A Response from Gordon C. Zahn

January-February 1991By Gordon C. Zahn

Gordon C. Zahn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He is the author of In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter. His German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars was recently reissued by the University of Notre Dame Press.

Sheldon Vanauken, to his credit, spares us the banality of the “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” argument against gun controls. Unfortunately, the logic of his strict constructionist view of the Second Amend­ment, persuasive though it seems at first reading, is almost as weak. The Amendment’s purpose was to insure a measure of autonomy to the constituent states against the feared power of the new federal government by providing for a “well-regulated militia” under their control. To be fully relevant to the ongoing debate over gun control, every gun ­owner should be prepared to accept summons for periodic training and service as part of such militia.

While the grim scenario of some future coup d’etat should not be disregarded, it bor­ders on fantasy to expect a credible defense to be mounted by hordes of unorganized and un­trained citizens spontaneously rushing to the family armory to ward off tanks and rocket launchers. To offer this prospect as a justifica­tion for defending the glut of private arma­ments that already has made most of our major cities hostage to irresponsible and crim­inal elements is to ignore reality and contrib­ute to the further deterioration of a virtually hopeless situation. The actual crisis we face in our major cities is more terrifying than the crises Vanauken imagines, and arguments based on a narrow application of the Second Amendment could make the constitutional system itself a factor in the ultimate destruc­tion of that system.

The problem goes beyond restraining and punishing the professional criminal. The mounting toll of impulse and random killings by people using guns to kill people (and most frightening of all, by very young people) threatens to overwhelm the forces of public order and has already limited the freedom of Americans by making it dangerous to walk the streets or chat with neighbors on their own front steps. Easy — and NRA-protected — access to handguns, semi-automatic rifles, and other assault weapons, which in some cases could strain the limits of morality even in battlefield use, has nothing whatever to do with preserving the rights of the individual states to maintain that “well-regulated militia” to which the Second Amendment was ad­dressed.

A literal insistence upon the “shall not be infringed” phrase can only lead to interesting but pointless word-games with applications which, it is safe to assume, were never in­tended or implied. The very provision for a well-regulated militia imposes a note of restric­tion upon both the behavior of its members and their use of weapons. One can escape the implications of such internal contradiction only by distinguishing a right from the exercise of that right and making the latter subject to regulation. Once this is done, however, it reduces and possibly eliminates the logic to a constitutional argument against gun control.


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