Avoiding the Fallacy of Historical Presentism and the Need for Reasonable Gun Control

Alan Alda Illustration by Mark Harris

Alan Alda
Illustration by Mark Harris

“I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash and carry, carry me back to Old Virginia, I’ll even ‘hari-kari’ if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun!”

Alan Alda

The old cliché espoused by gun zealots, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” mocks common sense.  Zealots could make the same claim about automobiles and cigarettes, but we commonly understand the value in regulating their use and consumption.  By requiring the wearing of seatbelts or prohibiting children from smoking cigarettes, the public’s safety and health are promoted.  We have fewer vehicle deaths when speed limits are lowered and when the drinking age is raised.  We have fewer instances of drug addiction and the development of cancers when children are prevented from smoking cigarettes.  Automobile and tobacco use are not constitutionally protected and are  subject to enhanced regulation and control. Nevertheless, we have concluded that their regulation substantially improves public health and safety, which is supported by substantial evidence.  

On the other hand, the “right to bear arms,” whatever this means, is a constitutionally protected right and consequently more difficult to regulate.  Determining its meaning today has resulted in an unending and polarized dialogue between gun-rights and gun-control advocates.  After having researched the Revolutionary Era, it became clear to me that individuals do have a right to “bear arms” or to possess guns.  However, as with most constitutional language the “right to bear arms” needs additional analysis. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, “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 amendment arguably secures a public right, “a well regulated militia,” and an individual right, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”  Moreover, the amendment was enacted on December 15, 1791. I want to focus briefly on the individual right, which typically serves as the basis of contention and conflict today.  Here are two basic claims that should be considered by critics of gun control.

First, for the gun owners who tend to agree with the strict constructionist approach to interpreting the Constitution –attempts to interpret the Constitution based on what the Founders intended –the term “arms” in 1791 consisted of single-shot weapons including pistols, rifles, and muzzle loaders.  I’m no gun expert and other guns may be included, but I am certain that automatic weapons were not on the list of “arms” in 1791. Therefore, for strict constructionists who believe in a constitutional right to “bear arms,” you’re rights are limited by your own narrow interpretation of the Constitution.  Based on original intent, there is no constitutional right to own automatic weapons, for example. You do have a right to own a pistol, a rifle, and a muzzle-loader.

Second, if you disagree with the strict constructivist approach, and you believe that the Second Amendment confers a constitutional right to own any weapon, consider this fact, which is based on a long history of constitutional interpretation.  Speech, press, religious worship, privacy, and expression are all fundamental (some would say natural) constitutional rights.  Privacy of course is a comparatively new right implied by at least five amendments in the Constitution.  Nevertheless, none of these rights are absolute or without limitations and are regulated by the fifty states and the federal government.

The Supreme Court has consistently upheld federal and state regulations of these rights when it can be demonstrated that a compelling government interest exists in doing so.  A compelling government interest is met, for example, when governments can demonstrate that it is necessary to limit or regulate a right in order to protect public safety or health.  In other words, I think it is fair to say that there is an unquestionable and compelling interest in implementing gun control laws for the purposes of protecting public health and safety.  The obvious conundrum that we are continually faced with is establishing a balance between individual rights on the one hand and protecting public safety and health on the other.  The remedy requires the difficult and contested balance between regulating a constitutional liberty in a manner that is least restrictive while also enacting legislation formidable enough to protect public safety.

Personally, I prefer extensive gun control laws, but the public’s will is continually impeded by powerful interest groups like the NRA.  Gun control laws should be determined not by the powerful gun lobby, but rather, by a democratic process that is free from undue influence and disproportionate financial and political power.  Unfortunately, regulatory laws are often written by the very interest groups they are intended to regulate, making a mockery of responsible governance. 

Public opinion has consistently demonstrated support for gun controls.  Nevertheless, in the aftermath of mass killings, the gun lobby has been successful in repealing or weakening many existing gun controls.  Polls vary, but a simple cursory review will illustrate a consistent plurality or majority favoring increased gun controls.  A majority of the public considers public safety a compelling interest in the debate over gun control, but groups like the NRA have thwarted public opinion time and time again.  As President Obama asserted recently, “As a country we have been through this too many times.” [1]  The proof of the pudding, as the age-old idiom goes, is in the evidence.[2]

According to the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, “there is substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more violence,” which “holds true whether you’re looking at different countries or different states.”  In addition, economist Richard Florida’s extensive research on this issue resulted in his concluding that, “States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths.” While this “correlation is not causation,” he continues, it is “suggestive” and compatible with other findings elsewhere.[3]

Finally, no reasonable argument can be made in support of an individual’s right to own or possess weapons that can be used to massacre dozens of human beings. It’s time we learn from the examples of other countries and make public safety and health a priority.  Our hyper-individualistic rights-talk has enabled the powerful gun lobby while also obscuring our sense of social responsibility.  Hence, this is why we hear so many outlandish and reactionary demands to arm teachers in schools and not developing an informed and reasonable dialogue aimed at preventing violence.


[1] Arianna Huffington, Newtown Masacre: What We Don’t Need Is a ‘National Conversation’ –We Need Action.” Huff Post Politics, December 17, 2012. Accessed: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/newtown-massacre-gun-control_b_2319448.html

[2] Pew Research Center. “Views of Gun Control –A Detailed Demographic Breakdown. January 13, 2011. Accessed: http://www.pewresearch.org/2011/01/13/views-of-gun-control-a-detailed-demographic-breakdown/; Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg, “Polls on Gun Control: What You May Have Missed in this Week’s Polls.” December 27, 2012. American Enterprise Institute. Accessed: http://www.aei-ideas.org/2012/12/polls-on-gun-control-what-you-may-have-missed-in-this-weeks-polls/

 [3] Ezra Klein, “Twelve Facts about Guns and Mass Shootings in the United States.” Wonkblog.  December 14, 2012.  Accessed: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/nine-facts-about-guns-and-mass-shootings-in-the-united-states/

 

© Brian W. Dotts and Democratus, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brian W. Dotts and Democratus with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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