Our reading of the Second Amendment is distorted | Michael Douglas

Gun Rights

Voices in the crowd urged Mike DeWine: “Do something!” The governor made an effort, proposing that state lawmakers enact modest-though-helpful gun regulations in response to the August 2019 mass shooting in Dayton, nine killed and 17 wounded in a matter of seconds.

His fellow Republicans in charge of the legislature ignored his request. As it happened, the governor meekly signed into law a measure delivering the opposite — easing gun restrictions, allowing Ohioans to carry a concealed weapon without training or a requirement to notify police officers. The legislation again ran counter to the advice of law enforcement officials.

This has been the pattern for decades, and not just in Ohio but across the country. Americans experience a gun homicide rate 26 times higher than that of peer nations, yet we seem unable to address the problem adequately.

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A measure of the failure surfaced in the governor’s recent State of the State address. He dedicated the talk to Ohio children, running through a range of priorities and initiatives including mental health and education. Gun violence? He cited the challenge as key to children’s health, but he made mere passing mention.

Why do we appear so powerless to act?

One familiar answer goes to the influence of the National Rifle Association. As Dominic Erdozain traces in his new book, “One Nation Under Guns,” the NRA has vehemently — and successfully — opposed gun regulation going back to the 1920s. If the country appeared poised for substantial action, even licensing and registration, in the 1930s and 1960s, the organization blocked the path, as it still does.

Erdozain achieves something much more valuable than retelling the story of the NRA. His relatively short work (nearly 200 pages) proves most enlightening in making plain just how distorted our reading of the Second Amendment has become, the highest court in the land arriving at the conclusion that the amendment serves a broad individual right to possess a gun for self-protection.

The conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court has made much of its supposed devotion to “history and tradition.” Erdozain, a visiting professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, explains the actual aim of the founders in framing the amendment.

For instance, that initial clause involving a “well-regulated militia” echoed a compromise. Many founders were skeptical of a standing national army. Others had doubts about the concept of state militias. Thus, they struck a deal. The federal government gained military authority. The states could maintain militias.

The larger purpose involved the common defense, ensuring security for “the people,” not the individual. In that context, the freedom to carry a gun risks the freedom of others, yes, those innocent victims in Dayton.

Erdozain reminds that the founders especially worried about passions getting the better of reason. That finds expression in the many checks and balances, not to mention the concern for “factions,” or political parties. Does it follow that they would give wide berth to individuals bearing deadly weapons?

As Erdozain shows, the consensus of the courts answered with an emphatic “no,” and they did so for nearly 200 years. In 1939, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of National Firearms Act by reiterating the aim of the Second Amendment — to ensure a “common defense.”

Five decades later, Warren Burger, a former chief justice, tapped by Richard Nixon, famously cudgeled the concept of an individual right, calling the argument “one of the greatest pieces of fraud … on the American people by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Why has the propaganda campaign of the NRA prevailed so decisively? Erdozain traces the evolution of our gun culture. He highlights, among other things, the central place of guns and violence in slavery, a foundation laid for the grim reality today, the country with more guns in circulation than people, roughly 48,000 dead each year from gun violence.

Another factor goes to the myth of the frontier, the gunfighter somehow serving as protector or savior. This thinking resonates today in the ready defense of individual gun rights, an insistence that law-abiding gun owners should not pay for the bad behavior of criminals.

All of that overlooks what Erdozain describes as the “classic American homicide,” starting with an argument and ending with a bullet. In other words, you are law-abiding until, suddenly, you are not.

If we are going to overcome the power of the gun culture, the effort begins by putting front and center the case Dominic Erdozain makes in this invaluable book, the country coming to grips with the mounting toll and just how far we have strayed from founding principles. Until then, all of us will struggle to do something to slow the bloodshed and the ruin we inflict.

Michael Douglas was the Beacon Journal editorial page editor from 1999 to 2019. He can be reached at mddouglasmm@gmail.com.

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