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Politics as Usual: What America needs is a conversation about guns (OPINION)

December 21, 2012

I have always been a strong Second Amendment supporter.
It’s not that I have any particular love for guns; I have never fired a gun. I don’t really like guns and I don’t particularly like it when people bring guns around me. If you want to know the whole truth, people who are really enthusiastic about their love for guns and shooting weird me out a little bit.
But the same way President Obama seems to think people “cling to guns,” I cling to the Constitution and am loath to see “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” messed with, especially in an ad hoc or knee-jerk manner.
At the same time, it seems absurd to just throw up one’s hands and say, “Well, nothing can be done” when 20 six-and-seven-year-olds are gunned down in their elementary school classroom.
Something, clearly, has to be done. But what?
It didn’t take long after news of the Newtown, Connecticut, murders broke for messages to show up in my e-mail inbox demanding “Gun Control Now!” and other such sentiments. On the day of the shootings, Sen. Jack Reed and Rep. Jim Langevin issued statements suggesting that gun control measures need to be taken in Washington. Sen. Dianne Feinstein was on Meet the Press on Sunday saying she has legislation to once again ban assault weapons – along with high-capacity magazines and clips – ready to submit once the new Congress convenes.
If he really means what I hope he means, I agree more with Reed, that what we need is a national “conversation” about how to address what is clearly a problem with gun violence (“problem” seems like a woefully inadequate term, but even my thesaurus wasn’t much help in providing a better one to describe the depth and breadth of the difficulty) in this country.
We need a conversation because precipitous action: 1) probably won’t work the way its advocates expect it to and, 2) would likely do more harm than good by doing damage to our constitution in the search for a “quick fix.”
People argue that the Second Amendment should just be ignored, or set aside as a no-longer-viable historical artifact, a vestige of an earlier time when the Founders were talking about muskets or cannon. But the writers of the constitution actually were more forward thinking than that. That is why they gave us Article 5 of the U.S. Constitution.
Article 5, for those of you who don’t have a copy of the constitution handy, sets out a process for amending the constitution. That means, when society and technology move from muskets to assault rifles with 30-round magazines, Americans have a mechanism for allowing the constitution to keep up with the times.
Is it still a good idea for every American to have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms? I am not saying yes or no here, but if we are going to have a conversation, that question is where it should start – about whether and how to amend the constitution, not about how to, in our panic, fear, sorrow and disgust about what happened in that elementary school classroom, shove aside constitutional considerations to do something – Anything! – about violence related to guns.
Being able to own a weapon for your personal security and self-defense is absolutely a legitimate right. Guns used to be called “the great equalizer” because when bad guys would menace or bully law-abiding citizens, the citizen’s right and ability to own and use a gun equalized the equation of power in such situations. But when evil, or just mentally sick, people have the will and the means to far out-gun reasonable, normal, “good” people, then the equalization argument kind of goes out the window, doesn’t it? So what do we do about that?
Next, and I know this is not a popular notion and is one that tends to get those who espouse it painted as a “gun nut,” but the Founding Fathers meant for us to have the necessary weapons so that when a form of government becomes destructive to the ends of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they will be able to “alter or abolish it.”
That answers the question so many ask about why an individual “needs” to have access to military-type weapons – to repel despotism when necessary. The “shot heard ‘round the world” was fired at Lexington and Concord because the British Army was coming after the colonists’ guns, gunpowder and ammunition. This is not some right-wing, “Red Dawn” fantasy. The Founders meant for Americans to have guns to defend themselves and their rights to use in case government became oppressive and, in this day and age, a hunting rifle isn’t going to suffice for that purpose.
There have always been and there will always be evil people and deranged souls who want to kill large numbers of people for reasons that make sense only to their own twisted selves. And, yes, the weapons of the 21st Century allow them to enlarge the body count to numbers incomprehensible to most people, especially when those bodies are tiny ones that have only been alive for six or seven years.
If Adam Lanza had been forced to use a knife, a sword or axe to fulfill his murderous intent, more of those children would be alive today. Some may have been wounded rather than killed, many others, even at their tender age, would have been able to run away and escape. It is the gun – the coroner said all of the children were killed with a semi-automatic rifle – that allowed Lanza to be so horrifyingly efficient and deadly.
Bombs can kill even more victims more quickly, but they tend to be the weapons of terrorists. They are too sterile and detached for the kind of up-close-and-personal killing preferred by most mass murderers. They want, and use, guns.
Our first priority should be identifying such people and keeping guns away from them. But, then again, Adam Lanza, who had mental health issues, merely took the guns legally bought and registered to his mother, who was the first person he turned the weapons on.
We are never going to be able to completely stop determined killers – sane or otherwise – from carrying out horrific deeds, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing.
Just as an aside, I can’t finish without saying that what we absolutely SHOULD NOT do is put armed police officers in every school in the country, as some TV talking heads have advocated in recent days. That is exactly the type of panicked, knee-jerk reaction that would forever alter our notion of what America is that we need to avoid.
But let’s have Jack Reed’s “conversation” about how to proceed from this point. Amending the constitution is exceedingly difficult to do, and that is how it should be. But that difficult and cumbersome process might be exactly what we need to facilitate that conversation and help it to bear fruit.

Jim Baron covers the State House for the Rhode Island Media Group. His opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of The Standard Times or SRI Newspapers. He can be reached at

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