gun control legislation.” (AP Photo)

In our modern discourse about guns and gun control, one action stands out among all as particularly radical, unimaginable and politically impossible: repeal of the Second Amendment. So it might come as a surprise to many that the most recent call for its repeal came not from Congressional Democrats, or from the leaders of March for Our Lives, or from the so-called “liberal media,” but from a former Supreme Court Justice, and a Republican at that.

Justice John Paul Stevens, an appointee of the Ford administration who retired in 2010, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times last week, suggesting that the leaders of March for Our Lives call for the amendment’s repeal. His reasoning? According to the former justice, “For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either state or federal authority to enact gun control legislation.” Stevens cites a 1939 court case, United States v. Miller, in which the court unanimously upheld a ban on sawed-off shotguns, “because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated militia.”

So why repeal the amendment now? Stevens largely attributes the need for its repeal to its use by the National Rifle Association and other gun advocacy groups. According to Stevens, throughout most of American history and particularly during the tenure of Chief Justice Warren Burger, there was no doubt by any judge – state or federal – that the coverage of the Second Amendment was limited. While groups like the N.R.A. campaigned against that idea, their arguments were often viewed more skeptically than they are today; Stevens recalls Justice Burger describing them as perpetrating “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” This view only changed in 2008, when the moderately conservative Roberts Court – of which Stevens was a part – ruled 5-4 in Heller v. District of Columbia that the Second Amendment protects individuals’ rights to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia for lawful purposes.

It is indeed true that the Second Amendment is often used by the N.R.A., the Republican Party, and others as a roadblock to prevent meaningful change in gun control laws. The relatively new argument that the amendment is all-encompassing has often been used to shut down efforts at even non-controversial change. An outstanding 97 percent of Americans support universal background checks for gun buyers, yet no such reform has come. The same is true of other incredibly popular reforms, like mandatory waiting periods for all gun sales (supported by 83 percent of Americans) and a ban on assault weapons (a measure with more modest 67 percent support). The majority support these reforms, yet gun advocacy groups successfully prevent any change by clinging to an interpretation that defies centuries of precedent.

So what is the solution? Should we repeal the Second Amendment?  Perhaps. The founders never intended for the amendment to protect our right to assault weapons… no such devices existed at the time. The amendment exists to provide for state militias, which the founders intended to be a defense against a tyrannical national army. But these militias are things of the past, so perhaps an amendment clearly intended to refer to them should become one too. What then of the right to bear arms? Well, an amendment can only be repealed by another amendment; perhaps this could include protections for the right to bear arms in a limited capacity? We commonly accept that none of us has the right to our own nuclear arsenal. If we can draw a line there, why not draw the line at assault weapons? They have no real application for hunting or self defense, after all; shotguns, rifles, and handguns prove better for both.

Perhaps Stevens is right; the youth organizers of March for Our Lives should take their advocacy one step further. Perhaps it’s time we put an obsolete amendment behind us, so that we can bring about common-sense reforms to protect ourselves from the horrors of gun violence.

Perhaps the Second Amendment should be repealed.


Chris Flynn is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.j.flynn@uconn.edu

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