The Most Dangerous Tool

Justice John Paul Stevens recently retired from the U.S. Supreme Court after decades of eloquent, well-reasoned service. He has since written a book, as well as an op-ed that was published this week in the Washington Post. In that op-ed, Stevens proposes that we amend the Second Amendment by adding five words clarifying the private ownership of guns as part of militia service.

Unfortunately, Stevens' op-ed also included a glaring factual error, either purposely or mistakenly used to bolster what is ultimately an emotional argument against guns. (That error was later unceremoniously edited.)

Guns are scary and can hurt people. There is no doubt about that. America has long had a gun violence problem, and the ever-growing number of mass shootings, though a tiny fraction of all gun-related deaths (most of which are suicides, not murders), adds to the collective fear and desire to "do something" about firearms.

Unfortunately in the minds of the reformers, the Second Amendment has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court to protect a fairly broad individual right to gun ownership. State and federal legislatures can't ban handguns or rifles wholesale, no matter how democratically popular (small "d") those restrictions might be. Justice Stevens thinks this interpretation is incorrect, and he blames it on the admittedly confusing language of the Second Amendment. Adding a few words, he argues, can help clarify private gun ownership and allow for stricter state-level regulations.

Adherents to a broader interpretation of the Second Amendment vehemently disagree, of course. Certainly many would prefer stripping the Amendment of its first thirteen words (regarding militias) instead of adding any more. "The right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed," and nothing more, would be quite clear indeed.

I tend to fall on the side of a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment. I acknowledge that guns are dangerous and are frequently used to hurt other people. I also acknowledge that knives, automobiles, and baseball bats are dangerous and can hurt other people. I obviously support laws against assault and murder, no matter what tool is used by a perpetrator. Harm caused by intent or recklessness should be prohibited and punished. I also generally support background checks and efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people already known to have hurt others in the past. But I fear government oppression more than I fear my fellow citizens, and though the U.S. military is the most powerful in the world and the risk of a domestic military coup is currently low (depending on who you ask), I know that privately-owned small arms have been a historically powerful force.

Ultimately this becomes a philosophical argument about public safety, personal freedom, and government control. Are guns so inherently dangerous that the government should have broad power to take them from us or deny us from acquiring them? Our Bill of Rights, which sets out specific individual rights that are supposed to be free from government interference, includes guns...but should it? Should we either amend the Second Amendment (as Justice Stevens suggests), strike some of its words, or repeal it altogether?

At the heart of this debate is the unique way in which we think about guns. Guns, first and foremost, are designed to be weapons. They can be used as a tool for both aggression and for self-protection. But they can also used for purely recreational purposes, a gun never once harming a human being during the course of its entire working life. There are over 300 million privately-owned guns in the United States, and the vast, vast majority of them will never, ever be used to harm a human being. They certainly maintain the potential to hurt others, but other tools such as knives, hammers, sling shots, and even automobiles possess this potential.

A gun, sitting on a table, uncontrolled in any way by a human being, cannot cause harm to anyone. A properly operating firearm, without any outside manipulation, will not fire. Generally speaking, for a firearm to harm another person, it requires some sort of human action. Human actions which hurt other people, either with intent or through recklessness, are prohibited, and are well within the government's power to prohibit. But should the government be able to go one step further and actually ban or remove tools which, only in the hands of humans, can cause harm?

This is where our unique conception of guns starts to play out. Automobiles are large, heavy, dangerous weapons in the hands of malicious or reckless people. A single automobile can kill dozens of people at once. But there is not a major political push for the government to ban cars entirely, or even restrict them in more than a cursory way. Despite claims that cars are more regulated than guns because they require licensing, let us remember that those licenses are issued to sixteen year-olds, and are not taken away, without some sort of harmful conduct (and sometimes not even then), no matter how old people become.

Automobiles are not protected by our Constitution in any way. Though the courts have upheld a fundamental right of all Americans to travel freely, this has not been interpreted to mean all Americans may own automobiles free of heavy-handed government interference. And yet, for the most part, they do.

Clearly, automobiles are designed to be tools for movement, rather than to be weapons. But while they differ from guns in that respect, they are the same in that they require human action to become dangerous to others. Otherwise, they are just tools: inanimate objects harmless on their own. And like cars, which enable quick movement and ease of transportation, guns serve additional useful purposes such as food collection, self-protection, and recreational stress relief. They are not only used to harm other people - indeed, most guns are never used for that purpose at all.

Also consider how we think about other individual rights, such as religion. Religious belief can cause all kinds of harm to others. Curiously, some of our most vocal proponents of gun rights are also the most vocal opponents of other people's religious rights. Some believe that Islam is fundamentally violent, and that harmful behavior like suicide bombings and mass shootings are just the natural product of Muslim religious belief. Others would argue that Christianity is inherently violent. Historical examples for both arguments abound.

But would we prohibit religious belief because, in the wrong hands, it can be a tool to harm others? If not, why not? Perhaps we just ban one religion instead of all of them? How would we justify that under the broad protections of the First Amendment? If it's obvious that we cannot ban or significantly restrict religious belief, why is it less obvious that we cannot ban or significantly restrict firearm possession? Again, religion, in the wrong hands, can most certainly lead to great harm to others.

These are complicated questions, many of which I don't have any answers for. The point of this post is to suggest that everyone approach the issue of guns from as many different philosophical directions as possible. Our discourse needs - and our Constitution seems to require - that we do more than take thoughtless, emotional positions. The individual right to bear arms raises difficult questions about public safety, private self-defense, and government power. None of these questions are particularly easy to answer.