The fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida once again raises moral questions about the right to carry guns and the crying need to ban them from public life.
First let’s recall what the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution says: “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.” The meaning of the wording has been a source of vexation since it was passed in 1791, but it clearly does not say, “The right of the people to shoot other people shall not be infringed.”
Most rational individuals instinctively know, given the lethality of guns, that the Amendment was intended to refer to service in a militia whose conduct was subject to the law of the land. Sadly, in the legal case District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the Supreme Court upheld the interpretation that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm unconnected to service in a militia and to use that firearm for lawful purposes. Surprisingly, what constitutes lawful is a matter of contention.
Courageously, and in the minds of many people rightly, four Justices dissented from that ruling. They believed that:
“The Amendment’s text does justify a different limitation: the ‘right to keep and bear arms’ protects only a right to possess and use firearms in connection with service in a state-organized militia. Had the Framers wished to expand the meaning of the phrase ‘bear arms’ to encompass civilian possession and use, they could have done so by the addition of phrases such as ‘for the defense of themselves’.”
Despite a 220-year-old legacy of civil violence involving firearms of all kinds, “shoot first, ask questions afterwards” appears to be the unstated policy of many people and police departments in U.S. society. In the case of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, the State of Florida’s seven-year-old self-defence law also raises questions. The law, nicknamed a “stand your ground” or “shoot first” statute, gives protection from criminal prosecution or civil liability to people who claim self-defence after a shooting or violent incident.
One of the broadest such laws in the USA, it says that people have no duty to retreat from a place they are legally allowed to be in and have the right to use deadly force if they “reasonably” believe they or another person are threatened with death or serious harm. Before 2005, deadly force was only permitted if the person using it had shown that he or she had tried to avoid confrontation.
Many states have so-called “shoot first” laws, although there are nuances in the language used. But, according to the U.S. Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, at least 33 states have laws that extend the right to use deadly force in self-defence. To use a phrase more appropriate to 1791, a “coach and horses” could pass through the interpretive gap between using reasonable force and shooting to kill.
An Op-Ed by Gail Collins in The New York Times (21 March 2012) titled “Pity the Poor Gun Lobby” gets the solution only half-right by advocating:
“A strict national gun-control law that makes it very difficult to get a concealed weapons permit, permits gun dealers to sell only one handgun per individual per year, and makes it illegal for even permit holders to keep handguns anywhere but their home, store or car glove compartment unless they are employed in the security business.”
There is something inherently and morally wrong in a society that needs guns in order to conduct its daily life. There is no sadder evidence of this than the senseless death of a young man and the grief of his family. It is time to ban guns. They kill people!