Thursday, July 19, 2007

The right of people to bear arms

According to a feature entitled “God Not Guns,” broadcast on July 13, 2007 on the PBS program Religion and Ethics, approximately thirty thousand Americans die every year through firearms; these results include homicides, suicides and accidental shootings. While this is admittedly fewer than the more than 40,000 people who die every years in vehicular accidents on American roads, it is an alarming statistic when contrasted with other nations. The number of people per 100,000 who die of firearms in the USA is between 14 and 15 in most recent years, in contrast to Canada (4.31 per 100,000), Israel (2.91), Australia (2.65), Spain (0.78), Netherlands (0.70) and Japan (0.05). In the program mentioned above, one of the most intriguing points made was that a number of white Evangelical Christians oppose gun control and even find a passage from the Bible that they claim supports their view that Christians have a right to arm themselves. (This Biblical argument will be examined in a separate article on this blog site.) An increasing number of African-American Christian ministers, on the other hand, are beginning to speak up about the epidemic of gun-related death in the USA, no doubt because a much larger percentage of African-Americans die at the hands of guns than any other ethic group. As one black minister has said, it is as if there is a civil war going on inside the United States, a disproportionate number of the casualties of which are black Americans. As I examine all these facts as a Quaker and a Buddhist, and as I think of ways of reducing the number of people who die of gunshots, a number of points come to mind, none of them original or remarkable, but all of them (it seems to me) sensible.

  • Licence users: People must receive licenses to drive cars and trucks, operate boats, fly airplanes and operate certain kinds of heavy equipment. Why not licence gun users? As with other kinds of license, minimum ages could be set, and people would have to pass tests to receive a license to operate a firearm. Operating a firearm without a license would then be a punishable offence. Careless or illegal use of firearms would result in the loss of a license. Just as there are classes of vehicle that a person is licensed to drive, there could be classes of firearm that a person is licensed to operate.
  • Liability insurance: People who are licensed to operate weapons should also be required to carry liability insurance. As with automobile insurance, rates could be adjusted by the age and safety record of the individual licensed. As with automobile insurance, lower premiums could be awarded to those who took approved courses in firearm safety.
  • Registration of all firearms: Again in analogy to automobiles, trucks, trailers, boats and aircraft, every firearm should be registered in the name of its owner.
  • Regulations for storage and transportation: In Canada, there are laws specifying how firearms and ammunition are stored, and permits are required for transporting firearms from one location to another. People who fail to store firearms in locked cabinets are subject to being fined.
  • Example to be emulated: An example of carefully thought out regulations can be seen at the Canadian Firearms Centre. By following Canada's lead, Americans might reduce the number of deaths through firearms that occur within the United States. A national law governing firearms is probably an impossible dream in the United States. At present each state governs the sale, use, registration and transportation of firearms. In New Mexico, for example, no permit is required to purchase any firearm, no firearms need to be registered, users are not licenced, and permits are required only for the transportation of handguns. One need not be a resident of the state to purchase a firearm in New Mexico. Similar regulations exist in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida. In Vermont no permit is required to transport any firearm. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, permits are required to purchase handguns, owners must be licensed, and permits are required to transport certain weapons, but firearms need not be registered. (The regulations for each state can be viewed on the Gun laws page of the National Rifle Association website.) While a nationwide policy may be out of reach, concerned citizens in each state might review the laws as they now stand and consider joining with others to petition for more sensible regulations in their state.

All the proposals recommended above seem fully within the letter and the spirit of the so-called “Bill of Rights” ratified December 15, 1791, and especially the second amendment, which reads

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.What this amendment makes clear is that keeping and bearing arms is not an absolute right. Rather, it is a right contextualized by the need for a well-regulated militia to ensure the security of a free state.

The regulations proposed above may be seen as a minimum start towards having a potential militia that is well regulated.